People Do Not Care About What is Good for Them – September 2022

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose in 1796, contains the phrase, “He cut off his nose to be revenged of his face.” It refers to the act of injuring one’s self to harm someone else. The phrase has evolved into the warning, Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face, which sums up one of the greatest challenges of influence—trying to offer helpful solutions to someone who seems bent on taking the path that is most harmful to themselves. Indeed, it is frustrating to try to influence a good outcome when the other person is clearly incapable of understanding that you are only thinking of what is best for them. If only everyone else would just trust that we have their best interests at heart.

An important factor in whether someone is willing to be guided toward a beneficial solution is how long, and how often, they have thought of this issue before you come along with your ideas. The longer someone has to ponder a problem, the more likely they are to have developed a solution of their own, opening the door to our old friend confirmation bias (the tendency to only seek information which supports our deeply held beliefs). Once confirmation bias has set in, your chances of changing someone’s mind stand as much chance as putting shoes on a snake.

Confirmation bias is much more dangerous than causing people to ignore uncomfortable facts. This all-too-human tendency can actually alter our mental faculties. In the study, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government, researchers discovered that people with good math skills were only effective at solving math problems when the answer coincided with their political beliefs. For instance, Progressives were only good at solving math problems if the solution to the problem concluded that stricter gun control laws lowered gun violence. (Don’t gloat Conservatives. The research showed that this phenomenon equally affects both sides of the political aisle.) It appears that even the most logical brain function—mathematics—is not immune to emotion. Finding a logical answer to a problem is affected by whether the answer itself is agreeable.

In another study, “They Saw a Protest”: Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction, researchers showed subjects video clips of protestors, but it was unclear from the video what the protestors were angry about. Some subjects were told the protestors were speaking against the military policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, others were told the protest was against an abortion clinic. Those subjects who supported Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, rated the protestors as more violent than subjects who agreed with the protestors’ position. Similarly, subjects who supported reproductive rights considered the protestors at the abortion clinic to be more violent.

Confirmation bias affects more than our willingness to accept new evidence, it has the potential to alter our very perception of reality, as well as our cognitive abilities. No wonder an influencer with new and innovative solutions will often contend with brains shuttered behind brick walls of resistance.

It is easy to see why it can be impossible to get someone else to realize that we are working for their own good. The brain values comfort over all else, and nothing is more comfortable than a preconceived notion. A poor influencer will try to overcome this bias with a flood of facts, which is an ineffective method given that research above shows that the brain can easily ignore what it dislikes and recalculate the rest to fit its narrative. This is frustrating when you have spent all that time gathering facts! The poor influencer will also try to impress upon the listener that the solution is really best for all concerned, a position that risks inciting distrust.

The skilled influencer will first lend support to the listener’s position. Rather than arguing over surface issues, she digs deeper until a common cause is found that can provide a foundation for discussion. The skilled influencer also finds a way to ensure that the solution she offers actually supports the goals of the listener, instead of pulling a bait-and-switch to get to the ends she initially planned.

Facts are not facts. The same reality viewed through different eyes creates different pictures. Doing what is best for someone must account for how they see the picture.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com

The Entrenched Opinion – August 2022

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

I was talking with a colleague the other day and the subject of COVID-related mask requirements came up. As soon as we broached the subject, I got tense because I knew that we were on opposite sides of the fence on the issue. We did what many people do; we each stated our position and then dropped the matter so we could go home wondering how the other person could be so stubborn. The irony is, even though my expertise is influence, I often employ the same ineffective methods of persuasion that I preach against (influencer, heal thyself). Namely, I state evidence that I think it so compelling that there is no way the other person can deny it. This method fails for a very simple reason. The way to avoid this failure is even more simple.

First, the reason pushing our own facts onto the listener doesn’t work is not because the other person is defending their position on the subject. It is because they are defending their social position. To hold an opinion, but abandon it under pressure, threatens something more important than our opinion on social issues, it threatens our self-image. The human brain values social acceptance over political accuracy. Giving up a belief risks losing the people who stood at our side. When a woman recently told her neighbors that she had re-considered her stance on a sensitive political topic, they said, “You have forgotten what it means to be from here.” That kind of pressure is powerful, and it cannot be ignored when seeking to influence others’ opinions.

The way around this roadblock is deceptively simple, and a bit deceptive. Instead of pushing back against their opinion, convince others that you both share the same view. In an NYU study, participants were given photos of two different people and asked to choose which they found more attractive. The researchers retrieved both photos and said they would give back the photo the subject chose as more attractive. However, the researchers actually gave the subject the other photo. You might think the subjects said, “Hey, you gave me the wrong one,” but no. When asked to explain why they chose that person as more attractive, they explained all their reasons while describing a photo of the wrong person.

The results were the same when subjects were asked to discuss social or political topics. Whenever the subject was asked to defend their opinion, they did so vehemently, even if it was not the opinion they originally held. The social nature of the human brain causes us to be less concerned with what we believe, than who else believes it. Our need to defend ourselves creates a knee-jerk response; rather than admit defeat, we will defend something we never believed in the first place.

This is easy to understand, but not so easy to employ. You can’t just go around switching photos on people or telling them they chose one thing when they really chose another. University studies are a great source of insight, but not always easy to translate into real-world application. However, there is a clear take-away from this research—instead of pushing back against opposition, restate the other person’s position in a way that brings all parties closer to the middle. If they say something is black, and you say it is white, the other person will spend all eternity proving it is black. However, if you say, “I see. So, you are saying there is no black or white on this. Tell me why” you lay the foundation for conversation, and compromise.

However effective, this approach brings up an obvious concern, manipulation. Using manipulation in persuasion risks damaging relationships, but we do have to consider, in light of human nature, whether influence is even possible without a bit of nudging on the influencer’s part. We cannot ignore the fact that we enter into relationships with a need that we must fulfill. The best deals are obviously those that benefit both parties, but even the most mutually beneficial deals are rarely reached smoothly.

In the end, the best way to use this new information is as a reminder to always be on the look-out for techniques of influence that avoid head-to-head confrontation. Rather than state the other person’s position as being in opposition to your own, create a statement of commonality and work from there.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com

Ignore Emotions and Fail at Influence – June 2022

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

Here is how most people approach getting others to do what they want. They research the facts, build a solid case for their argument, state their case in a compelling pitch, and believe that the facts are strong enough to speak for themselves. If they meet resistance, they re-state the facts, but louder. If things don’t work out, they retreat to their office and wonder why the other person couldn’t understand their reasoning. Most attempts at influence fail because when we present our ideas, we skip past the emotional qualities of the idea, and go directly to reason. This belies the basis of how ideas are formed in the first place.

Every new idea is the result of an emotion, a feeling of wouldn’t it be cool if, or I really hate it when. Emotions drive us to use our intellect to solve problems or invent fun new stuff. The problem is, when we tell someone else about our idea, we have lived with the idea long enough that our own emotions have subsided, so we present the idea coated in logic. We cheat the listener out of the only reason the idea was cool in the first place.

Watch children—the greatest influencers ever—interact with each other. When a child suggests a new game, they don’t list the benefits and advantages of the game. They say, “This game is so FUN!” Only after everyone is on board do they discuss details. Adults reverse the process, describing the benefits of their ideas in the hopes that it will generate excitement and lead to acceptance. Adults are so focused on outcomes that we forget that the ultimate aim of our work is to improve the emotional quality of others—to either minimize unpleasant experiences or maximize pleasant ones. Another reason we avoid connecting to emotions in the workplace is because we don’t want to appear unprofessional—which is a sign of fear or insecurity.

Since every decision or action is the result of an emotion, we cannot effectively influence without connecting to emotions. To master influence, we must be comfortable with the full range of emotions that drive human behavior. We must also recognize that there are no such things as negative emotions. There are emotions that feel pleasant, and those that feel unpleasant, but to label certain emotions negative causes us to avoid them. Avoiding emotions—in ourselves or others—limits our ability to deal with them; therefore, limiting our ability to influence others.

One of my areas of expertise in the martial arts is self-defense. Recently, I asked a group of students under what conditions it would be appropriate to express anger. Most said, “Very rarely.” Then I asked when they thought rage would be an appropriate emotion. They said, “Never!” I explained that emotions are not simply reactions to events around us, they are tools to guide us toward better outcomes in the future. Anger, like all emotions, is a tool. It’s purpose is to show others when they have crossed our boundaries. It is possible to calmly inform others of our boundaries, but sometimes anger is necessary to remind others of how important those lines are. I told the students that, when there is risk to your life or the life of someone else, rage may be just the emotion you need to react strongly enough to survive.

Of course, unpleasant emotions such as anger, dissapointment, impatience, and indignation should not be your first choice when influencing others, but you cannot master influence without being able to identify the subtle differences in how others are feeling. Anxiety is caused by a percieved inability to handle an upcoming challenge, which is different than dissapointment, which is caused by not getting an outcome we desired, which is different than frustration, which is caused by repeated failed attempts at solving a problem. Each emotion has a different source, so each calls for a different solution—all of which affects how you influence others.

In short, mastering the art of influence requires mastering empathy—the ability to discern the unique emotions of those around you. This means that, rather than labeling others as nice or not nice, we must discern exactly what they are feeling. Knowing how others feel is the only way to influence their behavior.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer since 1989, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com

Finding the Perfect Words – May 2022

My stepdaughter, Ondine, has been applying for summer jobs, and she asked me recently, “What should I say if the interviewer asks me about my past experience? Or says, ‘Tell me about yourself.’” Her question lies at the heart of all human interaction. It exposes the one concern people have when dealing with others, “What can I do, or say, to be accepted by others?” The need for approval is the basis of almost all human communication. Think about it. When was the last time you had a conversation that did not, in some way, involve influencing someone to agree with you? Or at least gain acceptance? Without some form of common bond, we cannot move on to deeper stages of the relationship.

I told Ondine the same thing I tell clients who carry the perennial stress of searching for the right thing to say. To view the process of influence through one’s choice of words miscontrues the true goal of an influential conversation; to discover a solution that works for all concerned. This is why persuasion is different than influence. Persuasion involves convincing someone to take certain actions, regardless of whether the outcome is good for them. As such, persuasion relies on creafting the message and delivery to trigger reactions in the listener. The risks with persuasion are many—rocky relationships, less forgiveness for mistakes, and lower commitment from others to help you achieve your goals.

With persuasion, saying just the right thing is important, becausee tricking the listener requires precision. Influence fosters a longer-term relationship based on accomplishing shared goals. Influence doesn’t require saying just the right thing. It requires transparency of values. Persuasion not only allows, but encourages, guardedness. A persuader must keep his cards close to his chest and hides his true intentions. The listener cannot know the true goals of a persuader. Influence requires all parties to be open about their intentions. Any hidden agenda will turn positive influence into negative persuasion.

So, I told Ondine, “If you tell the interviewer what you think he or she might want to hear, you are wasting your time and his/hers. The interview is to find out just who your are so the company can find a position best suited for you. Unless you lie or insult someone, there isn’t an answer in the world that is the wrong thing to say. Every response you give simply indicates that you are better suited for one position over another.”

This concept truly defines the difference between persuasion and influence. Persuasion is about goals; influence is about values. When we attempt to persuade, we are trying to satisfy our own goals—to make a sale, meet a quota, or advance an initiative. However, when we influence, we seek to align someone else’s values with our services. Values are more powerful in business, not simply because they are more intrinsic, but because they are more permanent. Goals change over time. Values remain stable throughout our lives. Values are what represent us, goals are the steps we take to express our values. Since strong relationships are based on shared values, influence requires us to focus on who the other person is, not just what they are trying to accomplish in the moment.

This brings us back to saying the right thing. Aside from avoiding insult, saying the right thing is the last thing we should be concerned about. Relationships are built on trust, trust demands honesty, so as long as you speak honestly you are saying the right thing. To be concerned about how others view you may be a natural part of living in a society, but remember that humans evolved living in social groups of only 30-50 people. It is easy for the brain to balance our behavior with others in such a small group. To expect to be accepted and liked by the thousands of people we encounter in the modern world is unrealistic. These wise sages say it better:

Being honest may not get you a lot of friends, but it’ll always get you the right ones.

John Lennon

You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something sometime in your life.

Winston Churchill

If you go around worrying about everything you say, you’ll never say anything.

Lucy van Pelt (from Peanuts)

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer since 1989, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com

Influencer, Know Thyself- April 2022

When I was a young man, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan. My martial arts teacher arranged for me to stay with the family of Mr. Maruyama, a respected member of the Japanese martial arts community. It was summer, and the Olympic games were approaching. This being the early ‘80s, the only Asian martial art in the Olympics at the time was Judo. There was talk of allowing the Korean martial art, Tae Kwon Do, as a demonstration event at the 1988 games in Seoul. Many Japanese citizens were upset that karate was not also considered. This became the subject of conversation one night with my host family. It also became a lesson in influence.

Maruyama being loyal to Japan, he felt that his native martial art of karate should be recognized worldwide. He felt that allowing only Tae Kwon Do in the games would give it higher standing, instead of equal footing (no pun intended). I approached the martial arts from my own, singular perspective, so I had a different take on the issue. I said that, for me, the martial arts were not a sport, and should not be treated as such. In my opinion, joining the Olympics would reduce the true nature of martial arts to a simple sport. It was during the debate that my lack of understanding of influence shone through.

Even though Mr. Maruyama and I stood on different sides of the issue, we remained respectful. But we still desperately wanted the other to accept our position. And, as with any issue, the more deeply held the belief, the less likely we are to change our minds. The style of influence I used most closely related to Inspirational Influence, where we connect to shared beliefs and missions. Inspirational influence seeks to connect people through a common purpose. The problem with my approach was, I tried to get Maruyama to accept my purpose as his own.

Maruyama, on the other hand, used Positional Influence. In Japan at the time, status meant everything. When an authority figure spoke, you listened. Maruyama was not only a high-raking figure in the Japanese martial arts community, he was also the head of the household; and this conversation with taking place in front of his wife, son, and daughter. I was not successful in influencing Maruyama to see things my way, but it was not because he was stubborn or unreasonable. It was because I made one of the most common mistakes people make when trying to influence others; projection.

Sigmund Freud first wrote about projection in 1895 (the year my teen-aged stepdaughter thinks I was born). Projection occurs when we take our own feelings—fears, anxieties, motivations, and desires—and place them on someone else. The human brain is kind of self-centered (okay, more than kind of). It thinks that if something is important to its host, it should apply to everyone else. Projection affects influence in that people use whatever methods of influence work on themselves to persuade others. It is easy to see how this mistake can affect leadership, sales, customer service, and team management.

When I used inspirational influence with Maruyama, I thought I was connecting to our shared respect for the martial arts. The more he resisted, the more I couldn’t understand why he didn’t get it. But my constantly referring to mission and purpose ignored the fact that he was relying on his position, his authority. So, the more I spoke of mission and purpose, the more I threatened his authority. Rather than persuading him, I was challenging his commitment. By projecting my point of view onto Maruyama, I doomed the conversation from the start, and probably insulted him in front of his family (lucky I am not a foreign ambassador).

How do you avoid this trap? Whenever you are in a conversation involving influence (which is most of the time), pay attention to the style of influence you use. Is it authority, passion, reason, pressure, pleading? Your style is likely to be consistent over time. Also pay attention to the styles other people use. If you can adjust your style to meet the needs of others, instead of projecting your way of thinking onto them, you will have more success. And, lucky for my relationship with Maruyama, karate was finally accepted into the Olympics.

An expert on influence and a keynote speaker and trainer internationally since 1989, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com

. It is certainly one that all leaders must know how to manage—conformity.

Teams: The Silent Influencer – March 2022

If you read my column last month, I told of serving as jury foreman in a criminal case. Our first vote was an even split, but over two days of debate, people began changing their vote. But why? It was clear that some jurors were swayed by the evidence presented by the group, and truly changed their position, but other appeared to be changing their vote to gain favor from others. And others seemed to get caught up in the identity of being a juror; a this is what juries do mentality. No matter the reason, we all seemed to lose our individual identities in the face of the group dynamic. This is where one of the most important forms of influence appears. It is certainly one that all leaders must know how to manage—conformity.

Whenever I am asked to help leaders learn how to manage teams I ask, “Why do you even have the team get together in the first place?” This always gets a raised eyebrow because, to most people, the answer is obvious, “Because two heads are better than one.” But that is not necessarily the case. When it comes to creative problem solving, individuals working alone can easily produce as many ideas as a group—with less stress. How about the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other? Individuals have as much success reforming and re-framing their own ideas as most groups. The truth is that teams only out-produce individuals if the team is carefully managed, and conformity kept at bay.

The whole point of having a team is to access the individual contributions of each team member. But this outcome is elusive because humans naturally conform to the group. Arthur Jenness is known as the first psychologist to study group conformity. In his now-famous Bean Jar Experiment of 1932, Jenness had subjects guess how many beans were in a jar. Then he asked those same subjects to work in teams and submit their estimates as a group. In every case, if the team’s guess was different than the individual’s estimate, the individual went along with the group. Even if the group’s guess was far different, the individual conformed.

To be fair, there are times when conformity is a good thing. If an individual gains new insights from the group and changes his or her mind as a result—known as internalizationeveryone’s values and goals are aligned, and the group can move forward. However, if someone is only going along to get along—compliance—they do not truly believe in the direction the group is taking, and they will cooperate only as long as the group is around. A third form of conformity is identification, where being a member of a select group (police officers, sales teams, nurses, etc.) demands adopting the group’s behavior. As a leader, it is crucial to know just why team members are conforming.

The decision to conform or stand apart from the group is affected by factors such as cultural norms—Eastern cultures that value the group over the individual see higher rates of conformity, but there are everyday factors that a leader can control. One of those factors is, quite simply, the number of people in the group. Ask one person their opinion, and you will most likely get their true feelings. Add one other person to the mix, and conformity climbs to about 3%. Two additional people cause a 13% rate of conformity, while three to five team members cause conformity to jump to 32%. That means you only have a 2/3 chance of getting someone’s honest input when five others are in the room. No leader should be satisfied with those results.

It is interesting to note that, when a group increases to more than five people, conformity does not increase past 32%. Many psychologists believe this is because larger groups offer anonymity. However, larger groups often stifle individual input simply because there are too many people talking. But that nasty 32% conformity rate means that a tidy little team of five or so people may be inhibiting getting the most from each individual.

Meeting with team members one-on-one is certainly a lot more work, but it is the only way to combat the negative influence of conformity, and get the best out of each team member.

Positive Influence Demands a Flexible Ego – February 2022

Some years ago, I had the honor of serving jury duty. The case was made more difficult because, not only was the defendant charged with assault, but the victim was a vulnerable adult (an elderly man with dementia). When the jury was handed the case to deliberate, I was voted Jury Foreperson. I began the deliberations by asking, “How many of you have seen the movie Twelve Angry Men?” Every hand went up. I said, “Great. Let’s not be like the movie.” I took my role seriously. I knew that it was not my job to influence anyone’s decision, but it was my job to make sure no juror exerted undue influence over anyone else. Throughout the process, I learned an unexpected lesson about influence and leadership; how to be wrong.

When we must influence others, we necessarily adopt the role of a leader. No matter what our position or title, for that brief encounter we are the trail guide. The role of leader often comes with the mistaken notion that the leader must be all-knowing and infallible. I began the deliberations thinking that I must be clear in my own thinking about the case, as well as possessed of more knowledge about the law than my fellow jurors. I quickly discovered that both assumptions were not only false, but they weakened my ability to positively influence the group.

When we took our first vote, it was an even split between guilty and not guilty. But only a few people were set in their opinion. They were open to discussion, and willing to change their vote if a compelling argument was made. These people were not seen as weak or indecisive. On the contrary, they appeared more mature. Through them, I learned that the best kind of influence a leader can exert is the ability to admit uncertainty.

As deliberations continued into the second day, the stress mounted. Everyone knew that, if we made a mistake, we could send an innocent person to prison for twenty years, or set a predator free. I initially thought the jury would look to me, the foreperson, for answers, but they didn’t need answers from me, they just needed momentum. As Confucius once said, It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop. I didn’t need to have the answers, I just needed to facilitate the discovery of the answers. Most often, the best answer came from someone else in the group. I did not need to know the final destination, I just needed to keep the group moving.

I took copious notes throughout the trial, so I thought I had a pretty good handle on the case, but several times during the deliberations when I referred to my notes, other jurors corrected me; showing where I had misunderstood the testimony. This was a hit to my ego. After all, I was the Foreperson. But the jury didn’t care one whit about my being right. They only cared that I made the process comfortable and productive.

When influencing others, we typically have an end result in mind. This makes it nearly impossible to admit when we are wrong. Admitting that we are wrong risks not getting the result we wanted. I was lucky in that I did not have a personal stake in whether the verdict was guilty or innocent. If I did, I would have been a poor leader and an ineffective influencer. The inability to admit failure or error is tied to what psychologists call psychological rigidity. The thought of being wrong is so damaging to some people’s sense of self that defense mechanisms kick in and their brains actually create alternate storylines to erase their mistake. “I know I said the event was on Thursday, and it was on Wednesday, but someone must have changed the schedule at the last minute.” Some people mistake this type of stubbornness for strength of will, but being psychologically fragile is the opposite of strength.

It is impossible to be both psychologically fragile and a good influencer at the same time. If you find yourself unable to admit fault or error, it is time to examine your sense of self, and learn that strength can sometimes come from the admission of failure.

The Golden Rule of Influence – January 2022

To influence someone, you must first be clear about their motives; what drives them to act a certain way or prefer one thing over another. We can’t move forward with relationships until we assign motives for people’s actions. The same action can be seen as criminal or saintly, depending upon the reason behind the action. However, since we rarely have the chance to ask a person their intent, we must assign motives to others. Psychologists called this Attribution. Sadly, attribution is a flawed process. Humans are lousy at reading other people accurately.

There are two main attributes we assign to actions. Actions are either a product of circumstance, or of character. Which attribute you use to explain the actions of others will paint markedly different pictures of them, and affect how you choose to interact with them. Circumstances include resources (Does the person have access to other options? If so, could they afford them?), obstacles (Is there a reasonable barrier to taking action?), information (Were they given information that affected their decision?), and time (Do they even have the time to do what I am asking them to do? Are there other tasks that take priority?). When we consider the circumstances another person faces, we are using Situational Attribution.

Assigning motives based on character is a whole other ball game. Is the person smart enough to do things the way I think should be done? (Note: information and intelligence are two different motives.) Do they care enough? (A moral judgement.) Are they honest? Are they trustworthy? Assigning motives based on character is called Dispositional Attribution. When we assign others’ motives incorrectly, it is called an Attribution Error. And humans err so often when reading others that psychologists refer to it as Fundamental Attribution Error. Now, one might think that, since reading others wrong is so common, that it can’t be that harmful, but there is a reason we should all examine our own behavior in this regard. It has to do with the difference between the motives we assign ourselves and those we assign to others.

When subjects were asked to explain why they did certain things, people always talked about the circumstances that led to their decision. The reason for their actions always came down to time, resources, or some other outside force beyond their control. When people explained their own actions, the picture they painted made it seem like they not only made the best choice, but that they really had no other options. People almost always assign themselves Situational Attributes. Circumstances beyond our control are wonderful because circumstances take the responsibility for our actions off our own shoulders.

But what happens when people are asked to expain the actions of others? That is when the coin is flipped. When assigning motives to others, people default to character. “He did it because he is dishonest.” “She did it because she was afraid.” “They did it because they lack moral rectitude.” The actions of others were assigned Dispositional Attributes. And here is the kicker. During experiments, subjects would perform the exact same action as someone else, but assign situational attributes to themselves while assigning dispositional attributes to others. In short, we believe that our own actions are the reasonable outcome of the circumstances in which we live, but others’ actions are the product of bad choices, poor character, or lack of intelligence. It is certainly reasonable for us to view our own actions through the lens of circumstance. We certainly don’t expect people to explain their actions with, “I did it because I’m a loser!” But assuming others’ motives to be the result of character instead of circumstance is unfair, inaccurate, and unproductive.

The impact Fundamental Attribution Error has on our ability to influence others is significant. You cannot guide a conversation to a positive end if you misconstrue someone’s motives. If you mis-assign motives, you will appeal to factors that do not motivate the listener, or break the vital connection needed to have a positive impact. And, assuming the worst in others is a terrible way to build a relationship.

The Golden Rule states that we should treat others as we would have them treat us. The Golden Rule of Influence states that we should give others the same benefit of the doubt, and the same reasonable motives, that we give ourselves.

An expert on influence and a keynote speaker and trainer internationally since 1989, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com

Leading the Return to Work – November 2021

The pandemic has created more introspection among business leaders than any other event in recent history. The early months of shut-downs and reorganization caused leaders to question just about every old-school belief in how business is done. Months later, the question was, “When will we get back to normal?” Then, when Open sign was finally re-lit, no one seemed to want to work anyone. Soon, arm-chair psychologists had theories as to why Americans didn’t seem to want to work anymore. But it didn’t take long for those theories to take a beating.

The easiest culprit was extended federal benefits. I mean, who would want to go back to a 9-5 when they are getting hundreds of dollars a week from Uncle Sam for doing nothing? Surely, once those benefits stopped, job applications would start flooding in. Except, when the benefits ceased, workers did not return. Another reason was lingering fear of COVID in an in-person workplace. Only time, and the eventual fading of COVID, will tell if that assumption holds water.

Another hot topic kicked around when people talk about the worker shortage is the question of wages. According to some, people are tired of being paid a barely-living wage just so some investor can walk away with the profit. The assumption has always been that, when unemployment dries up, employees will return. I mean, some money is still better than no money at all. Right? It turns out, no.

Those of us who study influence and human behavior are constantly reminded that money, while certainly important, holds less sway than many other factors when people are weighing important decisions. Look at the ways companies try to woo new hires:

            Huge banners listing fantastic starting wages. Ask restaurant servers across the country who are quitting en mass just how much money matters when they are being told by customers to lower their mask and smile before getting a tip. (This is happening a lot. If you do this, please stop.)

            Signs at the front door that state Join a (winning) (fun) (happy) team. The sign is meaningless when you walk through the store and see staff that is anything but happy, fun, or winning.

            Posters by the check-out counter that list the discount employees get by working there. Are you really advertising that you want people to work there so they can spend the money they earn at the very place they work? And who buys so much stuff from one place that working there is a smart financial decision?

I am going to go out on a limb and claim that these ideas are the result of different generations not talking to each other. Business leaders are still comprised of Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, and the oldest Gen Y. These folks are tying to influence the mindset of young Gen Y and Gen Z. (If you are hiring Generation Alpha, born after 2011, we need to talk about child labor laws.) If there is one constant in the universe, it is that older folks are much better at talking than listening. So, an older business leader thinks “We’ll promise great pay and a great place to work. Isn’t that what everyone wants?” But that leader is using logic borne from a different generation. These tactics are the product of talking to a new generation without listening to them.

One sure outcome of the pandemic is that it has forced people of widely differing views to acknowledge that other viewpoints cannot simply be brushed aside, ignored, or dis-respected. This trend should extend to how business leaders communicate with staff. Of course, people will return to work. Savings accounts and government support don’t last forever, but with birth rates the lowest they have been in over 40 years, and immigration’s unsure future, smart leaders must act to change their workplace culture now.

The first step is to find a new way to communicate with staff. Younger employees are not blank slates. Each generation has unique experiences that shape a particular world view. If you want to lead a workplace that attracts the best, do more listening than talking. And resist the temptation to compare the needs and desires of your generation to those whom you are trying to hire. To attract people, don’t pitch…listen.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Sometimes Survival is Enough – October 2021

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was talking to a Jackson, a manager at a manufacturing facility. He had just received senior leadership’s expectations for his department for 2022. Company ownership expected a steady increase in output, quarter-by-quarter for the entire year. Jackson looked at me and said, “Are they crazy? We are so short-staffed that I can hardly keep two shifts running as it is. The way things are with the labor shortage, I will be lucky if I can even get back to pre-pandemic levels next year, let alone see any growth.” When I asked him if he voiced his concerns to his superiors he said, “I would, if I ever saw them outside of the quarterly huddles. Whenever I mention a problem—a labor shortage, supply chain issue, or shipping delays—all I hear is ‘You have to work smarter, not harder.’” Jackson finished by saying the phrase that strikes fear in every employer’s heart, “I’m sick of this sh*t. First chance I get, I’m out of here.”

Everyone has their own theories as to why the current economic recovery is accompanied by a near-catastrophic labor shortage. Those surveyed report avoiding the workforce because of unemployment benefits, stimulus payments, or fear of COVID-19. It is easy to close our eyes and hope that employment applications will start rolling in as soon as unemployment benefits cease or the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, but many experts warn that we may not see pre-pandemic labor levels for a long time.

As accurate as surveys try to be about why people avoid the workforce, the truth is that the real answer is too complicated to capture in a three-question survey. The core of the problem is the issue that should concern business leaders most, is chronic stress. Acute stress is situational. Something unpleasant happens, we get upset, and then we get over it. Chronic stress wears at your staff day after day. If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, employees will eventually look for a different tunnel. They may claim all manner of reasons for staying away from work, but at the end of the day, the reason doesn’t matter, they’re gone. You don’t cure chronic stress by heaping unattainable goals on top of employees that are already stretched too thin. Imagine a ship springing a leak at sea. No sane captain would yell at the crew that is bailing water that they also have to make it to port on schedule.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to hear the founder of a national electronics chain speak at a business conference. He shared his Ten Rules of Success. None of his rules were particularly surprising, Focus on your strengths, Ignore the nay-sayers, and the like. But Rule Seven surprised me, Sometimes Survival is Enough. He said, “My company has weathered a lot of storms over the years—recessions, new competitors, and unpredictable consumers. Sometimes, you have to count just keeping the doors open as success. Expecting continued growth every single year is not only illogical, it drives your best team members away. Too many people at the top forget that the dividends they enjoy are built on the backs of the front-line staff.”

Battling chronic stress calls for setting reasonable goals, not ever-increasing challenges. Employees stay in jobs where they can do their best work every day, not where they are constantly reminded that they aren’t measuring up. It might sound simplistic, but the most successful organizations are ones that find ways to celebrate daily wins. No one ever tires of hearing that they did something right. But the recognition needs to be authentic. If we have seen too much of one thing during this crisis, it is the disingenuous you are all heros message, followed by now here is more work to do. During times of chronic stress, leadership also needs to be more visible to employees than ever. E-mail or text messages of encouragement can never measure up to face-to-face contact.

An all-hands-on-deck approach to crisis management does work. People gain focus during a disaster, but only in the short-term. After a while, focus is replaced by fatigue. And if their efforts don’t seem to be appreciated in a meaninful way, and goals are kept reasonable, employees will jump ship, leaving the captain to bail out the ship alone.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

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