Change is hard. Leading others through change can be a daunting
challenge. However, if leaders understand and apply some basic principles, even large organizations can be re-aligned and move in a different direction.
I was thinking about this as I watched a video about operating a large rail yard. I noticed that when an engine hooked up to a long train of cars, the engineer did not simply pull forward after it was coupled. Instead, he backed up first. Then, he slowly accelerated forward. By backing up, the couplings between each rail car were compressed. As a result, when the engine started forward, there was a small amount of slack in the couplings between each car. When the engine started moving forward it was pulling (for an instant) just one car – then two cars, then three cars, and so on.
By following this procedure, the engine was able to eventually pull several hundred cars. If the engineer did not back up first, he would have to pull all the cars at the same time. The total weight of a long train would cause even the strongest engine to lose traction and spin its wheels.
We are influenced by the actions of others more than we may care to admit. Many researchers have confirmed that social influence has a powerful effect on our decisions.
We experience many forms of social influence, although we probably don’t think about it. Perhaps you purchased something after hearing about it from a friend or family member. Or you may have joined an organization or club because someone you know is one of the members. Throughout our lives, we have been powerfully persuaded or casually nudged thousands of times to make a decision or take an action because of social influence.
Indeed, the authors of Influencer contend that there are six sources of influence. They refer to one of these influences as social motivation (although most of us think of this as peer pressure).
Let’s review a recent study by Pedro Gardette of Stanford that supports this concept. He wanted to measure the effect of social influence on the purchasing patterns of airline passengers. Continue Reading
One of my summer jobs was working at a busy warehouse, filling wooden pallets with various orders of canned fruit or juice products. Forklifts then loaded the pallets on a trailer for shipping.
I remember the day I filled out the employment application. The job was on second shift. It was hard to find anyone who wanted to work these hours, so I was hired. The woman from human resources asked me if I could start working the same night. I showed up 30 minutes before my shift for orientation. While I don’t recall everything that was said, the supervisor’s safety expectations were memorable. The speech from Lyle went something like this:
“Most of these guys have been working here for more than 15 years. So ask them anything you want to know. The work isn’t that hard, but you can expect to get a few minor injuries before the summer is over. Nothing serious – maybe a gash from a box cutter or a sore toe from a case that is dropped accidentally. No open-toed shoes, by the way. There’s a first aid kit in the break room. If you need something more than a bandage or ointment, come see me. Now look, the number one thing you need to remember is that those guys running the forklifts are moving fast. The sooner we get these trucks loaded, the more time we all have at the end of the shift to relax. So stay clear of them at all times. They have the right-of-way in the aisles. Any questions?”
What questions would an 18-year-old ask? I had none.
It’s a sad truth about the workplace: Just 30% of employees are actively committed to doing a good job.
According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report, 50% of employees merely put their time in, while the remaining 20% act out their discontent in counterproductive ways. These employees are negatively influencing their coworkers, missing days on the job, and driving customers away through poor service. Gallup estimates that the 20% group alone costs the U.S. economy around half a trillion dollars each year.
What’s the reason for the widespread employee disengagement? According to Gallup, poor leadership is a key cause.
Richard Sheridan, Founder of Menlo Innovations, describes an antidote for this lack of enthusiasm. He claims that “joy” is what is missing from the workplace. In a recent interview, Sheridan spoke about some of the ways that he purposely designed joy into the way that people work.
Many people assume that all leaders have the ability to influence others by virtue of their position. This is not always true.
You can be in a leadership role, yet lack influencing skills. Conversely, you can greatly influence others without being a formal leader.
VitalSmarts includes information on their website that outlines the top reasons why leaders lack influence. This post will recap the main points for each of these five reasons. I will add my own thoughts to those of the authors.
(Note: These concepts are based on the best-selling book Influencer. I have found the model that the authors propose around the six sources of influence to be practical – as well as easy to understand and apply).
Reasons Why Leaders Lack Influence
1. Leaders think it’s not their job.
Most leaders spend very little time consciously influencing others. They believe that their primary job is to come up with big ideas and then to implement them.
The key thought here is having a conscious effort to influence others. Whether they intend to do it or not, the actions of those in leadership positions have the potential to influence others. What rarely happens is for the leader to develop a strategic action plan for how to influence their employees on the vital behaviors that they desire. The assumption by many leaders is that if we give people a direction and the resources they need, then good things will happen.
I used to work for a manager who clearly had this mindset. He became frustrated when much of his organization repeatedly performed work in ways that were counter to his preferred approach. Yet, he never asked himself how he might influence some of the employees so that they would become more aligned and working on the right things.
Symbolism can be a powerful method to align an organization to a new way of thinking. Transformational leaders know that everyone will be looking at what they say and do. One of the basic tenets of effecting culture change is to create experiences that will reinforce the beliefs that you want people to hold. These experiences can be small words of support, a well-written sincere note, or a key policy decision. But they can also be bold acts that create a lasting impression and become the basis for stories and legends. Consider the following symbolic acts – one in world politics and one in business.
At the 1995 World Cup rugby final, Nelson Mandela put on a jersey of the South African Springboks, which under apartheid had been the exclusively white national rugby team. Mandela purposely chose to wear the uniform of the sport that black South Africans had always seen as that of the oppressor. The symbolism was unmistakable. It was an overt statement to millions of South Africans that he sincerely believed in reconciliation in the new democratic South Africa.
Gordon Bethune, CEO of Continental Airlines, was trying to send a message to all his employees that the old rigid rules were history. He wanted everyone to make whatever decision they thought was right for the company and the customer. To make this clear, he staged a book burning, where the previous “rules manual” was ceremoniously set afire in a 55-gallon drum in the parking lot. This story soon spread among the employees. Message received.
The use of symbolism is not only within the purview of world political leaders or company executives. Creating experiences is only limited to your imagination and the thoughtful consideration of the message you want to send.