By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler
Book Review by Zinta Aistars
· Hardcover: 288 pages
· Publisher: McGraw-Hill, 2007
· Price: $26.95
· ISBN-10: 007148499X
· ISBN-13: 978-0071484992
I watched David Maxfield, one of the authors of Influencer, present at a health care conference at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan not long ago—he was animated and enthused and quite fascinating. His presentation was based on this book, a New York Times bestseller, from the same authors that brought readers the concepts of “crucial conversations,” “crucial behaviors” and VitalSmarts. The latter is today a company that offers consultations on how to motivate positive change, not only on an individual basis, but companywide.
I was fascinated enough by the presentation that I purchased the book to learn more. Indeed, the organization for which I work has held it up to its employees as a source of wisdom. As an organization, we, too, have now developed our own vital behaviors. From what I am witnessing, there are some positive changes going on—and that’s no small trick for a large corporation.
So why not take this down to the individual? I read with great interest, initially amused by the admonishment to “stop seeking serenity” unless we are willing to stop growing. The new age advice is forever urging us to settle, and while serenity is nice, it can also become a trap, holding us in place rather than moving toward positive growth and change.
As Maxfield pointed out in his presentation, human nature resists change. We tend to take the route most worn in, the easiest, the tried if not quite true. Even when we know a certain behavior isn’t getting us anyplace good, may even be hurting us, we still resist change. Consider the addict who is destroying his or her life with bad behavior, yet will continue that behavior even when all that matters is lost—family, friends, health, wealth, home, self-respect. Even on pain of death, we won’t change. Why? What’s missing?
Influencer is a study of what breaks through our natural resistance to change. It is based on examination of success. What are the differences between those who succeed in life and those who fail? Those who change in order to move in a better direction, and those who stagnate in their bad behaviors for a life of failure? To improve a situation, what must people do? Find your vital behaviors, the authors advise. Study the behavior, not the outcome.
The starting point is to see oneself as an influencer. If you don’t believe in your ability to change, you won’t. If you don’t want to change, you won’t. The authors debunk the idea of therapy as being helpful in changing especially addictive behaviors if the focus is on examining childhood experiences or any kind of dallying in the past. Rather, we should expand the self-image to include the ability to influence—ourselves and others—and learn the vital behaviors that cause positive change. (It is also important to consider the company we keep. Hang out with losers, and you’ll be one. Hang out with the best, and you’ll be challenged to improve yourself.)
With various examples, the authors illustrate how their suggestions play out in real life. Rather than being someone who only worries about keeping his own corner of the world clean, an influencer must abide by two rules—be accountable and hold everyone else accountable. The person who looks the other way whenever he or she sees a colleague at work shirk responsibility is as guilty of bringing the company down as is the colleague. To be an effective team is as much about doing good work as ensuring that others do good work, too. What’s the saying? The chain is as only as good as its weakest link? You get the idea. If a “crucial conversation” is then needed, so be it (see previous works by these authors).
Success is not about avoiding mistakes or risks. Quite the opposite. But it doesn’t mean being reckless, either. The authors encourage an intense study of success in one’s area of interest. What works? Not in terms of outcomes, but in terms of the behaviors leading to success. To learn how to overcome an addiction, study recovery behaviors and emulate them. Everyone makes mistakes; those who succeed make plenty, but they also continually remain aware and make constant corrections each and every time they slip off the path. Each mistake produces a correction of one’s compass.
What doesn’t work? With rare exception, punishment doesn’t work. It may force a behavior change in the short run, but almost guarantee rebellion at first opportunity. The battering husband may have achieved a wife who never moves from his side in seeming devotion, but she will leave when the time is right, and by then, he will lose any respect or love she may have had for him. Similarly, the battering boss may force discipline in his office, but turn his back once, and everyone is off to the water cooler. Or the employment office.
Praise always works better than punishment. Allowing people to make their own mistakes is also crucial. Rather than micro-management, a good leader allows the team to misstep now and then, finding their own way, praising when they get back on track. More importantly, a good leader is a good role model. Adults are not so very different from children when it comes to how we learn. We watch and emulate our leaders more than we follow rules and regulations.
That is not to say we don’t listen. If outright persuasion is rarely an effective form of influence, think of it as the hard sell versus the soft sell. Tell a great story, and the same lesson comes through dipped in honey. The reason media and entertainment are such effective influencers, the authors argue, is because they are venues for storytelling. Great storytelling can cause great change where all else fails because it produces a vicarious experience.
“Entertainment education helps people change how they view the world through the telling of vibrant and credible stories. Told well, these vicariously created events approximate the gold standard of change—real experiences… We can use words to persuade others to come around to our way of thinking by telling a story rather than firing off a lecture. Stories can create touching moments that help people view the world in new ways.” (pg. 57)
The dark side of this tool for change, however, is that the wrong story can also cause negative change. The authors illustrate the concept of garbage in, garbage out, and so children who grow up watching violent television and video games are increasingly exhibiting behavior to match the stories on which they have been nurtured. Where your eyes are focused, so follow your thoughts, and where your thoughts go, so go your actions.
Once that valuable moment of inspiration happens, however, it will not stand alone to cause change. The next question that comes to mind is, “will it be worth it?” and then, “can I do it?”
Without hope for something better, no one strives to change. There’s no point. To understand fully the goal of what one is trying to achieve, making the determination that it is indeed worth the struggle, paves the road to change. Hope and value—these are the mental maps one follows to reach for success.
Most people do have values, and yet so many bypass them when behaving badly. What happens to our moral codes when we chose the wrong path in life? There is a frequent disconnect between our behavior and our personal standards. People do wrong almost always knowing they are doing wrong. Yet they do it anyway. Worse, they despise anyone else who behaves in similar manner.
“Often humans react to their immediate environments as if they were on autopilot. They don’t pause to consider how their immediate choices reflect their ideals, values, or moral codes… when we make horrific and costly mistakes, more often than not we’re not choosing at all. It’s the lack of thought, not the presence of thought, that enables our bad behavior.” (pg. 95)
The solution here is to reconnect. Turn off the autopilot. Stop, think, be aware. Instead of acting on emotion or even instinct, stop long enough to consider if what you are about to do aligns with your moral code. If a moral action doesn’t always seem to be a “natural” one, the authors remind us, consider that brushing our teeth everyday is not natural either. We do it because it aligns with our standards of health and hygiene. It is the right thing to do.
Common tactics of enabling our bad behavior, making it possible, are:
dehumanization or objectifying
Doing the wrong thing is virtually impossible without indulging in one or all of these tactics to disconnect ourselves from our own values. We must morally disengage before we can do wrong. Stop the disengagement and you will have stopped the wrong behavior.
“The only way out of the nasty practice of disconnecting ourselves from our moral grounding is to reconnect. This means that we must take our eyes off the demands of the moment and cast our view on the larger moral issues by reframing reality in moral terms… If we don’t reconnect possible behavior to the larger moral issues, we’ll continue to allow the emotional demands of the moment to drive our actions, and, in so doing, we’ll make short-term, myopic choices…. Individuals who learn how to reconnect their distant but real values to their current behavior can overcome the most addictive of habits—cocaine, heroine, pornography, gambling, you name it.” (pg. 98-99)
With abuse of all kinds escalating in modern society, it seems absolutely crucial to understand this simple truth—that, unless we are sociopaths without any conscience whatsoever, our minds and hearts force us to dehumanize before we can abuse. We must objectify before we can disrespect. We must erase a person in our minds before we can betray them. Reconnect the disconnect and the rest will follow.
So what are the common traits of those who succeed? The authors cite studies which observe the commonalities in those who do well in life. If one personality trait stands out above all others, it is this: the ability to delay gratification. The best in life is almost never the most easy to attain. Success is hard won. To not get lost along the way, or distracted by temptation, “succeeders” are those who know how to distract themselves from that which gives pleasure or ease in the short term. Delaying gratification, those who succeed at the highest level display all sorts of interesting tricks and quirks to keep their awareness on the goal at end rather than the easy win at hand. Children offered candy but told that if they waited a while longer might have the cake were observed to work at moving their gaze away from the candy, playing little games to get their minds off the candy, counting, singing, anything to distract their own attention. Inevitably, if the initial moment of temptation is won, it will quickly lose its luster. Those who gave in quickly, however, even when having to lie about their taking the candy, did not make any attempt at distraction. They kept their eyes on the sweet until they gave in and so lost the real prize. The ability to withstand temptation is a learned skill. Like any skill, practice makes perfect. The more you practice a discipline, the more natural it becomes to you.
Finally, the authors point out that it is not reward that motivates us to greatness. Doing the right thing—that is the reward. Human nature is more inclined toward goodness than one might think. Doing right makes our self esteem rise. Doing right causes our social standing to climb. Doing right earns us respect, our own and that of others. Doing good feels good.
All this wisdom offered, however, won’t do a thing … unless there is a real desire to change. All our actions come back to us. We decide. We are accountable. Change is always possible.