Why We’re Bad at Influencing Behavior Change

We stink at influencing.

Most of us can relate to writer David Sedaris saying, “I haven’t got the slightest idea how to change people, but I keep a long list of prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out.”

He’s right! We want people to change, but we’re terrible at influencing change!

Just how poor are we humans at influencing change in our organisations, society, and ourselves:

In Organisations

Half of all companies fail within 12.5 years [1]. When it comes to organisational influence, half of us fail so badly our companies collapse.

In Society

Two out of three criminals are rearrested within three years.

The United States prison system, for example, is actually called Department of Corrections, but what are we really correcting?

We actually “correct” so poorly that the governor of California removed “rehabilitation” from the mission statement of the Department of Corrections in the mid-1980s.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor, he added it back. Maybe he thought, We may not rehab well, but at least we ought to try. Yet, when it comes to influencing society, we fail.

In Our Personal Lives

Dieters spend $40 billion a year, but 19 out of 20 people lose nothing but their money [2].

We can’t even successfully influence ourselves.

Stanford University’s medical school studied the three most popular diets used in America and they found that all of them work… if you stick to them. But, we’re lousy at influencing our own behaviour, so we don’t.

The AIDS virus infected five million new people in 2004 [3]. We need to do all we can to find a cure for AIDS. We need to make effective medicines accessible and affordable to the world. We should welcome HIV+ people into our lives. At the same time, AIDS is a disease fostered through human behaviour. If we could influence human behaviour, we could stop new transmission immediately.

Wouldn’t that be amazing?

But we can’t even influence ourselves in simple routines. Two-thirds of people can’t convince themselves to floss regularly [4]!

Our Assumptions Are All Wrong

This final example changed how I think about influence. Two years after receiving coronary bypass surgery to save their lives, 90% of patients are back to old behaviours [5].

Before I read this study, I had some assumptions about influence. But this example challenges my intuitive notion of how we influence people. Does it challenge yours?

Assumption 1

If you want to influence people, start with a good wake up call that really gets their attention.

Can you think of a better way to get someone’s attention than a heart attack? Apparently, that’s not enough.

Assumption 2

If you want people to change, make them understand the profound consequences of not changing.

With a heart attack, if you don’t change, you will die. Can you get more profound than that? Apparently, that’s not enough either.

Assumption 3

If you want people to change, give them a clear roadmap to success.

Health professionals do this. They explain what food to eat, how to exercise, and what medications to take, but it’s not still enough.

Bottom line

Our models of how to influence are insufficient. Yet, the most important capacity you possess is your ability to influence behaviour — your own and others’.

What We Can Do With Influence

In a committed relationship, you have to learn to manage your own behaviour and influence your spouse to make a more perfect union.

If you’re a parent, your full-time job is trying to influence yourself and your children to create a happy, healthy contributing member of society.

In the workplace, organisations hire you for your knowledge, ability, and experience. They assume you’ll use those skills to influence people around you.  And, if you’re a leader in an organisation, that’s your primary job —  influence yourself and others to help the organisation become more successful.

Yet, when it comes to influence, we’re woefully inadequate. We don’t even understand how to do it.

We need a better way to influence. We need to focus on how to build our skills to influence in ways that actually bring change.

  1. Arie de Geus- former Senior Leader at Royal Dutch Shell, MIT Researcher of Change and Influence Within Organisations
  2. National Eating Disorders Association
  3. United Nations AIDS program
  4. National Centre for Biotechnology Information
  5. Dr. Edward Miller, John Hopkins University


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