Words Fall Short: Why Telling People How To Behave Doesn’t Work Anymore

What’s more effective for creating a behaviour change, telling someone what to do or letting them do it? Around the time we released

Around the time we released Influencer, my brother-in-law and I were debating about how an “influencer” mentality worked compared to other approaches. As a consultant in strategy and medical outcomes, he believes in systems and optimising data utilisation. To him, my work seems soft.

So, I asked, “What’s the biggest struggle you have in your work?”

“In hospitals, it’s getting doctors, nurses, and administrators to behave differently,”  he replied.

I responded, “Well, that’s what being an Influencer is all about.”

How We Really Change

How do we convince people to change their behaviour? How do we get people at work to engage in a six sigma project? How do we get leaders to change the way they hold people accountable?

It seems easy.

Many people believe telling others what they need to do makes them change. But telling doesn’t lead to real change — experience does.

Initiate an Experience

We recently conducted an intervention for a tech corporation. As we worked with brilliant software engineers, our goal was to help them speak up when they faced problems in projects.

An engineer came to me to describe the magnitude of difficulty in changing the existing culture.

He said, “You don’t get it. Do you know how to tell an introverted software engineer from an extroverted one? The extroverts look at your shoes when they talk to you. We would rather do anything than confront another person. We have jobs in programming because we want to be left alone. Motivating people to speak up will be a real challenge.”

For these engineers, speaking up is completely undesirable. So, how can we make the undesirable desirable?

Allow self-discovery.

Everyone is motivated to do something. The trick is helping them connect the desired behaviour to their existing values. Invite choice so they make the connections and experience the positive results.

We often say, “You should do this! You should shift because of…,” but when we try to provide the personal motivation for others, they’ll resist.

So, instead of just telling them what to do, help them personally experience the change. A direct experience cannot be refuted. If you only tell me something is right, I can argue against it (verbally or mentally). As the saying goes, A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. But, direct experience provides a deeper level of interaction with the change.

Start Small

But what if they don’t want to have that experience?

Give them a smaller, easier experience to try. We wanted the software engineers to speak up when they saw a problem, but they were really unmotivated to do it. So, we challenged them, “In the next week, just speak up once and come back ready to report.”

When people came back, they said, “I actually spoke up! I figured it wasn’t hard to try it for a week.” Direct experience — the small trial — led to a change in motivation and behaviour.

Initially, they don’t need to make a long-term commitment to change. They just need to try it. Then, they’ll connect their values to the new behaviours we want them to embrace.

Our tendency is to persuade with words. But that’s not enough. Verbal persuasion may be the first step, but it doesn’t hold power in hearts and minds like a direct experience.

As you look to change behaviour in your organisations, family, or community, first consider, How can I make the undesirable desirable?

If they experience the change directly, you’ll see a dramatic increase in their willingness and ability to make the change.

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