20 Dec 2018


Money and incentives aren’t the only ways to get people to change. Other means of persuasion can be surprisingly effective.

Words: Steve Martin


A common mistake that leaders make when attempting to influence the attitudes, perceptions and behaviours of others is to try to change their minds – mostly through the use of information and incentives. If you want to persuade someone you provide education and information about all the reasons why they should change. And if that doesn't work, dangle a larger carrot or wave a bigger stick.

But, as most leaders recognise, persuading people to change their minds is rarely straightforward and information and incentives, however useful, are often not enough.

Fortunately, over the last few years persuasion scientists have uncovered a considerable body of evidence that points to a third route to successful influence. The adoption of tiny, often costless changes that serve not to change minds, but the motivational context and mindset in which a request is made.


Although people make decisions and behave in ways that are based on a complex range of specific goals, when it comes to the influence and change process, the motivational footprint is surprisingly small. In fact, nearly all of the approaches, strategies and tactics that have been scientifically demonstrated to successfully influence others gain their persuasive power by leveraging underlying human motivations; the desire to make accurate and rewarding decisions as efficiently as possible and the desire to gain the approval of others.

Because these motivations are so deeply ingrained in everyone, most of the hard work is already done for anyone wishing to activate them. All a leader needs to do is trigger one or more of these motivations by making small, often cost-free changes to the context in which their message or request is made. 


Put simply, people want to make accurate decisions in as efficient and rewarding a way as possible. Such an insight might call into question the traditional way in which leaders set performance goals. For example, received wisdom lauds the merits of setting single, specific goals to focus an individual's or team’s efforts. People want to be sufficiently challenged by a goal that they feel a sense of accomplishment and reward when they reach it. Therefore, unchallenging goals typically demotivate rather than inspire.


Humans are wired to create and maintain positive social relationships. This desire for social approval – and avoidance of social disapproval – is a fundamental motivation in all cultures.

One way that individuals achieve their affiliation-oriented goals is to abide by rules of social exchange, such as the norm of reciprocity, which obliges us to give back to others the form of behaviour others have first given to us. A crucial characteristic of a successful reciprocity-based influence strategy involves activating a sense of obligation in the target individual.

Leaders who want to encourage desirable behaviours among their team should, therefore, be the first to contribute. Often the most valuable investments leaders can make in others first are also the most human, such as advice and encouragement, an attentive ear or a supportive shoulder.


It's clear that small changes in a leader’s approach can significantly improve how successful they are in being persuasive. But none of the changes required any costly investments in re-education, nor did they rely on any monetary or economic incentives to garner change.

Instead they gained their persuasive strength by harnessing the power of human motivations. Notice, too, how motivations are activated not by attempting to change the minds of the individuals concerned, but instead by making small changes to the context in which desirable behaviours are most likely to occur. When it comes to effective influence, persuasion and behaviour change, it seems that small is very much the new big.