30 Mar 2017


Money and incentives aren’t the only ways to get people to change. Other means of persuasion can be surprisingly effective, says author, columnist and influence researcher Steve Martin.


A common mistake that managers 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 managers 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 one of just three underlying human motivations; the desire to make accurate and rewarding decisions as efficiently as possible, the desire to gain the approval of others and the desire to see oneself in a positive light.

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 manager 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. Here are some practical examples for each.


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 managers set performance goals. For example, received wisdom lauds the merits of setting single, specific goals to focus an individual's or team’s efforts, such as scoring 10 goals in a season or attaining 80 per cent successful pass completion in a match. Such an approach makes intuitive sense, because single number goals are clear and concrete. But other factors beyond the target itself will influence whether people pursue a goal, in particular, challenge and attainability. 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.

Setting unattainable goals, meanwhile, can also be problematic. Asking for too much can be daunting, even disheartening, so it is vital that any target strikes the right balance between challenge and attainability. And therein lies the problem. Single-number goals are either relatively attainable, relatively challenging or, more likely, a compromise between the two.

Recent evidence suggests that managers who make a small shift from single number goals to 'high-low' goals (a target range that averages the same as the single number, such as nine-to-11 instead of 10) could find themselves at an advantage.

Given that one of the challenges that managers face is to encourage sustained efforts towards team and individual performance goals, changing how these goals are set could be a small but important change.


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.

Managers who want to encourage desirable behaviours among their team members should, therefore, be the first to contribute. Often the most valuable investments managers 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 manager’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 one of just three fundamental human motivations; accuracy, affiliation and positive self-concept. Notice, too, how these 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.