How to get what you want without nagging

Would you rather I asked you:

  • Reader, remember that you promised to exercise more this year.
    or
  • Reader, are you going to exercise this year?

How about this:

  • Reader, you really ought to think about recycling.
    or
  • Do you recycle, Reader?

And here’s one more:

  • Reader, healthy eating is good for you, you know.
    or
  • Do you eat healthily, Reader?

When you want to influence someone’s behaviour, it’s better to ask a question than make a statement. That’s what researchers found in a meta study led by Professor Eric Spangenberg published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (‘A meta-analytic synthesis of the question-behaviour effect’, Dec 2015) that reviewed over 40 years of research in the area of influencing. That’s fantastic news for parents and managers everywhere. Teachers and trainers, too. Anyone, really, who wants to get people to do something.

The researchers think that the reason questions are better than statements for persuading people to change their behaviour is that a question subtly reminds people what the best thing to do is without being pushy and telling them. A question about exercising, recycling or eating healthily can lead the person to feel a bit uncomfortable if they don’t do those things. As a result, they’re more likely to do them in order to ease those uncomfortable feelings.

So teachers might ask: Are you planning to finish your project in plenty of time?

Parents might ask: Are yu taking your turn at washing up tonight?

A manager might ask: How is your XYZ coming along? (The XYZ being something you want the employee to work on but the employee isn’t that keen.)

Professor  Spangenberg says that questions are great at encouraging people to behave in socially acceptable ways. Questions can sway customer purchases, reduce gender stereotyping and influence all sorts of other behaviours, too. And you don’t have to ask the question in person, either. You can ask it in an advertising flyer or brochure, a radio advertisement, put up a poster with your question, or ask your question on-line on social media, for instance.

There are two big buts:

  1. Don’t ask a question when the person reliably does whatever it is you’re asking about because they’d be miffed.
  2. Don’t ask a question about unwanted behaviour, because your question could encourage it–the opposite of what you want. So you wouldn’t ask your teenager as he’s heading out on a Saturday night: ‘So, will you be doing a lot of drinking tonight, then?’

Ask don’t tell. Question in the positive to get what you want. Without nagging. Simple, really, isn’t it?

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Why our brains can’t help resisting change

In Chapter 18, we talk about ‘brain games’ or heuristics, the brain’s automatic programs that are designed to help us wade through complexity quickly. The brain is also hard-wired to resist change, which has huge implications for today’s managers who introduce and manage change regularly. Three programs in particular are designed to provide a sense of psychological security and they kick in particularly strongly whenever people are confronted with change – as most of us are in today’s workplaces.

First, the brain is programmed to seek evidence that the world is consistent: familiar, orderly, predictable and safe. That’s why people prefer bosses who are predictable, why familiar work routines are comforting and why change is uncomfortable and stressful.

The second brain program looks for the justice; we all feel much better when we believe our organisation’s mission is worthwhile and that it will treat us fairly. That’s why organisations have policies designed to protect employees and ensure they are treated fairly (dispute handling procedures, dignity and harassment policies, health, safety and welfare policies, etc.). And that’s why when you introduce change, even for a good reason, the ‘That’s not fair!’ cry can be heard loud and clear.

The third brain program looks for a sense of ‘culture’, or an accepted understanding of the way things are done around here. So when an organisation changes its key strategies or mission or when a work team reorganises itself, people need to remodel the way they view the world around them, and people don’t like doing that. Even when the reasons for changing ‘the way we do things’ are good, the implication that the way we’ve been doing them isn’t good hangs in the air.

So when peoples’ comfort zones or sense of consistency and justice are threatened, they tend to cross their arms, dig their heels in and fight (or ignore) the changes, or they try to escape to greener pastures. To prevent that and help people feel more comfortable with whatever change you’re introducing, keep up the information flow – what’s happening, why it’s happening, how people will be affected, how you’ll help them get used to the change. When you can, put the change in terms of ‘These are adjustments, or adaptations’ as opposed to making the change sound huge or like an about-face.

Take a look at this interesting article by James R. Bailey and Jonathan Raelin on the Harvard Business Review site.

Questions for discussion

What was the last workplace change you experienced? Did it pull you out of your comfort zone or did you feel that it was in some way unjust?