Can you make people do things they don't want to do?

Andrew Bass’s Pragmatics Newsletter July 2012

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Can you make people do things they don’t want to do?

Easily. The methods are well documented in the crime dramas on TV: force, threat of force, bribery, blackmail, deception and manipulation. All are effective in the short term, but do tend to attract a backlash! So, unless you hate repeat business, or are going for Worst Workplace 2012, these are not much help.

But it’s not always easy to gain cooperation. Here are five quick ideas if you are getting nowhere.

1) Tap into existing motivations. What if you start from the position that people are already motivated, and what you need to do discover and tap in to the source? (From this point of view, the laziest person you know is highly motivated: to avoid hassle and effort. Try and get them to do something and see what a determined response you receive!) In general, if you can help someone realise that they can get what they already want by cooperating with you, things will go much more smoothly.

2) Make it as easy for them to cooperate as possible. Actually, many people – not only the lazy – are motivated to avoid hassle, so if you can help with that, you may well get their cooperation. Think Amazon’s 1-click ordering.

3) Allow that their motivations can be different to yours. My observation is that this is a nuance that is hard for most people to even notice when they are directly involved. Here’s a clear example of what to avoid. A friend went into a camera shop intent on buying a particular model he had already researched. He told the sales person “I want a Nikon XYZ.” “No you don’t,” replied the sales person cleverly. “On second thoughts, you’re right” replied my friend as he spun on his heel and walked out of the store. Maybe the salesman was ‘right’. Who knows, and who cares? Ethical, safety and critical expertise issues apart, you won’t get anywhere by insisting others see the world exactly as you do.

4) Emphasise value to the other side. Appeals to duty or their better nature run the risk of becoming manipulative (“You would do this if you were a team-player”). Far more comfortable and pragmatic to make it worth their while (in their terms): “It’ll be fun.”

5) Reserve carrots and sticks for situations requiring compliance (e.g. health and safety, regulatory). Carrots and sticks are inherently coercive: they only work if the subject has no alternatives. Did you know, for example, that the old pigeon conditioning experiments (where psychologists reinforced pigeons’ tendency to tap a lever by rewarding them with food pellets) only worked because the pigeons were trapped in a box and had no alternative food sources? It may be possible to condition call-centre operators in a tough job market for example, but when things change, they will be keen to jump ship. And while they are dreaming about that, they are not the most attentive to your customers. Carrots and sticks may help to make people wear hard hats, but not to foster customer service.

Businesses generally need cooperation and commitment from colleagues, customers and partners. Mere compliance is rarely enough. The best results come from dovetailing their existing interests with your current objectives.

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