Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change

Rating 9/10

Best Line #1: You can never hope to engage people’s commitment if they don’t have permission to say no.

Best Line #2: Diagnose before you prescribe. Anything else is malpractice.

Influence Powers Successful Strategy

Merriam Webster defines influence as follows: “to affect or change someone or something in an indirect but usually important way.” This is what every good strategy is about. Rare is the case where you can directly affect something. I can barely even affect myself and it doesn’t get more direct than that.

Strategy is just the method for gaining influence over something. It could be a value strategy that changes a customer relationship, such as Amazon expanding Prime so that customers see it as more than 2-day shipping. It could be an engagement strategy to build a sense of ownership, such as when a manager incorporates staff feedback on a campaign. Whatever the situation, our strategy is ultimately successful to the degree that it compels someone or something to act in an important way.

A lot of strategy is focused on systematic analysis, the natural by-product of a literature that conceptualizes in big abstractions. Go too far in doing so and you end up with a much-too-mechanical view of strategy as an action-reaction sort of thing. Influence matters a lot.

The original iPhone was great. The value proposition was through the roof. But its success should be equally attributed to the influence of Steve Jobs and the device’s modern design.

We might not all see ways to be strategic but we can definitely see ways to be influential. Let’s see how with this fantastic book.

The Six Sources of Influence

The authors provide a basic framework (a 3×2 matrix to be exact) that serves as the heart of the book. It’s a good bit of scaffolding upon which they attach all the theories, stories, and lessons. The framework identifies six sources of influence.


Motivation Ability

As you may recall from Wednesday’s post, motivation and ability are paramount to changing behavior. Here’s the quote again, the one that crystallizes this idea:

People won’t attempt a behavior unless (1) they think it’s worth it [motivation], and (2) they think they can do what’s required [ability].

According to the framework, you can impact these two factors on a personal (i.e. individual), social, and structural (i.e. environmental) basis. It makes a lot of sense and I think it serves is a mental model for explaining every behavior we see. Or don’t see. Case in point: I don’t tap dance. Why? Tap dancing is a perfectly legitimate form of recreation and entertainment. All the same, I don’t think there’s any value in learning how to tap dance and, even if I did, I don’t think I’ll be the next Carey Grant. No one questions this. No one has ever come to me asking why I don’t wear tap shoes and do the shim sham shimmy.

And yet, supervisors often wonder why our staff don’t do certain things. It can be frustrating—so much so that we take it as a personal affront (insubordination!) if they aren’t doing what we want them to do. But keep these two factors in mind because there is good high chance you’re effectively asking them to start tap dancing.

The point of this absurd metaphor is that if the six sources of influence pointed me in the right direction, I would start tap dancing tomorrow. Once instilled with a higher sense of value and ability, you probably would, too. So the framework explains why we do (or don’t do) something and how to influence us to do something else. 

Watch this video if you want to have a better sense of how this works. There’s a lot in this to unpack but one thing is clear: our sense of motivation and ability can change in real time with the right elements of influence.

Vital Behaviors

Most of us are in such a rush to influence others that we fail to stop and thoughtfully decide what behaviors we want to change.

Teachers are the best influencers I’ve ever known and their work is often misunderstood, especially in the elementary and middle school grades. When you think about teaching, as an act, you might think of the presentation of information. Curriculums and lesson plans. Blackboards, chalk, tests, and textbooks. That’s certainly the job. But the bigger aspect of the job is the definition of good behavior, bad behavior, and the creation of influential factors that help students become more receptive to the information they are tasked with learning.

Case in point: I was a terrible student for most of grade school. It wasn’t because the information was too hard for me to understand. My behavior was simply unconducive to learning. I was disruptive, distracted, disengaged. A constant class clown.

You can’t teach a kid like me when I’m “acting out” just about every minute of the day. So the challenge is to fix these behaviors, right?

Indeed. And that eventually happened. Not through disciplinary action but through changes in my own “six sources” of influence: the personal, social, and structural components of motivation and ability. It required some major interventions and some unconventional tactics. The teachers who helped do this are the same people who, as a result, have influenced so much more of what I (and you) have been able to do ever since. The same goes for all of us.

Great teachers don’t educate so much as they help initiate and reinforce the great behaviors that allow a student to thrive. It’s all about influence. Influence the behavior in the right way and great test scores will emerge.

Keeping these ideas in mind, we’ll now examine a few of the great insights the book offers in each aspect of the framework.

Personal Influence

I think this is the realm where we operate the most. Most influence seems to be about ways we can improve a transaction with another person, a behavior, a relationship. The authors approach this in several ways but one that resonates is when we try to help people “love what they hate” (the way I, as a kid, hated the idea of behaving nicely). The authors suggest four major tactics:

  1. Allow for choice.
  2. Create direct experiences.
  3. Tell meaningful stories.
  4. Make it a game.

There are important ideas in all four tactics but the first tactic is the most important. Allowing for choice is akin to the power of enrollment. Enrollment is what sets college apart from grade school. You have to go to grade school. You choose to go to college. The choice gives you ownership, agency, and a powerful incentive to stick it out when things get tough.

To return to teaching again, I never felt so depressed at my job than when I tried to teach 11th graders. It was a student teaching assignment. World History. I would do my best to liven up the material but there was no way to engage the kids. They were slumped, stiff, apathetic, and dull-eyed. None of them wanted to be there. They had no choice.

I might as well have put mannequins in their seats. I would have had a livelier group.

I tried tactics #2, 3, and 4 (these are vital tools in the educator’s toolbox) and would occasionally find a pulse amongst the group, a slow stirring of interest. But it never lasted without the sense of choice. If I could do it over, I would have offered two tracks within the class. I would have told them they could either sit on one side of the room and do a worksheet every day or sit on the other side, in a circle, and work with me on the real lesson. I suppose this would have created a have and have-not situation, which bothers me a little, but the have-nots would have had a choice. And for other reasons the book illustrates, I think the dull, disinterested worksheet group would eventually come over to our circle. By their own choice.

Anyway, the authors recognize the asymmetry of their list. They know that #1 is outsized and that numbers #2, 3, and 4 are interdependent upon it. Here are their words:

We’ve placed “allow for choice” at the top of our list of strategies because it is the gateway to all other methods of influencing personal motivation.

By the way, this is core principle behind the book “Nudge”. We’ll examine that fine work someday but, until then, please keep the following concept in mind: choice architecture. Great policies and programs instill a set of choices for the immediate party and give them a sense of agency while also assuring that all other secondary parties benefit, too.

A simple example is Google and their free food for employees. It’s all free and yet it’s all healthy. Choose anything from the buffet, folks, because you’ll eat healthier and that will help us all. Is this social engineering? Of course! But the good kind. Because you don’t have to eat the food at all if you don’t want to. Your first choice, to opt into free food, leads to nothing but good choices (“good” in the eyes of the employer and countless nutritionists) thereafter. But it’s still your choice.

There’s one more important quote from the personal realm. This one involves motivation and it’s very important:

We need to interpret setbacks as guides not as brakes

I’ve seen it far too often: we give people a choice, they make the choice in a way we had hoped (e.g., an employee decides to take on a difficult project), and then we yank them back to Square One the minute a setback occurs. Maybe someone got upset or the project took an unexpected turn. Whatever the case, it is a debilitating moment because we reassume control. This eliminates the person’s sense of agency and makes them feel like a puppet.

“Norm really wanted me to do this. I started to do it and things got a little difficult. Then he told me to stop. Why? I guess because he just wants it done a certain way and, well, if that’s the case, why doesn’t he just do it himself?”

The half-measure of providing choice on the front end while maintaining the real control on the back-end is a recipe for destroying any influence you might want to build. It also creates a horrible work environment for professionals. It leads to the following principle, one developed by yours truly:

When it comes to working with others, you can have a high amount of control on a task or you can have a high amount of influence. But you can’t have both.

Control is direct effect. Influence is indirect effect. No one inhabits both in any task or role. What’s interesting, too, is that a manager can grasp either option in a way that strengthens the other.

Option A: take control sometimes and let staff influence your actions. Option B: let them take control and influence their actions. Either way works but Option B scales whereas Option A doesn’t. Again, both options are complementary when deployed sensibly.

Social Influence

Now we get to social influence which, in the workplace, is tremendous. We tend to think of social influence in the negative sense. This is the stuff of gossip, secret alliances, and a regular stirring of disengagement. But the positive end is incredibly powerful. If personal influence is management, teaching, and parenting, social influence is the stuff of leadership. Everyone is a leader when it comes to developing social influence.

Here’s a quote from the authors that crystallizes the idea:

When you ask people to step into a place of uncertainty and change, they look to you to take their cues. They look at your behavior. Unfortunately, they have a bias for interpreting your behavior in ways that confirm rather than disconfirm their existing concerns or mistrust. So, in order to encourage them to change, you have to generate clear, unambiguous evidence that they can believe you. But how?

More than ever before, I have become deeply attuned to social influence. It is absolutely mind-blowing to realize just how much everyone is watching everyone. I’ve always known about social proof but it’s more massive than I realized. Especially when forming new relationships. Or new initiatives.

People aren’t just watching. As the authors point out, people are watching with the deliberate intention to confirm their existing mistrust. This is such an unfair, close-minded, discriminatory practice. I despise it and yet I cannot blame people. I understand wholeheartedly why they do it. My default condition is to view things from a place of deliberate, naive trust and it has led to more mistakes than I care to admit. So again, I get where people are coming from. They’ve been burned before.

What does one do? Be First. Whatever you might want or need or desire of a group, be first in offering the same to them. Exhibit the behaviors yourself. Lead by example. That sort of thing. Or as the authors suggest:

Making a sacrifice can be a powerful influence accelerant.

Yep. BUT I DON’T WANT TO SACRIFICE. I just want everyone to do it instead.

Nonetheless, if you want to gain influence with the group, give something up for the group. If you can’t, it might be a sign that you don’t belong with that group. That might sound drastic but it’s a good test. Mostly because when you are a part of a group that you’re willing to sacrifice for, it is the first step towards making that group a tribe. Next, the group sacrifices for you and everything changes. Influence becomes a much more natural and powerful thing. The group powers the individuals rather than the other way around. This is social influence at its core.

A couple other gold nuggets to consider. One comes as a quote from a person interviewed:

“The message,” Hopkins reports, “is no more important than the messenger.”

The Japanese know this well and express it beautifully with the principle, Ichi ieba ju wo shiru. This translates to “Hear One, Understand Ten.” In Japanese culture, especially in business relations, the message is less valued and the nonverbal cues of the person matter much more. In fact, the message can be wildly inaccurate and that’s completely fine because the Japanese gather the meaning from the messenger’s behavior.

We’re no different. We just don’t acknowledge it as clearly and deliberately as the Japanese. In the social realm of influence, this explains why Presidents conduct State of the Union addresses. I don’t remember the content of any such address. I just remember the President talking to me, opening with that powerful line: “My fellow Americans …”.

We spend a lot of energy crafting perfectly-worded expressions (me especially) when it matters little if the expresser has no influence. There are far less eloquent people out there who are far more memorable and influential.

Two more important insights have to do with cultural norms, the foundation of social influence.  

If you want to change an old norm, you have to talk about the old norm. You have to talk about the new norm. You have to talk.

Yes, talk about the Norm. Talk about me often. The old me. The new me.

New norms take hold the instant people begin to defend them.

It’s true. So defend me. Please. I am a new Norm, fragile and newly-arrived.  

Jokes aside, these are important points but it’s really hard for me to talk about “norms”. It creates a serious identity crisis every time. Suffice to say, Norms are important. Each and every one of us.

Structural Influence

Personal influence is the stuff of managers, parents, teachers, and salesmen.

Social influence is the stuff of leaders.

Structural influence is the stuff of architects and designers.

As said before, we all inhabit these roles. Or we can if we so  choose. And structural influence is the one component that I greatly appreciate in this book. It’s frequently forgotten.

To illustrate the effect, I can’t help but go back, yet again, to education:

To some degree, we are products of our environment. Work in a dumpy office and you will feel like you work in a dumpy job. Visit a dirty restaurant and you’ll think the food is dirty, too. In fact, a former McDonald’s executive once said clean bathrooms matter more than the good burgers.  

In education, a structural influence technique that touches on this point comes not from physical features but physical arrangements. Or rather, seating assignments. Few classrooms maintain the same seating chart for an entire year. Proximity matters; it’s a core ingredient of influence. Sit next to your best friend and you might pass notes all day, joking and whispering and distracting everyone. Suddenly, the teacher splits you up. Why?

Some of it is for your own good but a lot of it is because your misbehavior, if left unattended, will only spread. Because your proximity to others will cause them to act up and, from a geographical sense, the mischief plague sends its amoebic tentacles in all directions.

This is further touched on by a quote from another author:

In the words of Fred Steele, the renowned sociotechnical theorist, most of us are “environmentally incompetent.”

Feels harsh but only because we forget how easily we can, and should, change our environments. Many have heard stories of how Apple designed their new corporate headquarters to create chance encounters and serendipitous exchanges. The flow of the building, the transition areas, the quiet/loud zones, the emphasis on transparent materials, and the symbolism of a circular building all are examples of creating structural influence.    

But you probably don’t have a new corporate headquarters to design. Seating arrangements, however, can always be switched. 

What else counts as structural influence? Quite a bit actually. The authors delve deeply into the realm of incentive programs, disciplinary actions, and the programmatic mechanisms we all use to influence behavior. It’s far better to read directly from the source about how so many of these programs fail. If I tee it off here, we’ll be stuck together for another 1,500 words. From a point of influence, I know I can’t overstay my welcome so, again, more reason to buy this excellent book.


Here is a final quote from the authors:

In short, you become an effective influencer when, and only when, you learn to overdetermine change by amassing sufficient sources of influence to make change inevitable.

Some of the best books I read are really a culmination of insights from other books that came before. That’s the case here. Outside the new stories, I didn’t find a lot of new information. What I found, instead, is an outstanding framework that ties all the core principles of other books and makes something you can use in cohesive and deliberate fashion. And since influence is such a vital element of anything we do, the book is worth its weight in gold.

One more thing before we go: the quote above uses a neologism that gave me trouble. It’s this made-up word “overdetermine”. I didn’t get it and they didn’t define it. They did, however, explain it in their case studies. To “overdetermine” is to make deliberate choices about one’s approach and implementation based on all six elements of the framework. The effective influencer seeks to engage them all, to touch “the head and heart”.

Future books will further illustrate the important of this multi-faceted approach. These six elements are akin to the five senses. Any experience that engages all five senses is highly impactful. The same goes here.

I think what matters, though, is to accept that influence is something that can be manufactured. Some people get sensitive about that. They say this is “Machiavellian” and manipulative. As stated in the intro, I fully agree. But only when influence is curried in a transaction, a short-term and short-sighted affair. Otherwise, influence of the sort we’re discussing, developed with these techniques over the long term, is an honest exercise in empathy. Every educator, every good manager, every leader, and every parent uses these in some capacity.

So again, the point behind the word “overdetermine” is that the effective influencer uses them all. They deploy a full-court press on hearts and minds. It feels artificial at first. But with time, it can be as natural as reciting your ABCs. And just as useful.

As always, we’re barely scratching the surface here. This is a very rich, very good book that has helped me a great deal. Influence, as a type of energy, is what drives so much of what we all do. Call it peer pressure; call it “culture”; call if what you want. I can’t think of a bigger driving factor for our behavior.

And because some have asked before, why didn’t I give the book a 10/10? It’s about the audience.

A lot of the book’s solutions require you to be a supervisor, someone with baked-in authority and ability to implement. If you don’t have that, the tactics in the structural realm will be weak. This is also true, to a slighter degree, on the social side. The solutions there involve creating new norms and high degrees of accountability. I can’t see how anyone can do that if they aren’t a supervisor and, as it turns out, most people aren’t supervisors. No doubt anyone can and should embody these ideals regardless of their place on the workplace totem pole. Still, I wanted more examples of how.

But that’s a minor quibble. In truth, the book is near perfect. Buy it on Amazon.

Principles and Mental Models

  • There are three realms of influence: personal, social, and structural
  • There are two components to influence: motivation and ability
  • Fuzzy objectives are anathema to influence
  • Clear goals and compelling targets engage the head and heart
  • If you want a measure to influence behavior, it must be refreshed frequently.
  • Good measures drive the right behavior
  • Change vital behaviors, and soon you’ll achieve the results you’ve wanted all along.
  • As you watch others not doing the right thing while repeatedly doing the wrong thing, ask: Do they enjoy it?
  • It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and THEN do your best.
  • A positive deviant is a person who, by all rights, ought to have a problem but for some reason doesn’t.
  • Influencers use four tactics to help people love what they hate: 1. Allow for choice. 2. Create direct experiences. 3. Tell meaningful stories. 4. Make it a game.
  • a change of heart can’t be imposed; it can only be chosen.
  • You can impress or you can influence but you probably can’t do both
  • Frequency creates familiarity creates comfort
  • to encourage people to attempt something they fear, you must provide rapid positive feedback that builds self-confidence.
  • Setbacks are guides, not brakes
  • People won’t attempt a behavior unless (1) they think it’s worth it, and (2) they think they can do what’s required. If not, why try?
  • When it comes to working with others, you can have a high amount of control on a task or you can have a high amount of influence. But you can’t have both.
  • Sacrifice accelerates change
  • The opinion leader (much different, and more influential, than the thought leader)
  • Less is more when it comes to rewards so long as they are quickly delivered, gratifying, and targeted at vital behaviors.
  • Look to the environment to understand many of the behaviors
  • To change focus, change the data stream
  • Engage all six sources of influence to overdetermine the change you seek.
  • Trial and learn, not trial and error.