As my coauthors and I conducted research for our latest book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, we sat down with two dozen senior executives from several Fortune 500 companies—and asked each leader whether they faced any of these problems:
- Bureaucratic infighting that smothers innovation and change
- Self-centered silo thinking and turfism that prevents true collaboration
- Shoddy accountability wherein failure, plus an excuse, is acceptable performance
- A “let’s do the minimum” work ethic
Our favorite reaction came from a CFO who looked up from the page and exclaimed, “Well, duhhh!” The most typical response was, “Can I pick ‘all of the above?’”
Suffice it to say, these are very common problems within organizations. These issues are also especially costly and difficult to resolve because each involve entrenched habits—ineffective practices that have come to be accepted, or at least tolerated, within an organization. Consequently, solving these problems requires influencing chronic patterns of behaviors.
To understand the scope and severity of these problems and to determine how successful leaders solve them, we conducted follow-up surveys with 50 senior leaders and more than 1000 managers, supervisors and employees. We broadened our list to include the 15 entrenched habits we’ve faced most often in working with challenged organizations.
Ninety percent of our respondents said they currently struggle with at least one of these dysfunctional behaviors. The most common were identified as turfism, gossiping and shifting blame.
- In one Fortune 500 company, the Training Department encouraged a vendor to sue another division of their own company in order to keep them from cutting separate deals with the vendor and working around the Training Department.
- One survey respondent described how a manager at her company repeatedly asked for extensions on deadlines. The bad behavior spread like a virus and within months, no one expected anyone to hit a deadline. She says this has continued for the past two years with no improvement.
According to the research, these behaviors posed the greatest cost to employee satisfaction, productivity, quality and customer satisfaction. Seventy percent of the respondents said the behaviors significantly damaged at least two of these bottom-line metrics.
Given that leaders not only recognize these problems but also understand how common and costly they are, it’s astonishing how few actually know how to resolve them. Ninety-five percent of the respondents said the problem had persisted for a year or more, and more than half said the problem had persisted for more than five years.
Why Leaders Have No Influence
As we interviewed senior leaders, we began to see some very clear failure patterns. Before long, we could quickly tell whether the change strategy a leader described was going to fail. Below are the five most common failure modes we observed.
- Leaders act as if it’s not their job to address entrenched habits. Most leaders put a great deal of time into crafting breakthrough strategies, selecting winning products and engaging with analysts, shareholders and major customers. However, few realize the success or failure of their grand schemes lies in influencing the behavior of the hundreds or thousands who will have to execute on the big ideas—their employees. The most influential leaders spend 50 to 75 percent of their time actively thinking about influencing the behaviors they know will lead to top performance. The failure mode we observed was leaders delegating these responsibilities to others, mainly leaders in HR—who often lack the credibility to influence real change. The average leader spends less than five percent of his or her time on active efforts to create behavior change. Consequently, results fall far short of their potential and employee behavior falls into predictable patterns of turfism, blame and politics.
- Leaders lack a clear influence plan. Many leaders who had previously stumbled into success at influencing behavior change couldn’t articulate why their efforts succeeded. Even worse, the study showed that while most executives were frustrated with many behaviors in their organizations, only one in 20 had a carefully developed plan for influencing change. When leaders were asked to describe their approach to influencing rapid and sustainable behavior change, most had almost nothing to say. For example, one CEO had taken over a company that had stalled financially in recent months. The company was started by a group of highly skilled engineers who built a wildly successful product. However, the founders now needed to change the culture of the company to focus on quality and execution. Things went badly—and the CEO had no real plan for changing this behavior. Ironically, this same CEO described a tremendously effective influence challenge he’d tackled in a previous role, and yet he didn’t recognize that he’d need a similar plan with similar tactics to tackle this new challenge.
- Leaders confuse talking with influencing. Many leaders think influence consists of little more than talking people into doing things. It’s no wonder most influence efforts start with PowerPoint presentations. But profound, persistent and overwhelming problems demand more than verbal persuasion. Anyone who’s ever tried to talk a smoker into quitting knows there’s a lot more to behavior change than words. Leaders make the same mistake when they publish platitudes in the form of Mission and Values statements, give a few speeches on why these values are crucial and then assume their job is done.
- Leaders believe in silver bullets. When leaders actually attempt to influence new behavior, it’s common for them to look for quick fixes—to fall into the trap of thinking that deeply ingrained bad habits can be changed with a single technique. The failure mode is to rely on any single approach. Some host star-studded retreats. Others hand out inspiring posters and color-changing mugs and think people will line up for change. Still others believe it’s all about incentives, and so they tinker with the performance management system or tie new behaviors to executive bonuses. The research shows that when leaders rely on just one simple source of influence to drive change, they almost always fail.
- Leaders try to influence everyone. There are a few leaders who understand that influence is their job. They may even put a lot of time and energy into influencing behavior, but they squander their limited time and energy by trying to influence everyone. The most influential leaders amass a wealth of social capital by investing time and energy with two influential groups—their chain of command and their opinion leaders. Influencers know they don’t have to have personal relationships with everyone in the company—they just have to have relationships with those who do. If leaders spend time building trust with formal and informal opinion leaders, they will inherit social capital that extends their influence into every corner of the organization.
Influence Strategies for Leaders: How to Change Entrenched Bad Habits
While the overall failure rate for changing entrenched habits was high, a handful of leaders—less than one in 20—did have real influence. These leaders had the skills to create influence strategies that really worked. They influenced profound change in behaviors rapidly and permanently. Those who sustained their influence efforts described how changes lasted for years.
Below are a few of the most powerful strategies influential leaders employed. If you put these strategies to work, you will be far more likely to turn entrenched bad habits into positive work practices.
- Pick two or three behaviors. Ironically, one of the best ways to improve results is to stop focusing exclusively on results. Effective influencers target one or two “vital behaviors” to bring about significant change. For example, if you want to improve accountability, influence how people talk to those who let them down.
- Overdetermine influence. Effective influencers refuse the temptation to find the “one easy answer.” For example, unsuccessful leaders rely on a heartfelt e-mail to drive change and mediocre leaders may deliver a PowerPoint presentation explaining what must change. By contrast, successful influencers combine four or more “sources of influence” to facilitate change. For example, they employ values, training, praise, coaching, incentives and environmental factors in combination.
- Influence the influencers. Many leaders wonder how they can influence dozens or even hundreds of people. Effective influencers realize they don’t have to have personal relationships with everyone; they just have to have relationships with the opinion leaders who do. Less effective leaders could think they’re working with opinion leaders when they’re actually working with people who look good to management but are held in low esteem by their peers.
- Enlist the environment. Much of behavior is influenced by our physical environment—the buildings, reports, tools and things surrounding us. Smart influencers design the environment to enable new behaviors and by doing so, create an influence strategy that works 24x7. For example, one leader increased accountability in her team by posting all commitments made, kept and broken in the team area. She also listed “Review of commitments” as the first and last agenda item at meetings. These small visual cues kept the team focused on changing their behavior.
If your organization has found a way to tolerate or “live with” entrenched bad habits, then it’s time you challenged these behaviors and turned them into productive work practices. If you don’t, then our research suggests these bad habits will continue indefinitely and produce profoundly damaging results. On the other hand, if you learn the skills of influence, you will make change inevitable.
Joseph Grenny is the coauthor of three New York Times bestsellers—Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer. He is also a sought-after speaker and consultant, as well as cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance, www.vitalsmarts.com.