Change Work August 2012

Can I count on you?

The closing ceremony was something to behold!  And the Games of the XXX Olympiad are emphatically over.

Whether your team or your favourites did well or not, I think we have to marvel at the performances we saw.  And we're humbled by the efforts and sacrifices that all of those competitors put into their preparation.

I bet that the Paralympics will show us examples of even bigger obstacles being overcome triumphantly.

You have to wonder what can motivate someone to get up before dawn and train for hours and hours, every day for years.  Is it ego?  A determination to prove you're the best?  Well, I guess that you need plenty of that to go to the lengths that world-class sportspeople go to.

But what was noticeable about many of the Olympic competitors was how eager they were to acknowledge the help and support they'd received.  Even more striking was the way those whose achievements fell short of expectations ("only" a silver medal!) seemed to be most upset at having let down their team, their coaches, their family and their fans. Their own crushing disappointment wasn't the worst thing!

Making a commitment to other people is a really powerful motivator for most of us.  I know it works for me.  I can make commitments to myself - setting goals for example - and then just forget about them.  But if the goals are shared, and it's a group effort, then I'll do everything I can to ensure success.  What drives me (and it's probably the only point of similarity between me and an Olympic athlete) is my strong aversion to letting others down.

There's nothing wrong with that as far as it goes.  I feel quite proud to be able to say that I take my commitments seriously - even if I sometimes fail to meet them. 

But I remember when I worked in an  environment driven by personal objectives, I was easily deflected from pursuing my own when someone asked me to help with theirs.  And once I'd agreed - committed - then their objectives became more important than mine.  This wasn't the behaviour that the system was meant to encourage and wasn't particularly good for me either.

This isn't quite the same as always putting others before yourself.  I don't think many of us are that saintly.  No, it's the act of committing that makes the difference, and if you don't commit, you're not obliged.

In fact it seems to be very easy for ordinary people to ignore a person in distress if they don't know them.  I've seen CCTV footage of passers-by stepping over someone collapsed in the street or walking past an assault in progress.

On the other hand, there are instances of people rushing to help the injured after a bombing and then staying with them, sometimes at personal risk, for as long as it took emergency services to arrive.  It seems that most of us can ignore someone in trouble, especially if there are other people around who could help, but once we involve ourselves we're likely to continue.

Are we worried about what others will think of us?  Or of what we'll think of ourselves?  People often explain their selfless behaviour saying, "I couldn't live with myself if I hadn't helped."

But, surprisingly, we don't need to make an explicit promise (by word or deed) to feel committed.  "Consistency" is one of Robert Cialdini's six principles of influence and he cites many examples of people striving to act in a way that's consistent with previous actions or decisions.  I mentioned this a few months ago, and gave the example of researchers who found that they could get a surprisingly high number of householders to agree to having a large billboard advertising road safety put up in their front gardens.  All it took was to visit them initially and ask them to display a small card in their windows.  Many agreed to this, and of them, many also accepted the billboard when approached a few weeks later.  In contrast, among people who hadn't previously been asked to display the small card, hardly any accepted the billboard.

Once you've demonstrated that you're "the kind of person" who behaves in a particular way (especially a public-spirited way) then you're highly likely to continue in that behaviour.

There are also examples of how advertisers and salespeople exploit this tendency.  One such is to ask a series of questions designed to get the prospect to agree that they are interested in saving money.  Once they've described themselves in that light then it's very difficult for them to refuse an offer that would clearly give them significant savings.  Even if they don't really want what's being offered, the need to be consistent with what they've previously said about themselves wins.

So, consistency/commitment is a powerful motivator for you, although not usually under your control.  It's wise to take care and be selective over what you get involved in or you'll end up with more commitments than you can meet.

Knowing you can rely on someone is a great comfort.

Knowing they rely on you is a great responsibility.