The last element in the Six Sources of Influence — a framework established by the book “Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change” — is Structural Ability.
Source 6. Structural Ability: change their space.
Having explored two key sources of power that enable vital behavior — enhancing personal mastery through deliberate practice (source 2) and seeking support from others (source 4) — we now delve into the realm of nonhuman forces. This entails harnessing the influence of various environmental elements such as buildings, spatial design, sound, sight, and more, as part of an overarching strategy to drive behavioral change.
Here is a perfect exemplification of such power. In post-WWII America, the restaurant industry faced a dilemma — waiters, often women, had to shout orders to kitchen cooks, many of whom were veterans, resulting in strained interactions that further led to loud arguments, incorrect orders, and frustrated customers. Dr. Whyte, a professor of University of Chicago, proposed an unconventional solution. He simply introduced a 50-cent metal spindle for written orders, eliminating the need for verbal communication between the waiters and cooks. This innovative approach quickly brought lasting improvement in the restaurants — conflict decreased, employees feeling better treated, and customer complaints reduced — by changing not people, but things. Today, the spindle has been transformed into an order wheel and adopted everywhere.
Learn to notice: We often overlook the impact of our physical world because our inclination is to focus on changing people rather than the environment, and the environmental elements — such as the size of a room, the location of a chair, or our work procedures, reporting structures, etc. — are the least noticeable. To change that, we need to become more observant of the silent forces present in our surroundings. Take eating, for instance. Factors like TV or music, plate size, and the sounds of others eating beside us all subtly influence what and how much we consume. Without realizing it, we make over 200 eating decisions every day. Mindless eating adds unnecessary calories to our diets without increasing our satisfaction. By cultivating mindfulness and awareness of these seemingly insignificant choices, we can profoundly influence our eating behavior.
Make the invisible visible: We can provide actual cues in the space around us to remind people of the behavior we’re trying to influence. Take, the cut down of wasteful expenditure in a hospital, for instance. There, a type of latex gloves cost over 10 times more than a pair of less-comfortable disposable gloves. Despite regular pleas from senior management to reduce costs, almost everyone used the pricey gloves for even short tasks. However, one day when someone placed a “25 cents” sign on the box of disposable gloves and “$3.00” sign on the box of latex gloves, the problem was solved — the clear information presented at the moment of decision-making led to a substantial decrease in the use of expensive gloves.
Mind the data stream: We often lack awareness of the sources and impact of data that influence our behavior. Frequently, we are fed with incomplete and inaccurate information, and we act upon it as if it represents the complete reality. For example, when asked to name places with armed conflicts, people tend to mention those covered extensively in the media, even if they are not the sites of the most intense violence or political significance. Similarly, people’s perception of the more prevailing cause of death is distorted by the news they consume, with homicide taking precedence over the more common cause of suicide.
Therefore, influencers strive to provide visible, timely, and accurate information that aligns with their goals; in the meantime, they diversify the data streams to encourage a broader perspective on critical issues and foster more informed decision-making. For instance, different groups and departments in companies prioritize different aspects of success based on the data they are exposed to. As a result, top-level executives poring over financial statements become shareholder advocates, and frontline employees dealing with customer complaints become advocates for customer satisfaction, both narrowly focused. To improve the situation, data streams such as facts and figures about customers and employees need to be provided to executives so that they can consider the interests of various stakeholders and achieve more balanced decision-making, and weekly cost and profit data should be provided to employees so that they can seek cost-effective solutions when faced with a dissatisfied customer rather than simply throwing money to solve the complaint.
Space: the final frontier: Compared to data, it’s even easier to overlook the effects of physical space on people, even though propinquity, or physical proximity, holds significant influence over our behaviors and relationships. For example, managers who are located closest to their direct reports interact the most frequently with their subordinates and have the best relationships. By the same logic, distance keeps people from routinely interacting with each other, often leading to animosity due to loss of informal contact that could strengthen collaboration. A study conducted at Bell Labs reveals that scientists who work next to each other are three times more likely to engage in productive discussions compared to those who sit 30 feet apart, and when they are placed 90 feet apart, their likelihood of collaboration becomes equivalent to those who work miles away.
Make it easy: To make effective changes, influencers do their best to make the right actions easier and the wrong ones more difficult. For instance, it’s proven that the positioning of snacks and whether packaging is clear or not can change people’s consumption by 50 percent or more. Placing a candy jar on a desk, rather than a few feet away on a bookshelf, doubles candy intake; ice cream with a clear top in the freezer is much more likely to be consumed than the same treat in a cardboard box. Similarly, moving your exercise bike from your TV room to your basement can greatly reduce your chance of using it.
Make it unavoidable: To truly ensure good behavior, you need to not only make it appealing but also integrate it into your daily routine. This is where structure, processes, and procedures come into play. Take Delancey Street — an organization employing thousands of ex-cons who used to be thieves, prostitutes, robbers, murderers, gang members, drug addicts, alcoholics, and homeless people — for instance. They hold a feedback meeting called “Game” three times a week, where employees and their peers openly criticize each other and anyone can challenge anyone, regardless of rank. As time passes, people begin to appreciate this egalitarian approach to feedback, and the quality of the Games improves while the volume decreases. The employees become adept at sharing feedback because this longstanding ritual makes the right behavior an inevitable part of their lives.
Grenny, J., Patterson, K., Maxfield, D., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2013, May 17). Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change (2nd ed.). McGraw Hill.
Collet, B. (2022, Dec. 13). To Succeed in Change and Transformation, Uncover Why People Behave the Way They Do. Agile Leader Academy. https://www.agileleader.academy/post/to-succeed-in-change-and-transformation-uncover-why-people-behave-the-way-they-do
Related articles and book:
Collet, B. (2019). Agile leadership. (Online course). https://www.udemy.com/course/agile-leadership/