Imagine for a moment that you're a billionaire. Kind of fun, wasn't it? Now imagine some other billionaire rings you up and says, "Hey, I've got a great idea. How about giving away most of your money? In return for doing so, I'll add your name to a list of other do-gooders, and everyone will think you're just swell."
Would you do it?
In the last month, the 16th billionaire just made this exact commitment. It's astounding. Months ago, Bill Gates—one of the more clever influencers in the world—decided to start asking other well-heeled folks to join him in a pledge to give away most of their wealth while still living. Realizing the power of social influence, he formalized this request by creating a list to which he'd add the billionaires' names if they stepped up to the challenge. Now I don't want to take anything away from the generous folks who have assented to the invitation, but let's face it. They did so only after Gates called and offered to add them to the public list.
Humans have many illusions about their own behavior. Some of us think we're value-driven. We stand up for what we think despite the storms of criticism we might call down. Others believe it's all about incentives. If you want to change employees' behavior, by golly, change the incentive system and they'll pivot in a heartbeat! And while I'm a firm believer in the power of values and the pull of incentives, I also think we underestimate one of the most potent sources of influence: the force of a polite, public invitation.
The Power of a Request
Harvard economist Felix Oberholzer-Gee was baffled to discover this while trying to cut in line at busy airports. Gee and his colleagues offered harried travelers money to let him move ahead of them. He predicted—as any self-respecting economist would—that if you offered people more cash, they'd be more likely to let you cut. And son of a gun, it worked. Far more people would let him pass when he proffered $10 instead of a lousy buck. But he wasn't sure what to do with the rest of the story. While more people would agree to let him cut in return for the higher offer, those who agreed were also less likely to accept the money.
What's going on here? Why would those influenced by the higher offer not snatch it up? Because the transaction was not economic; it was social. People interpreted the higher offer as a measure of the importance of getting ahead in line. As those in line understood a fellow traveler's need, they felt obligated to help. It wasn't the money but rather the request—bolstered by evidence of the magnitude of the need—that ultimately influenced people's actions.
And yet, when you and I ponder what we can do to influence those around us, we grossly underestimate the power of simple public requests. A polite and public invitation transforms already-formidable social influence into a tsunami-like propulsion to commit.
Now we could chalk up Gates' success as a measure of his enormous personal influence. And I'm confident the invitees found Gates' invitation attractive because they'd like to be well-respected by such a person. However, two other relevant variables exist, and mere mortals like you and me can control them: where you ask and how you ask.
Moment of Openness
I once watched an org chart get turned on its head by such a potent invitation. Beau was an imposing figure, the chief executive officer of an international manufacturing conglomerate. He exaggerated the natural power of his title by wearing a scowl on his face and speaking in a deep authoritative voice—even when ordering a cheeseburger. As his first act after taking his position, he implemented a major reorganization that tore the company into fragments and then stitched it back together into a three-dimensional matrix. Three years later, engineers were still struggling to figure out how to make decisions and get things done. Beau dismissed the incessant criticism as whining by those who had lost power in the transaction.
On the day of the "invitation," I was sitting in on a management briefing. Beau had just delivered his view of the company in his typical terse, no-nonsense cadence. Then, as was customary, he paused and generously offered, "If anyone's got a question, now is your chance."
Usually this opportunity went unused. But that day, Terry raised his hand.
"What's on your mind, Terry?" Beau asked.
"I know you've heard a lot of complaining about the matrix …" Terry began.
I watched Beau grip the sides of the podium and clench his jaw. He was a millisecond from cutting Terry off at the knees.
Luckily, Terry continued, "And truthfully, I think there are up and downsides to any structure. But there are some tweaks I think would help us be more efficient. You may have already considered these, but the manufacturing engineering group thinks they could work. Would you be willing to entertain a proposal?"
It was said with disarming sincerity (which we'll get to next) and in a forum where Beau had just represented himself as open to input. This was a powerful public invitation. And not only did Beau consent to hear the proposals, he also implemented almost all of them. A sincere, public invitation added overwhelming social influence to Terry's miniscule position power, essentially inverting the organizational pyramid.
How You Do It Is Key
How you make the public invitation also determines whether the watching masses amplify or smother your influence. Terry asked honestly and gracefully, which is the key. But no one has done it better than Yvonne, an incredibly influential woman I met 20 years ago.
I met Yvonne when I worked with two teams attempting to integrate their work after a major downsizing. One was a New York City team composed of a diverse group of men and women of varying ethnicities. The other hailed from a rural site that was being closed and included almost no ethnic or gender diversity. In the midst of the planning meeting led by Yvonne—an African American woman from New York—one of the rural team members made a racist comment. It wasn't an "edgy" comment; it was over the edge. The room froze when he said it. Most were livid and, if allowed, would have flayed him on the spot. However, a few were less upset than uncertain. I saw smirks on more than one face and a number of eyes darting left and right to see if this comment was part of the approved vocabulary in the new regime.
That's when Yvonne made her public invitation. She responded without malice or even a hint of high-minded retribution or self-righteous indignation.
"I'm sorry," she began, "but I need to change topics here for a moment. You just referred to me as a [insert horrid epithet here]. I want you to know I find that disrespectful. I will never use that kind of language to talk about you, either in your presence or in your absence. I promise you that."
Then came the very public, very respectful, and completely sincere invitation.
"And I ask the same of you. May I have your word that you will not refer to me in that way ever again?"
It was a moment of power I have rarely seen equaled. Where most of us might have shrunk in embarrassment or risen to battle, she responded graciously and candidly.
The "invited" manager flushed red. He stammered an apology. Yvonne rejected the apology, saying, "I understand you might be used to a different way of playing. I'm just asking if you'll promise to play in the future in a way that works for me, too."
To which he said, "You have my word."
Not only did he keep it, but also the others on his team modified their vocabulary significantly.
Asking works because we are social animals. We want to fit in, be included, be well-thought-of, and stay connected. When someone makes a request, even if we ultimately refuse it, we automatically feel obligated to consider it. Even when turning down a panhandler, we spend the next few minutes reassuring ourselves we're decent human beings in spite of the fact that we just said no to a petition. Our social programming makes "Yes" the default response.
And yet in our clamor for clever techniques to influence employees, colleagues, bosses, loved ones, and friends, we tend to grossly underestimate the simple power of a direct and sincere invitation.
If it works on billionaires, perhaps it'll do the trick with someone you'd like to influence.