Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Play It Forward

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You can’t live in a community nowadays without it happening to you once in a while. Of course, how you respond to the assault depends on where you reside. Comedian David Brenner describes the difference in approach. He says that if you live on the east coast, you say something snide and tell the offender to beat it. If you live out west, you turn to the person you’re with and complain under your breath. But you never say anything directly to the offender.

And what is this crime we’ve all suffered? Line cutting. You’re patiently waiting your turn to buy tickets when suddenly, a selfish cur has the nerve to violate all that is good and proper and cuts in front of you—as if you’re not even there. Do these people think they’re better than you? Maybe their time is more important than yours. Is that it? These are the things you think to yourself if you live in Seattle. If you live in New York, you shout these words to inconsiderate line cutters.

I live in the west where, if Brenner’s right, we mostly stay mum—but not because we’re nice or gentle. The people I know clam up because they don’t want to appear rude or break any social norms. In extreme cases, they don’t like the odds they’re facing. Anyone brazen enough to cut in line might also be aggressive enough to punch you in the nose should you point out their peccadillo—although I’m fairly sure those who do speak their minds don’t use the word “peccadillo.”

So here’s the big question: Is there a reasonable way to deal with people who violate social norms such as line cutting? Surely there’s an effective strategy that falls somewhere between the violence of name-calling and the silence of whispering insults. And if there is, could the average person learn the method and then teach it to others?

These were the questions I wanted to answer as I gathered a group of grad students to work on a research project back in the fall of 1980. To kick off our study, we established a base-line measure. We would cut into a variety of lines and observe what people actually did. The very first day we cut into fifty different lines and nobody said a word. People made faces or quietly complained to the person next to them, but nobody actually confronted the line cutter.

Having established that our neighbors were unwilling to speak up to a norm-breaking stranger, we moved ahead with our study. For the next phase we placed a graduate student from our research team in a line. After fifteen minutes, another grad student (also from our team) cut in front of the first student. Our confederate in the queue then abruptly said, “Hey bozo, don’t butt into line! The end’s back there” (pointing menacingly toward the back). After this short, terse comment, the line-cutting grad student apologized and headed to the back of the line.

Now for the interesting part. We’d wait five minutes and then cut in front of the person who had been standing directly behind our outspoken grad student. Would the research subject mimic the direct, although somewhat obnoxious script he or she had just seen? We had demonstrated an interaction that worked. The crass line cutter went to the back of the line. Would such results, despite the abrasive nature of the script, embolden the observer?

In a word, no. Our grad student told the “bozo” to get to the end of the line fifty times and in fifty different locations—but not one person who observed the interaction spoke up. As we had hypothesized, the moderately violent approach we had demonstrated was exactly what people were trying to avoid. They didn’t want to act and look rude, so they remained silent.

Next we repeated the experiment, only this time we armed the grad student standing in line with a more socially acceptable script. Our research confederate stated politely, “I’m sorry. Perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been standing in line for over fifteen minutes.” As before, the line cutter apologized and went to the end of the line. Once again, we waited five minutes and then cut in front of the person who had just observed the interaction.

Did the more pleasant script provide an alternative the research subjects standing in line would actually use? Drum roll please.

It certainly did. Eighty-five percent of the time, the subject who had observed the more pleasant script spoke up—usually using the exact words he or she had heard: “I’m sorry, perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been standing in line for over fifteen minutes.” When provided with a healthy alternative to silence or violence, research subjects embraced the new script and used it the first chance they had.

As this study shows, people can and do learn new scripts by observing others in action. In fact, it’s how we learn just about everything we say and do in social settings. However, unlike our line-cutting study, social scripts are rarely taught purposefully and directly. But what if this were to change? What if this year, each of us, along with our promise to get fit or stop spending so much, vowed to teach our friends, children, and direct reports effective interpersonal scripts?

For instance, a person who reports to you cares deeply about a recent change in policy. She brings up her opinion in your weekly team meeting. As she expresses her view she pushes too hard. She overstates her position, uses inflammatory language, insults those who disagree with her, and otherwise turns the group against her.

As her leader, this provides you with a wonderful chance to offer individual coaching. At the end of the meeting you talk directly with your direct report about her stance and how you supported her view—right up until the point she called everyone who disagreed with her a cretin. You explain how her approach actually turned people against her. And then you role-play the scene again—only using more effective skills. Under your careful coaching, your direct report tentatively states her view by using terms such as “perhaps,” and “I wonder.” Equally important, she asks others for their point of view and then listens.

Let’s extend this recommendation. What if you and a million other people vowed to do the same thing? That is, they agree to “play it forward”? They don’t pay it forward—it’s not an act of service that can be passed on to others, but they play it forward—it’s a social skill that can be done in acts under the guidance of a director. People conduct mini-plays where they model effective social behavior—exemplifying skills that fall between silence and violence. Equally important, when someone they know and love moves to either silence or violence, they sit down with the offending party and play out the script in a new, more effective way.

Just think about the possible impact. For instance, what if parents modeled and practiced interpersonal skills with their offspring a thousand times before their kids hit puberty? Imagine, if in addition to driving their kids to gymnastics and oboe lessons, parents built social instruction into their daily conversation—just as often, just as seriously, and just as skillfully as someone teaching music lessons? What would the world be like if part of growing up was growing socially wise?

Now all of this playing it forward would be unnecessary if we were actually skilled at speaking our mind. And maybe we are. After all, it’s been thirty years since we completed our original line-cutting research, right?

To see where we stand today, Joseph Grenny’s son replicated the study a couple years back and uncovered the same discouraging results. Nobody said anything when the ten-year-old cut in front of people standing in line. Since he was so young and people might have been reluctant to speak up to someone so small and vulnerable, he eventually asked his mom to butt in line for him. After twenty-five cases where nobody uttered a word, finally a woman tapped our research mother on the shoulder and spoke her piece.

“Who does your hair?” she asked with a smile.

It seems conclusive. When confronted by inappropriate behavior we either blow up or clam up.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to choose between two unhealthy options. Not if we play it forward.

Influencer QA

How to Find Vital Behaviors

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am currently attempting to put the principles of Influencer to work, but I am struggling to find those vital behaviors that are more than hunches. I am looking for the vital behaviors that will lead to telemarketing sales and I’m wondering where I can go to find statistically supported, tried-and-tested vital behaviors for this outcome.

Searching for Research

Dear Searching,

Your question is relevant to everyone—not just those involved in telemarketing sales—because few of us can ever find statistically supported, tried-and-tested vital behaviors that deal with our specific issues. Most of the time, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do our own research. I’ll use your question to suggest some steps anyone can take to find and refine vital behaviors.

Here are the steps I follow: 1) begin with Google and Google Scholar to find tips and best practices; 2) create a process-flow chart that maps the temporal flow of the activity; 3) collect data on key points in the process; 4) use positive deviance—with myself and others; 5) set up an ongoing tracking system to analyze and adjust. Here’s what these steps look like:

1. Begin with Google and Google Scholar: I did some Google searches using the terms “telemarketing sales” and “best practices.” With these search terms, I mostly found marketing pitches for seminars. Google scholar was full of books and academic research that was not very interesting.

So I broadened my search and found a lot of useful tips by searching for the terms “telemarketing sales” and “tips.” These tips were a great place to start, but I was skeptical so I asked myself two questions: “How relevant are the tips to my exact situation?” and “How credible are they?” Most of the tips were somewhat relevant, but many had little credibility—other than sounding more or less plausible. Most came from commercial firms that are selling something and didn’t have any research data supporting them.

While internet research is a good place to start, be cautious with the information you find, and most importantly, never let a Google search be the end of your research. To find the most accurate behaviors, continue with the following steps.

2. Create a process-flow chart: Map a sales person’s day from beginning to end. What do these people do? Map the progression of a sales call. What is actually said and done? Try to capture a typical day and a typical call in five to seven steps.

In addition, it is helpful to map an “ideal process” based on what you know about the activity. For example, most sales calls include the following steps: Greeting, verification, questions, responses, information drops, and closes. Each of these steps is designed to move the customer further through the buying process—to bring them closer to a buying decision. Now you can compare what you actually do to the ideal activities you should perform.

3. Collect data: Next, begin collecting data. Of course you are most interested in the end results: number of sales and percentage of successful sales calls. However, also collect data on interim steps. Track “move forwards” on each step in the sales process you’ve mapped. Evaluate which step you excel in based on the data. Also look at the steps where you could use some improvement. Identify the exact steps or behaviors that need your particular attention.

4. Use positive deviance: If you have a sales team, the next thing to do is to look for the positive deviants: the salespeople who are markedly more successful than the rest. If you are on your own, look for the times when you’ve been the positive deviant. These are the specific calls, days, or weeks when you’ve been most successful. If possible, have the less successful salespeople observe and listen in on the most successful salespeople, and vice versa. Have the observers use the process-flow charts and the tips to guide their observations. Specifically, note the behaviors that set the positive deviants apart.

One of my favorite examples of this kind of positive deviance research comes from David Marsh and his team with the Save the Children Federation. They were working in refugee camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to reduce infant mortality. They’d mapped the birthing process from one week before the mother’s due date to one week after. Their team included physicians who had plenty of tips at hand. They identified the positive deviants—a few families who had never lost a child during childbirth—and trained families to observe each others’ practices. What did they find? The vital behaviors involved the father’s role. Successful fathers planned ahead for emergencies—they arranged to have a car and driver available—and they were present during the birth so they would know if an emergency was developing. These vital behaviors were quickly adopted across the camps, and as a result, they experienced a dramatic reduction in infant deaths.

5. Set up an ongoing tracking system: At this point, you’ve identified some behaviors that may or may not be vital. You acquired this list by finding researched best practices, examining a process-flow chart, measuring your results, and studying positive deviants. With this initial list in hand, you are ready to test your hypothesis.

Begin trying the two or three behaviors that seem most vital. Put all your efforts into these few behaviors. Set a goal to drive them through the roof. Meanwhile, continue to track your results—both the end and interim results. Don’t lose faith in the behaviors too quickly. Double or triple their use, and give them some time to work. Then analyze their impact, and make adjustments. Remember that the behaviors that are most vital to your success will change over time. For example, you may find that “making more calls” is the vital behavior that gets you the most traction early on. However, once you maximize your number of calls, a different behavior may be required to drive further improvement.

Good luck, and enjoy the process.

From the Road

From the Road: Just What the Doctor Ordered

Steve Willis is a master trainer and vice president of professional services at VitalSmarts.Steve Willis is a master trainer and vice president of professional services at VitalSmarts.

From the Road

I recently delivered an extended speech to a group of doctors. But this was no ordinary group of doctors—it was a group of emergency room doctors who absolutely, positively would not tolerate any fluff-laden presentation. The organizers told me up front that this group wouldn’t tolerate any pair and share exercises, videos that were not 100 percent healthcare related, and without exception—at the peril of mass walk-outs—this group would not tolerate role plays or ANYTHING that even resembles practice.

Over the years, I’ve learned to distinguish the difference between a presentation that really resonates with a group and one that falls flat. And while it might seem counterintuitive, I’ve noticed that when I cut out the fluff (i.e., the practice-related activities), the group usually indicates that the presentation was lacking.

With this in mind, I worked with the organizers to create some space for practice, which they eventually (and reluctantly) consented to. And even though they had given me “permission” to do some practice exercises, I saw them wince at the mere hint of the word during the session.

The wincing soon ceased as the organizers saw the doctors really engage in the practice. They even willingly worked through practice sessions for longer than two and a half minutes—which was apparently a new record for them. By the end, the session organizers were convinced. In fact, one leader even said, “Wow, I guess we were wrong. We should have trusted you a little more. Who would have known that it even works with doctors?”

So, next time someone tells you practice isn’t necessary, ask them if they’d prefer a presentation that falls short or one that can engage even the most skeptical audience.