Influencer QA

Influencing the Education System

Joseph Grenny is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

Joseph Grenny is the author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.


InfluencerQDear Crucial Skills,

I volunteer for a community council at my children’s school. I’ve been shocked at how uninterested the teachers are at improving test scores and lifting the overall level of education. We invite them to participate in our council but few even show up! What can I do to influence them?

Back to School

A Dear Back to School,

You’ve framed the problem clearly—although I’d like to challenge your characterization of the situation a bit. But first, let me point out what you’ve absolutely nailed: your first task is to build motivation.

People change their behavior when they’re both motivated and able to do so. At some point, your council will focus primarily on increasing the collective ability of your school to drive improvement. But for now, the crucial challenge is to add to their desire. I’m with you on that.

When we study the work of successful influencers, we find that all of them struggle to deal with a lack of personal motivation on behalf of those they’re trying to help change. People lack personal motivation when the new behavior seems boring, uncomfortable, frightening, or even painful. For example, showing up to more meetings, standardizing curriculum, reading reports or any of the other tasks involved in school improvement isn’t fun. Here’s where I’d encourage you to reconsider your view. When others aren’t personally motivated, it can be for one of two reasons:

1. Moral defect. In other words, they aren’t motivated because they just don’t care about those who are affected.

2. Moral slumber. Instead of assuming moral defect, we can assume others are capable of caring, but aren’t morally conscious of the pain and suffering of those who are affected. When the problem is moral slumber, there is a hope of influencing change. You can try to awaken people to the moral consequences of the current state. If the problem is moral defect, all you can do is work around the motivation problem by applying pressure, threats, shame or incentives.

Tim Stay—a dear friend and a brilliant influencer—helped as a parent to lead a very successful school turnaround effort at Lakeridge Junior High in Orem, Utah. Over a period of a few years, “testing-at-grade” scores went from roughly 40 percent to more than 80 percent. It was remarkable to watch. And it all began with a careful but wise approach to increasing motivation.

Here’s what I learned from Tim:

1. Start with a few opinion leaders. Tim knew he couldn’t get support from all of the teachers, so he used personal influence to engage a few very respected teachers in the effort. He realized he couldn’t move faster than the teachers, so he let go of resentment about “lazy staff” and bellied up to the challenge of overcoming years of cynicism. His first job was not to improve the school, but to influence teachers. Accepting the situation helped him exercise more patience.

2. Build motivation by direct and vicarious experience. Tim and the council began exposing the group to reports and case studies of schools that had succeeded at creating dramatic improvement without a large infusion of resources. They even made phone calls and visits to other schools. Over time, those involved developed a sense of moral duty. They saw that more was possible and felt duty-bound to influence change.

3. Influence with data. Before talking about what they wanted, Tim made sure they were all crystal clear on what they had. There were many debates about test scores and the unusual demographics of the school that allowed teachers to remain in denial about problems. Tim didn’t argue with any of this. Instead, he emphasized the virtues of measurement. The teachers and community council created a system for measuring—real time—how many kids were doing better or worse than C work. As the numbers came together, a sense of moral disgust developed in the team. The data were also shared with the larger teacher community and similar feelings of embarrassment evolved. Notice that this was not some group of people pointing a finger of shame—the data was doing the job. And these good teachers who truly wanted to make a difference were motivated to take more aggressive action.

This is how it began. Tim and other enlightened influencers at Lakeridge worked slowly to influence the motivation of those who would have to lead and implement the changes. And their patience paid off. The fact that Tim avoided the convenient labeling of “moral defect” that often mobilizes resistance allowed him to reawaken a sense of moral passion in a population that started their careers to bless lives. Going slow at the outset led to rapid improvement later.

In just five years, Lakeridge moved from the bottom of the school district to at or near the top in most academic categories. More than 80 percent of students showed mastery in math and 90 percent showed mastery in language arts. And for the past two years, Lakeridge Junior High has been named a Best of State winner in the Public/Private School K-12 category. And I can attest firsthand to the incredible positive effect it has had on the students. (Read Tim’s full six-source strategy.)

Best wishes in your wonderful efforts to influence change in our schools.