All posts by David Maxfield

Influencer QA

Advice for the Parents of the Marshmallow Eaters

Dear David,

I think many are familiar with the Marshmallow experiment to demonstrate the benefits of delayed rewards. Is there any corollary data that demonstrates that those challenged with delaying rewards (i.e. those who ate the marshmallow) also struggled with avoiding penalties? In other words, do those so inclined ALSO engage in little behaviors to avoid consequences? I think of my daughter who is a marshmallow eater (unlike her brother who would wait). She also would lie a little to cover up a small infraction. But the lie eventually grows to become something with much bigger consequences. The son who understands the value of waiting for rewards is also much more likely to confess a little mistake and “take his stripes” but avoids the major repercussions of a compounding issue. Does data back this up and how can we help those who would eat the marshmallow understand the value of waiting and the penalties of compounding mistakes?

Thanks,
Marshmallow Parent

Dear Marshmallow Parent,

Wow, you’ve put some great thought into this question. Yes, I think the marshmallow study may tie in to what you are observing. But that’s not where I want to start. I’d like to start with how you handle the little lies your daughter is telling.

When Children Lie: Lying is tough because it undermines trust and shows disrespect. It’s hard not to take it personally and get angry. Part of what I like about your question is that you approach the lie with concern and curiosity, rather than moral outrage. I think that’s the best approach you can take as a parent.

For children, lying is often a faulty form of problem-solving. Your daughter has gotten herself into a fix and a lie seems like the solution—albeit a very poor-quality solution. So, treat the lie as a lack of skill and help her work on her ability to problem solve.

Of course, you also have to hold her accountable. Think of a reasonable consequence related to the lie and the problem she was trying to cover up.

For example: Suppose your daughter said she was doing her term paper at a girlfriend’s house when actually she was visiting a young man.

Begin with: “I called Sarah’s house and learned you were at Tanner’s. When you lie to me about where you are and what you’re doing, it makes it harder to trust you. So, you’re grounded for the rest of this week and you can’t see Tanner this weekend.”

Then, explore why she felt she had to lie: “Help me understand why you felt you had to lie about this?” You aren’t looking for an excuse for the lie. Instead, you are trying to understand the reason for the lie.

Finally suggest a better solution: “I would prefer you say, ‘Mom, I know you want me to work on my term paper this evening, but I really want to see Tanner.’ I would listen, and we could talk about it. Of course, there is a good chance I’d say ‘No,’ and you’d be disappointed. But that’s not as bad as lying, and hurting the trust we have.”

Teach Self-Control: In Walter Mischel’s classic studies, he followed four-year-olds who were able to resist eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes in order to get a second marshmallow. Years later, these strong-willed children scored hundreds of points higher on their college entrance exams, had stronger marriages, earned more in salary, and got promoted more often. He showed that the ability to delay immediate gratification in service of longer-term goals is an important skill.

What people often forget is that Walter, together with Albert Bandura, also showed that self-control is a skill that children must learn, not a capacity they inherit. I remember watching my next-door neighbor teach this skill to his four-year-old. We were at a pool that had a waterslide. The rule for the slide was to wait at the base of the ladder until the child in front of you had landed in the water and reached the side of the pool. Little Ryan had trouble remembering this rule. His father and I were in the water having a conversation, but every few seconds, he’d have to remind Ryan, “Wait, wait, watch the girl in front of you. Okay, now you can go!” Ryan must have gone down the slide fifty times, and, by the end, knew how to hold himself back without reminders.

Of course, Joe, my neighbor doesn’t just teach self-control at the pool. It is a part of his positive parenting every day. He seeks out these teaching moments when he can help his children develop character skills.

Teach Influence: As I suggested earlier, lying is often a child’s last-ditch effort to get their way, when they feel they have no ability to influence their parent. Helping a child mature is all about gradually, sensibly, and safely giving over control. Children who believe they can get their parents to change their minds are more likely to try dialogue and less likely to lie.

But this loosening of reins is easier to advocate than it is to practice. One of my sisters-in-law uses a parenting skill I admire. Suppose her fourth-grade daughter comes in and asks, “Can I go to Mary’s birthday party on Saturday?” Her mom won’t give her an answer right away. Instead, she’ll say, “Convince me,” and then help her daughter make the case. She’s teaching her children how to influence her and allowing them to succeed when it makes sense. As her children have grown into their teenage years and beyond, they’ve maintained this kind of open and honest dialogue with their mother—in part, I think, because they are confident they can influence her.

Do as I Say, not as I Do: Whenever I answer a question about parenting, I feel I need to add that I’m not a parent. My wife and I have 24 nieces and nephews, so we’ve gotten to witness some wonderful parenting, but I don’t practice what I preach. For example, over the years, we’ve had nephews and nieces join us for dozens of “Camp Davids”—hiking Bryce Canyon or the Olympic National Park, unicycling in Moab, and surf lessons in Southern Cal. But these fun adventures don’t really involve much parenting. In fact, Camp David only has one rule: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” So, my advice comes from skilled friends and relatives, not from hard-won experience.

Thanks again for your probing question. I look forward to hearing other perspectives on how to handle your situation.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Save a Sinking Ship

Dear David,

I am one of several department chairs at a proprietary college. Since I have been here, we have had four people rotate in and out of the dean’s position; the most recent having been marched from the building yesterday. We have had every leadership style from overbearing micromanagement to completely oblivious apathy. When considering applicants for this position, the department chairs are not given the opportunity for input, in spite of the havoc the poor leadership and constant change wreaks in our working environment. Some of the department chairs feel that we should approach the college president in a united group about having a more active role in the hiring process of the next applicant, but others are afraid to speak up, or don’t feel that we would be heard even if we did. In addition, the company is in overall disarray due to poor corporate leadership, compliance issues, and significant budget problems—which translated into a campus wide turnover rate of 45% in the last year alone. In addition to myself, I suspect most of my peers are actively looking for other jobs, but until we are able to make good on our escapes, do we continue to suffer or should we try and find a way to approach our college president who is at this point feeling insecure and frustrated himself?

Signed,
Desperate

Dear Desperate,

Yowza! It sounds as if you’re earning your doctorate in disaster at Catastrophe College. I can only imagine the stress and pain this cycle has created in your life. You have my full sympathy.

Over the years, I’ve worked with several colleges and educators facing similar challenges. I think many of our crucial conversations skills can help to frame your choices.

Start with heart.
Healthy dialogue starts with your own motives. We all have multiple motives. Three you mention are: have an active role in the hiring process, reduce the havoc and poor leadership, and make good on your escape. Start With Heart means stepping back and taking a long-term and inclusive look at your priorities. Ask, “What do I really want for myself, for the college president, and for our school?” Your answer to these questions will become the North Star you navigate towards.

Weigh the risks and rewards. Speaking up will be risky. That’s clear. But not speaking up is risky too. In fact, you’ve tried not speaking up, and it has resulted in “every leadership style from overbearing micromanagement to completely oblivious apathy.” Hmmm.

A common mistake is to focus exclusively on the short-term personal risks of speaking up, while ignoring the long-term, community-wide risks of not speaking up. Paradoxically, the times when we are least likely to speak up are also the times when speaking up will make the biggest difference. I can’t tell you whether you should risk speaking up. You will need to balance the risks for yourself.

Practice empathy. If you decide to speak up, begin by looking at the world from your college president’s perspective. Practice your empathy skills. He’s probably feeling embattled. My guess is he has many bosses who are second-guessing his decisions. His job and the college’s survival are on the line. If the college fails, he may have to find a whole new career. If I were him, the last thing I’d want would be one more group that thinks it can make demands of me.

Ask permission. Don’t approach your college president with demands. You aren’t his manager, you don’t know what his board is asking of him, and you don’t have access to the information he has. Instead, begin with a statement that demonstrates Respect and Mutual Purpose. When I’m in this situation, I often begin with Mutual Purpose, and then show Respect by asking for permission to share my ideas. For example, “I want you to know you have my full support. I know you’re working extremely hard to get our college back on track, and I’d like to help. Would it be okay if I asked a few questions and shared some ideas?”

Begin with his priorities. It’s tempting to begin by sharing all the problems the turmoil has caused for you and other faculty members. But you, the faculty, and even the students are just one of the many priorities on his long list. For example, what if his board has asked him to cut costs by laying off the salaried faculty, and replacing them with contractors and adjunct faculty? If that’s the case, then sharing the faculty’s problems won’t be relevant.

Of course, the college president may not be able to share his priorities with you, because of confidentiality concerns. But it will be hard for you to be helpful, unless he can be frank about the challenges he faces.

Make a specific request. If I understand you correctly, your specific request is to have a subset of the faculty be involved in selecting the next dean. Explain the positive consequences that will stem from this involvement. Suggest how this process will help the college and help the college president. Don’t focus on how this will help you and the faculty. Take a broader, college-wide perspective.

Have a backup plan. It sounds as if you are already looking for another job. That’s good. I wouldn’t put all my eggs in this current basket. Be prepared for the college president to say he doesn’t want or need your help, and has no plans to involve you or other faculty. If that is his response, retreat gracefully, and put your backup plan into effect. Don’t burn your bridges, but plan to move on.

Again, my heart goes out to you. The proprietary college industry is in turmoil. I’m so sorry you’ve been caught up in this maelstrom.

Best of luck,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

Responding to Racism While On the Job

Dear David,

I work in a community hospital with culturally diverse patients and staff. Recently, a nurse told me about an upsetting experience. The nurse is African-American and was caring for a patient in a double room. He overheard a conversation between his patient’s roommate and a visitor. In a loud, strident voice, the visitor expressed his views about a situation concerning race that has been widely reported in the media. The visitor criticized the African-Americans involved and made several borderline and blatant racist comments. The nurse heard the comments and left the room without comment, but was angry. He later asked me, “What could I have said?” Several people thought that as a “professional” he acted correctly by not saying anything. I am troubled by the notion that silence is the professional approach to racism. What do you advise?

Sincerely,
Troubled
Dear Troubled,

Usually, I would say that silence is not the professional approach to racism. There is a reason we teach people to have crucial conversations—you can help put an end to evils like racism by sharing your opinion candidly and respectfully. And yet, given the setting and his role, I think your colleague handled himself in the most professional way possible.

I’ll begin with the problems that come from not speaking up. First, when you don’t speak up, you allow the bad behavior to continue. Others see your silence as acquiescence, permission, or even encouragement. We saw this when we studied parents who failed to talk to their children about alcohol and drugs. Their children assumed they had permission to drink and use.

Second, in Crucial Conversations we say, “If you don’t talk it out, you will act it out.” What we mean is that your concerns will be expressed in your behavior—often as bad behavior toward the offending person.

A few years ago, I collaborated on a research study with Dr. Joan Reede, the Dean for Diversity & Community Outreach at Harvard Medical School. We were interested in what happens when people experience an ethnic or sexist slight, but say nothing.

We identified seven categories of common slights, small offenses that most women and minority members experience at least monthly. We called these slights undiscussables because few of the women or minority members spoke up when they experienced them.

We discovered that these undiscussables destroy relationships. Even though the slight was never discussed, 96 percent of our subjects left the interaction believing the other person was a bigot. We called this study Silent Judgment to highlight this dynamic.

So, why do I think your colleague was right to keep his mouth shut despite the obvious injustice he was subjected to? Because he isn’t just a passer-by on the street. In this specific circumstance, as a nurse, he is operating in the patient-caregiver dynamic and that relationship is both unique and sacred.

First, the relationship is lopsidedly unequal. Patients feel powerless, both because they are ill and because they’ve ceded personal control to the hospital and its caregivers. As a caregiver, you awaken them in the middle of the night, you invade their personal space, and you cause them pain. Your patients are at your mercy and only hope to receive it. How bad is it? It’s so bad that most patients and family members won’t even remind a nurse to wash up, for fear of making a bad impression and exposing themselves to retaliation.

Second, because of their illnesses, patients aren’t at their best. I know that when I’m sick, I become grouchy, self-centered, and short-tempered. I hope others will give me a break!

Third, patients are involuntary visitors. They would rather be home, on a cruise ship, at a beach resort, in a ski lodge, or even back at work. They are only in the hospital because their health requires it. They may even feel like prisoners.

Fourth, patients don’t have the privacy they are used to. Instead, they share their rooms and caregivers walk in whenever they want. As a result, comments they intend and expect to be private, aren’t. And it’s not as if they can move to a private location for more sensitive conversations. They’re stuck in their beds.

For these many reasons, I think your colleague was right to stay silent when he overheard the hateful comments. By speaking up, he would likely violate the patient-caregiver boundaries—for both his patient and his patient’s roommate. And though silence may be perceived as tolerance for racism, he should place his patient above his own frustrations while on the job. Should he overhear those comments in a restaurant later that day, I would encourage him and everyone to speak up and put an end to bigotry—but unfortunately, that is not the case in the situation you describe.

And not speaking up also means he will have to deal with his frustration and anger. Remember, “If you don’t talk it out, you’ll act it out.” Acting it out would be unprofessional. It would be what patients fear most.

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we’ve decided against speaking up and had to master our frustrations. The key in these situations is to step back, take a longer more inclusive view, and get your heart right.

We recommend asking yourself, “What do I really want long term for myself, for others, and for the relationship?” When your friend asks himself this question, it will help him put this incident into a broader perspective. And it will help him act on his values, rather than responding to others’ slights while serving his patients.

I hope this helps,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

Foul Language at Work—To Confront or Not to Confront?

Dear David,

I’m in my sixties, and it bothers me when I hear people in the office using what I consider to be foul language, most often the “F-word”. This happens when they are on the phone having personal conversations and sometimes in internal office meetings. This language seems ingrained in the younger employees, and I doubt they have any idea it can be offensive. I have mentioned this to Human Resources, but they have more pressing concerns. Have we moved to the point where the “F-bomb” is just an accepted part of speech, even in the business environment?

Signed,
Seeking Decorum

Dear Seeking,

What a wonderful question! You prompted me to dig into the science of swearing. Thanks, I think . . . Here is a bit of what I’ve learned:

First, norms differ depending on context and industry. Words that fit in the pool hall are unacceptable in church. Language that is okay on the construction site isn’t okay in the front office or with customers. Your colleagues who use profanity on the phone with their friends may not be mindful that they are still at work. Informal contexts including, perhaps, your internal office meetings also allow for more language leeway. And certainly our work environments have become more informal—in office design, decoration, clothing, hours, and language.

Second, speech evolves. Even the most offensive words tend to lose their power over time. Words that begin as verbal assaults that hurt, shock, and break taboos become less shocking with repetition. Profanity becomes street talk and enters the mainstream. Finally, profane words become commonplace—they lose their profanity. This evolution is seen in words such as bloody, blazes, and bull, which were considered vile in the 1800’s but are toothless today.

So where is the F-word on this progression? The Parents Television Council measured the frequency of different profane words used on TV shows. Their data showed a 2,409 percent increase in the F-word (bleeped, of course) over the five-year period from 2005 to 2010. If they measured F-word frequency again this year, I bet they’d find it has increased another 2,000 percent or more. It’s a word we now hear routinely.

Third, swear words can and have been categorized. The main categories are related to: religion, parentage, body parts and bodily functions, sex, and defamation of groups. Over the last fifty years or so, the curses and obscenities related to the first four of these categories, including the F-word, have lost much of their power to shock and offend. But the final category, which includes racist, homophobic, and other group-based slanders have become increasingly taboo. I guess I’ll call this progress. At least we are reserving our greatest social sanctions for words that actually hurt and defame other people.

Fourth, using swear words and obscenities is a perk of power.
In our society, swearing is more acceptable for bosses than subordinates; for men than women; and for adults than children. Think of it this way: swearing is likely to offend people. Can you afford to offend the people who will hear you? High status people are more likely to answer, yes.

Okay, enough with the science. While it certainly helps to understand the state of swearing in our culture, it doesn’t mean you are simply a victim without any power to influence your own workplace. What can you do when you find people’s language offensive? Really, you have two choices. You can either tolerate it, or you can speak up.

Tolerating: If you decide to tolerate the language, you will have to put your resentment behind you. The risk is that you will feel like a victim, and your annoyance will show on your face and in your blood pressure. Instead, decide that the offensive word means nothing to you—that it’s no longer offensive. The word has already lost its meaning to your colleagues who are using it. They don’t intend to offend you when they use it, so don’t take offense.

Speaking Up: Even though the F-word is everywhere and has lost much of its power to shock, you are still well within your rights to ask your colleagues to avoid it. But you need to make your request in a way that doesn’t offend them. Remember, the word means nothing to them, so your request may sound prudish or condescending. Begin with a contrast statement that clarifies you are NOT accusing them of being insensitive, rude, or obnoxious. Then make your request. It might sound something like this:

“In meetings and when you’re on the phone, you often use the F-word, and I can’t help but hear it. I know you don’t mean anything by it, but I don’t think it fits in our work environment. Would you mind making the effort to avoid it at work?”

Please let me know what you decide to try and how it works for you.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Increase Your Conversational Skills

Dear David,

How do you make and keep friends when you are inept in conversation? I can be in a crowded room, sit in one corner and just people watch because I have nothing to say. Also, if I have an opportunity to go out to places where there will be more than two people, I find every excuse not to go. Sometimes I manage to push myself out the door, but rarely. Any ideas?

Sincerely,
A Couch Potato (in front of a computer)

Dear Couch Potato,

I can certainly say, “been there, done that!” I was painfully shy and socially inept well in to my thirties. Some would say I remain pretty socially inept. I guess my own situation explains in part why I chose to dive deeply into the study of psychology.

While in graduate school at Stanford, I volunteered at a Shyness Clinic that Phil Zimbardo was running as a part of his research. He eventually wrote an excellent book, Shyness: What It Is, What To Do About It. I recommend checking it out.

Before I began working with Phil, I had assumed most shyness was due to poor social skills. But it turned out I was wrong. The shy people we studied were actually quite skilled. The problem was they were also harsh self-critics and were extra-sensitive to social rejection. It turns out most of us fumble and stumble our way through social situations; and shy people notice their slip-ups more than the rest of us.

What helped these people the most was to practice conversations, warts and all, until they realized their fumbles weren’t any worse than anyone else’s. Of course, this practice also helped them improve their conversation skills. With that in mind, I’ll suggest a couple of ideas for practice.

Conversational Tennis. This game comes from my dear friend, Al Switzler. I’ve used it myself, and with many of my nieces and nephews. You play it with one or two other people, perhaps on a car trip or during a meal. Here is the setup: The goal is to keep the conversation going. One person begins by serving a topic across the net. The other person’s goal is to respond to the topic in a way that sends it back across the net, and keeps the conversation going. See how long you can keep the topic in the air. After a while, it will be the other person’s turn to serve up his or her own topic.

This game works well to practice keeping conversations alive. I find it’s really fun with teens who are used to responding in monosyllabic grunts and nods. They quickly see what it takes to participate in a conversation.

Topics to Discuss. You can find several websites that suggest conversation starters. And there is some excellent research on how the topics of conversations flow among strangers and friends. The basic finding is that we begin by talking about very broad and noncontroversial topics, such as the weather, traffic, or jobs. These are easy topics for others to hit back across the net. We use them to keep the conversation going while we listen for common interests and other, more personal, connections.

As we begin to feel safer with the person, we reveal more about ourselves. We test how safe and rewarding it is to disclose our interests, our hopes, and our fears. This phase of the conversation is a bit like a dance. Disclose too much too soon, or ask questions that are too personal too soon, and your partner will feel uncomfortable. Keep the conversation on surface topics for too long, and the person will think you don’t want a personal relationship.

The researcher, Arthur Aron, has studied this process in the lab, by giving strangers a series of questions to discuss with each other. The questions begin at a surface level but become increasingly personal over the forty-five minutes of the experiment. Because of the situation, people feel fairly safe with each other. As the questions become more personal, they often find themselves disclosing information they’ve never shared with anyone before. When they see the way their partner reacts to their revelations, they develop trust, liking, and even affection for them. In fact, these questions have developed the reputation as “The 36 Questions to Fall in Love.”

Rules of Improv. Where should you start? I suggest you begin with low-stakes conversations—perhaps with phone calls with family members. I don’t know about you, but I try to call my mom every day. Use conversations like these to test out topics that work for you. In addition, follow the First Rule of Improv: “Always AGREE, and SAY YES!” This rule doesn’t mean you should “agree” or “say yes” to everything your conversational partner says. Instead, it means you should respect what they’ve said, and hit the topic back to them in a way that is safe and easy for them to respond to. The rule is another take on conversational tennis.

I hope these ideas will be helpful. Now turn off your computer and call your mom.

Best Wishes,
David

Influencer QA

How to Influence High Employee Turnover

Dear David,

I work as a director for a center that serves children with special needs. We are part of the Department of Pediatrics of a public university/hospital system. I have been the director for two years now and have an issue I am not sure how to solve. We work for a public institution, so the salaries for the caregivers who work in the classrooms are barely above minimum wage and not competitive locally. Because of this, our center is a revolving door for caregivers who are a critical part of our team. I am unable to raise the salary, so how do I keep employees, find new employees on a regular basis, and keep up the morale of the center and myself? I feel so discouraged most of the time because it’s an issue I can’t control, nor will it change in all likelihood. I am seriously considering leaving.

Best Regards,
Turnover Troubles

Dear Turnover Troubles,

Many leaders find themselves in your position. They struggle with turnover within their essential, but low-paying positions. I’ve worked with many of these leaders, so—while my advice won’t be especially welcome, it is truly battle-tested.

I think you need to re-set your expectations of what’s possible. You may not be able to ever “solve” your retention problem. The turnover numbers within your group may always be higher than ideal. However, there is a worse problem than actual turnover: It’s what we call “spiritual turnover.” Spiritual turnover happens when people stop being engaged, involved, motivated, or psychologically present at work. Their bodies may keep walking the halls, but their souls have left the building.

These organizational zombies are far more costly than actual physical turnover. They prevent your team from achieving its mission, and create safety and customer-experience problems as well. I think your goal should be to keep your employees as engaged and positive as possible—even when you know that many of them will only be with you until they find a better-paying job.

Gather Information: Begin by gathering information from two groups: a.) Long-term employees who you value and respect, and b.) Past employees who have been gone for at least three months.

Ask the long-term employees about their motivations for staying. Find out what is working for them. Is it pride in their work? Friendships with other team members? The impact they have on the people they serve? Work to build on these strengths.

Ask the past employees about why they left, what they liked/disliked about the job, and what they are doing now. One of your goals will be to reduce unappealing elements of the job. But, just as important, look for patterns in their career steps. For example, are your employees “graduating” to a better-paying job within healthcare? Within your same hospital? Are they going back to school? Are they really getting better-paying jobs, or are they stuck?

Connect to Values: Employee engagement requires a strong connection to at least one of the following four values:

  • Development: Some find meaning in the growth the job offers—in the way it prepares them for the next step in their career.
  • Job: Some find meaning in the tasks or the craft of the job. They identify with the profession.
  • Customers: Some find meaning in helping the people they serve—in your case the children and their families.
  • Team: Some find meaning in being a valued member of a winning team—in close friendships and being counted on by others.

I’ll suggest a few actions you can take in each of these areas.

Development: I hope your past employees have moved on to better jobs—and that they see their time with you as having helped their careers. One approach you might take is to turn your team into a world-class farm team for your hospital (or for professional schools). Make sure your employees get the training, experience, and coaching that will help them be most valuable to other departments. Create opportunities for employees to showcase their skills and to learn more about opportunities they can strive for. Your employees will value their time with you, because they see what you are doing for their careers. Employees will want to join your team, because they know it’s a great way to enter into a career in healthcare.

Job: My experience is that teachers take a lot of pride in their profession—and are also quick to point out obstacles that prevent them from practicing their profession. Often the best way to tap in to this source of motivation is by removing distractions and disruptions so that your employees can focus on what they do best. In addition, set high professional standards, and involve the whole team in holding each other accountable for achieving them. It’s hard to take pride in your work, if the standard isn’t high.

Customers: My guess is that most, if not all, of your employees take pride in the impact they have on the children and families they serve. Build on this pride by making these connections more visible, more personal, and more frequent. Find ways to track the impact your employees are having, and share and celebrate this impact. Create face time between your employees and children’s families.

Team: Make sure your employees feel like a valuable part of your team. Find ways to have them work with partners or in small groups. Create opportunities for them to get to know each other—and discover similar interests beyond work. Make sure each person knows that others on the team are counting on them, and value their contributions.

I hope these suggestions will help. Again, I think employee engagement is a better measure than turnover for leaders in your position.

Best of Luck,
David

Influencer QA

Vital Behaviors for Entrepreneurs

Dear Crucial Skills,

In reading Influencer, it’s clear the process starts with identifying the vital behaviors that drive the change you’re looking for. Having access to data that has pre-identified the correct vital behaviors for a given problem is of great use.

My challenge is to grow my sales very quickly. I am a one-man manufacturer’s rep organization that depends on full commission sales. I have a wealth of experience and have been successful working for others but this is my first entrepreneurial venture. The way I see it, there are vital behaviors I can influence on myself and the bigger challenge is changing vital behaviors of customers.

Any insight would be most appreciated.

Sincerely,
Entrepreneur

Dear Entrepreneur,

This is a great question. The Influencer approach asks you to invest everything in just a few behaviors and then employs influence strategies from the six sources of influence to improve these behaviors. Before I answer your question, I’ll review a few broad points.

What Makes a Behavior Vital?

There are many factors that can turn a behavior from “important” to “vital.” I’ll highlight three conditions:

Vital behaviors lead directly to results. An executive in Florida told me he knew the vital behavior for winning Dragon Boat races (a large outrigger canoe driven by 20 paddlers). When I asked about the behavior, he answered: “Paddling.” He explained that when racers debated about technique or strategy someone would inevitably shout, “Shut up and paddle!” and that’s when they’d win. Many vital behaviors are similarly obvious. They are the most direct route to the results you care about.

Vital behaviors break self-defeating patterns. Let’s look at the life cycle of the Guinea Worm. African villagers drink water infected with Guinea Worm larvae; the Guinea Worm hatch and grow inside them; after several months the worm emerges, causing excruciating pain; to lessen the pain, villagers soak their burning limbs in the water source and re-infect the water. A team from the Carter Center found the three vital behaviors that broke this self-defeating cycle: 1. Filter the water before drinking; 2. Don’t put infected limbs in the water source; and 3. Hold everyone accountable for these first two behaviors.

Vital behaviors cause many other positive behaviors to follow. Vital behaviors are often the most difficult to adopt. However, if you can get people to perform them, many other positive and easier behaviors follow. For example, when Mike Miller tried to build a culture of accountability at Sprint, he focused on just two vital behaviors: 1. Hold bosses accountable and 2. Hold peers accountable. He didn’t need to add “Hold subordinates accountable” because this behavior followed as a result of the vital behaviors.

How Do You Find the Vital Behaviors?

There are many strategies for finding and testing vital behaviors. Look for experts who have already identified and tested the behaviors. Look for positive deviants—people who are already succeeding at the behavior. Or, track your own successes and failures to determine what works for you.

Whatever the vital behaviors you choose, set a challenging goal and measure your improvement. In addition, track the results you care about. Analyze and adjust to fine tune the vital behaviors.

Answering the Question

I’ve used the “find the experts” method to identify vital behaviors related to your success as a manufacturers’ rep. Specifically, I searched the Internet for about an hour. I broke your task into two elements: 1) you are a first-time entrepreneur. There are behaviors that separate successful from less successful entrepreneurs. 2) You are a manufacturers’ rep—a unique job with unique behaviors.

Entrepreneurial Behaviors: I visited a credible site, Harvard Business Review, and entered the search terms: entrepreneur “manufacturers rep”.

One article popped up and it had a few nice rules of thumb:

  • Use your own experience. 71% of entrepreneurs start ventures that solve problems the founders have grappled with personally.
  • Take action quickly: Entrepreneurs don’t get bogged down in research or planning. They move quickly to action. They try simple and inexpensive solutions and adjust on the fly.
  • It’s about hustle, not proprietary advantage. This isn’t always true, but it’s true for you. As a manufacturers’ rep you won’t have proprietary advantage, so your success depends largely on your hustle.

Though helpful, these points aren’t vital behaviors nor are they very specific to your job.

Next, I went to Google Scholar and entered the search terms: “manufacturer’s rep” skills.

Most of the hits were academic articles that describe the economic reasons a manufacturing firm might choose to distribute its products through manufacturer’s reps. But I focused on a single article that seemed to point toward behaviors, The Independent Rep As A Source Of Competitive Advantage: An Actionable Scale For Rep Selection (Gruben and Coe, 2003). A few key points:

  • Manufacturer’s reps are most commonly used to sell niche products that are simple and inexpensive within a fragmented marketplace. Often they sell commodities that are used in specialized applications.
  • Suppliers contract with reps because of the reps’ extensive contacts and tight relationships with multiple customers. Commonly the customer has greater loyalty to the rep than to the supplier.
  • A customer’s loyalty to their rep is not based on the products but the customer service. The article dissects the customer-service behaviors required of a manufacturers’ rep.

We are now getting close to vital behaviors. You need to: 1) Create a wide network of buyers; 2) Fill small-batch orders accurately and on a just-in-time basis, and 3) Provide excellent customer service.

Now if these are the three best practices, how have you grappled with them as a customer or employee? What are the problems you believe you can focus on solving? If it were me, here are the vital behaviors I would start with:

  1. Build my network: Each week contact at least five viable potential customers for products I already represent.
  2. Fill orders: Contact each of my customers at least once a week in a nonintrusive way to make sure I understand their current needs.
  3. Customer service: Have face time with at least one important customer per week. Meet personally with each customer at least quarterly.

Summary

I researched the field; I read a few articles to find best practices; I examined myself to consider the obstacles and approaches I would take to act on the best practices; and finally, I would hustle to drive these behaviors through the roof, meanwhile tracking my sales to see if it’s working. I’d continue to analyze and adjust my vital behaviors, especially during the first few months, until I found what worked for me.

Best of luck,
David