Lack influence at work? Why most leaders struggle to lead positive change

May 14, 2013—Provo, UT—Most leaders put a great deal of time into crafting strategy, selecting winning products and engaging with analysts and shareholders, but according to a new study, only six percent are successful in influencing the behavior of the people who will have to execute on the big ideas—their employees.

The online survey of 2,308 people from the authors of the New York Times best-seller Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change found that more than half of the time, leaders do little or nothing to reverse dysfunctional behaviors at work. In fact, pervasive behaviors have become so tolerated that 94 percent persist for a year or longer, and a third report the problem has persisted for more than 10 years.

The most common behaviors named were gossiping, shifting blame and turfism—actions that serve personal interests at the expense of business results and end up sapping morale, lowering productivity and decreasing quality.

One survey respondent shared that his company is about to lose a contract due to poor performance. In an attempt to drive performance improvements and prevent losing the contract, a senior manager at the company made plans to implement a new software tool companywide. Despite employees’ warnings that the new tool is insufficient to change employee performance, the new tool is being implemented, emotions are running high and performance improvement is grim.

Joseph Grenny, co-author of Influencer, says often when leaders attempt to influence new behavior, they commonly fall into the trap of thinking deeply ingrained habits can be changed with a single technique.

“When leaders rely on just one simple source of influence to drive change, such as incentives or verbal persuasion, they almost always fail,” says Grenny. “The most influential leaders realize there are six sources of influence that drive employee behavior. When strategies within these sources are marshaled, leaders are 10 times more successful in their efforts to influence rapid, profound and sustainable change.”

Grenny offers tips for how leaders can increase their influence in creating lasting change:

  1. Focus on behavior. Leaders who simply repeat vague values drive little change. Those who identify concrete and clear behaviors they hope people will enact are far more effective influencers. For example, five million people were spared from AIDS in Thailand when one leader moved beyond vague awareness campaigns and focused on 100 percent condom use in the sex trade.
  2. Connect to values. Use potent stories and direct experiences to make change a moral and human issue. New York restaurateur Danny Meyer helps employees connect to the value of “hospitality” rather than just “customer service” by repeatedly sharing powerful stories of meaningful guest experiences their colleagues create.
  3. Invest in skills. Most leaders see influence as a matter of motivation. Influencers invest more in building ability than simply motivating the masses. For example, healthcare CEO Matt Van Vranken influenced massive increases in hand hygiene habits in his nearly 20,000-employee hospital system by helping employees develop skills for speaking up when they saw a colleague violate hygiene standards.
  4. Leverage peer pressure. Social influence is the most potent force for change. Research shows that if people believe bad behavior is normal they are far more likely to follow suit. A Ghanaian gold mine reduced vehicle accidents by engaging respected drivers in training other drivers in proper safety practices. Peers were far more effective at gaining compliance than either staff professionals or senior leaders had ever been.
  5. Change the environment. Use tools, technology, information and surroundings to make people conscious of the need to change and enabled to make better choices. For example, software entrepreneur Rich Sheridan cut employees’ time fixing errors from 40 percent of working time to no time at all by putting code writers in teams of two, sharing one computer. This environmental change significantly increased employee productivity and morale.

About VitalSmarts: An innovator in corporate training and organizational performance, VitalSmarts is home to multiple training offerings, including the award-winning Crucial Conversations®, Crucial Confrontations®, Influencer®, and Change Anything™ Training. Each course improves key organizational outcomes by focusing on high-leverage skills and behavior-change strategies. The Company also has four New York Times best-selling books: Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, Influencer, and Change Anything. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies, trained more than 1 million people worldwide and been named by Inc. magazine as one of the fastest-growing companies in America for eight consecutive years.

Note to editor: Author Joseph Grenny is available for interviews. Copies of Influencer are available upon request.

About the research: The study collected responses via an online survey tool from 2,308 individuals. Margin of error is approximately 2 percent.

CONTACT: Laura Potter of VitalSmarts, L.C. +1-801-510-7590, or

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