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Insights from the Behavioral Science Guy: More teaching, less threatening can lead to greater influence

Published: Tuesday, July 8 2014 4:40 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 2 2014 2:51 p.m. MDT

Bad behavior is more often due to a lack of skills than to bad motives. When we learn to recognize our tendency to ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this?” our influence efforts improve markedly.

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If you’re having a tough time influencing a co-worker, neighbor, spouse or child you’re convinced is obstinate, lazy, selfish or impulsive, stay tuned.

One of the most common ways we undermine our own influence is to attribute people’s behavior to bad motives. I just heard an exasperated grandmother bark at her fidgety granddaughter while standing in line at a flower festival: “Are you trying to make me mad?” In the heat of the moment, Grandma was convinced little Sarah had malicious motives.

Social scientists call this knee-jerk diagnosis the fundamental attribution error, or FAE for short. When people cause us pain, suffering or even inconvenience, we quickly attribute their troublesome behavior largely to their nasty or indolent motives.

Parents can vastly improve their level of positive influence on their children's behavior by simply recognizing and correcting this common tendency.

Years ago I took my 10-year-old son on a “trip of a lifetime” to Pebble Beach, California. He had recently taken up golf and was clinically giddy about the chance to play on the legendary course. The evening we arrived, he asked if he could check out the pro shop, where I watched him gaze longingly at racks of Pebble Beach attire embroidered with the iconic cypress tree. Since the conference I was addressing was paying for our lodging and green fees, I felt the least I could do on this signature trip was to buy him a souvenir. I asked if he wanted the windbreaker he was romancing. He looked at me like I had cured him of cancer. After I maxed out my credit card for the outrageously priced garment, he hugged me tightly and assured me it was the happiest moment of his decade-long-life.

The next day we boarded an early-morning flight to return home. He sat down by me proudly wearing this new jacket. Then I watched with growing concern as he pulled out his breakfast — a box of French toast “sticks” he had purchased at a fast food place in the airport. Next came a plastic container of maple syrup sealed with tin foil. He pinched the corner of the foil and struggled to pry open the maple syrup. When the adhesive on the foil abruptly gave way, the entire cover tore loose and three ounces of maple syrup erupted into the air, then splattered down on the costly windbreaker.

I looked on in horror. My blood began to heat up. I watched for some sign of remorse — or even recognition. Nothing.

Instead, he picked up a French toast stick, sopped the remaining maple syrup from the plastic container and plunged it into his mouth while dribbling additional syrup onto the jacket.

In that instant, the entire situation was clear to me. He didn’t care. His only concern was his immediate appetite. He was a self-centered kid who had no appreciation for my sacrifice. The ingrate!

And herein lies the social science lesson. When I reflexively assumed that problem behavior was entirely due to his rotten motives, I commited the FAE.

You can tell you’ve committed the FAE when your impulse is to preach, call names or threaten consequences. And it rarely works. You break free of the FAE by asking, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?”

For example, as I sat next to my son on the plane, I managed to resist my immediate impulse to provide him with a verbal lashing. Instead, I took a mental breath and challenged my immediate conclusion that the root problem was his ungrateful attitude. I wondered whether other things might be at play. He was starving. He was hurrying. Maybe his mistake didn’t reflect bad motives, but a lack of ability. Maybe he wasn’t a self-centered punk, but a normal 10-year-old boy. Could it be true?

I pointed to his jacket and said calmly, “Samuel, did you see that?”

He followed my finger to the spattered fabric. His mouth went slack. He looked up at me with wide eyes and an expression of horror and shrieked, “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!”

He sobbed uncontrollably for a full minute and pleaded for help finding a way to get the stains out. I did my best to help. But more importantly, I learned a lesson. The problem was that he lacked skills, not morals.

When I saw him differently, my response to him changed markedly. And my influence increased. He learned about the cleansing power of club soda. He listened attentively as I demonstrated how a napkin could be fashioned into a bib. My influence increased as I became a teacher first, a motivator second.

Bad behavior is more often due to a lack of skills than to bad motives. When we learn to recognize our tendency to commit the FAE and ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this?” our influence efforts improve markedly.

Joseph Grenny, the Behavioral Science Guy, is a New York Times best-selling author and cofounder of VitalSmarts. For 30 years he has led a research team helping organizations achieve new levels of performance.

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