Review: Influencing behaviors to drive change

Influencer: The Power to Change Anything

By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler,

McGraw-Hill, ($29.99)

Before rolling out the next great change project at work, remember the Guinea worm. It’s hard to forget. The worm is among the largest of human parasites. Once the larvae burrow into your abdominal tissue it can grow up to one metre long. And then it burns and blisters its way out of your arm or leg. Ripping the worm out all but guarantees a life-threatening infection. So you have to gently tug at the worm and slowly wrap it around a stick. This can go on for weeks or months and you’ll be in excruciating pain the entire time. You won’t be suffering alone. The worm’s been infecting millions of people for thousands of years.

But the worm’s days are numbered. Dr. Donald Hopkins and the staff at the Carter Centre in Atlanta have declared war on the worm and they’re doing something that has never been done before. They’re wiping out a global disease without finding a cure. Instead, they’re changing behaviours.

The centre was founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. Think of the team’s work as the ultimate change management project.

And according to the authors, the worm’s demise offers lessons to the rest of us whose paycheques and livelihoods depend on getting other people to work and think differently.

"Hopkins was interested in this particular disease because he knew that if 120 million people in 23,000 villages would change just a few vital behaviours for just one year, there would never be another case of the infection. Ever. But imagine the audacity of intending to influence such a scattered population in so many countries — frequently faced with a corrupt or nonexistent health systems or fragile political stability."

So how is the Carter Centre team making the seemingly impossible possible? The team started by focusing on a handful of vital behaviours, which is how all master influencers begin their work. "When faced with a number of possible options, take care to search for strategies that focus on specific behaviours.

"It turns out all influence geniuses focus on behaviours. They don’t develop an influence strategy until they’ve carefully identified the specific behaviours they want to change. They start by asking: in order to improve our existing situation, what must people actually do?"

The Carter Centre team discovered those vital behaviours by paying a visit to villages that were free of the Guinea worm. In those villages, the team watched women carefully strain larvae-infested water by pouring it through their skirts and into separate pots for drinking.

The team also studied how villagers recovered from outbreaks. When the worm is burning and breaking its way through your skin, there’s an overwhelming urge to plunge your arm or leg into water. But that’s the same water used for drinking. In worm-free communities, villagers policed themselves. "It turned out that if everyone in a village enacted two recovery behaviours — speaking up and keeping infected people away from the water supply — for one full year, the worm would be gone forever."

The team then set out to influence other villages to adopt these vital behaviours. All of us have only two questions when we’re being asked to make a change. Is it worth it? And can I make this change?

Contrary to standard corporate practice, you don’t answer these questions with a barrage of facts and stats, memos, newsletters, brochures and PowerPoints. You share stories and rely on personal experience. "With persistent problems, it’s best to give verbal persuasion a rest and try to help people experience the world as you experience it." The Carter Centre team also enlisted trusted and respected opinion leaders to spread the word and help villagers develop the skills to eradicate the worm.

Today, the Carter Centre has eliminated the worm from 11 of 20 endemic countries. World-wide infection rates have dropped 99.7 per cent and the team is on track to completely wipe out the worm by 2009.

"Team members have done this not through a medical breakthrough but by learning how to motivate and enable absolute strangers to alter their behaviour."

So if the pain of pushing through a change initiative at work feels not unlike having a worm burn its way out of your leg, read this book cover to cover. And then read it again.

Recommend it to everyone you know at work. The authors present case studies of remarkable and inspirational master influencers and they draw heavily on research and theory to give you and me the power to change pretty much anything at work, at home and in our communities. Far and away one of the best business books of the year.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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