5 Min Read

Getting People to Think Versus Getting People to Act

5 Min Read

Getting People to Think Versus Getting People to Act

In my work with businesses, I often encounter frustrated CEOs or board chairs who feel they’re banging their heads against a wall with difficulties among the executives they manage.

I can bucketize those problems into two categories: Problems in getting people to think, and problems in getting people to act. I share with them a simple secret to resolving both challenges.

Problems in getting people to think often look like this: Perhaps there’s an ambitious executive, full of energy and bluster, who goes about like a bull in a China shop, breaking things left and right. Vendors and customers might be alienated, colleagues offended, or government regulations trampled.

“What is wrong with them?” the CEO cries when describing these problems, “Can’t they think before they act?!”

The other bucket involves individuals who are trapped in paralysis, inertia, or occasionally outright laziness. Long-anticipated deliverables don’t get delivered, key outcomes don’t materialize, and the longstanding promise of a bright, shiny future never comes to pass with such individuals. “No matter what I do, they won’t get off their duff and get job done!” is the typical lament.

The solution draws on over a century of behavioral science, and comes down to a premise that is deceptively simple: Logic gets people to think, whereas emotion gets people to act.

For executives who persistently act without thinking, the good news is that they do possess logical analytic abilities, they just don’t know when to use them. Psychology shows us that the metaphoric bulls in China shops do in fact use logic, but they use it to justify their actions after they’ve caused disaster. With such people, it’s a matter of teaching them to use logic in an anticipatory fashion. To bring this about, the most friction-free approach I’ve found is to pair them with a “logician,” but under the premise the bull in the China shop will be teaching and mentoring the logician the rules of the game. The reality of course is the reverse—that the logician will be teaching anticipatory use of logic by osmosis. But this approach is recommended because the proverbial bulls often have rigid ego defense boundaries, and any attempt to insert oversight and supervision will be met with resistance, which only injects cost into the model.

For those who are trapped in inertia in its various forms, injecting the right mood will prompt them to act and enable them to break free. Here, there are nuances to consider, primarily whether the action required can only be done by the individual trapped in inertia, or if a collaborative effort is required. If the action needed can only be performed by the individual in question, the most efficient moods are those that produce fight-or-flight reactions, both of which are action-oriented. These moods include anger and fear, and an approach wherein the individual is triggered into these moods, in a substantive way, can help. Outlining real consequences of failure –with teeth in them – can be highly effective. But this is the wrong approach if collaborative action is required, because anger and fear are defensive moods, which can put distance between the individual in question and those with whom they must collaborate.  In those cases, seek to foster moods of responsibility and enthusiasm. Some simple reverse psychology can do the trick here: Frame the problem for them as a challenge, and one that is a puzzle for them to solve. Often it’s effective to suggest that only they can solve the problem of getting Persons X and Y to help in meaningful ways. This casts them in the role of teacher, and it’s the moods of enthusiasm associated with empowerment that gets the job done, as well as the mood of responsibility associated with social obligation.

This all seems very simple, and in fact it can be – but in my experience most people get it backwards. When managing the bull in the china shop, people tend to react with anger, wanting to metaphorically wring the neck of the culprit. While this is understandable, it’s a case of using mood when logic is required. And with the person trapped inertia, the persistent attempts to persuade them to act often take on a tone of pleading. This is using logic when emotion is what is required.

So if you have a bull in your China shop, or a team member trapped in the quicksand of inertia, don’t make the problem worse by getting it backwards. It’s logic that triggers thinking, and emotion that provokes action.