People stand by their clear commitments
The principle of consistency
The application: make their commitments active, public and voluntary
Once someone takes a stand on something or goes on record in favor of a position, they prefer to stick to it. When someone makes a choice actively – a choice that’s spoken out loud or written down or otherwise made explicit – it is considerably more likely to shape that person’s future actions than the same choice left unspoken. Psychology experiments bear this out.
An application of this principle comes in the workplace when a manager wants to influence one of their staff to take a particular course of action: they should get their staff member to put their commitment in writing.
For instance, if you are a manager and you want an employee to submit progress reports more promptly and reliably, once you think you have obtained their agreement, ask the person to summarize the agreed decision in a memo or email and send it to you. By doing this, you will greatly improve the chances of that person fulfilling the commitment because people generally live up to what they have written down.
Research in psychology suggests that written statements become even more powerful when they are made public. You can take this example a step further: if you respond to the same person’s email with a message along lines similar to this, you will strengthen their commitment – “I think your plan is just what we need. I showed it to Sue in production and Bill in marketing, and they thought it was right on target, too.”
This concept is also used in fundraising where people make written pledges to give a certain regular amount to the cause. That written pledge is a semi-public commitment.
A couplet by Samuel Butler explains why commitments must be voluntary to be lasting and effective:
He that complies against his will
Is of his own opinion still.
If an undertaking is forced, coerced or imposed from outside, it is not a commitment: it’s an unwelcome burden.
Returning to the example of the tardy employee: if you want to produce an enduring change in their behavior, you should avoid using threats or pressure tactics to gain their compliance. A better approach is to identify something that the employee genuinely values in the workplace – team spirit, perhaps – and then describe how timely reports are consistent with those values. That gives the employee reasons for improvement that he or she can own. And because he or she owns them, the principle will continue to guide their behavior even when you are not watching.
(This is one of six principles outlined in Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini. Allyn & Bacon, 2001.)