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Address the Incentives

People do what they do because it works.

If you want to influence them to behave differently, you have to address the incentive structure that rewards them for their behavior.

Now you might be inclined to say “But I know people who are doing things that clearly don’t work, but they still refuse to listen to me.” Sure. It’s easy to conclude that other people’s efforts aren’t working when we can clearly see evidence that their actions are creating more problems for themselves, but there’s more at play than that. When I say “it works” I’m referring to the perceived value people get out of what they do. People do what they do because their actions are more successful at helping them get what they want than the known alternatives.

You can protest what people choose to value all you want, but it doesn’t change the fact that their behavior provides the biggest clue to their true priorities. If you want to inspire change, you can’t succeed simply by whining or complaining about the behaviors you don’t like. Moreover, you can’t get anywhere merely by condemning people’s priorities. You have to dig deep into people’s intentions and find out what’s driving them. But this is a difficult task because it demands a form of righteousness from us that threatens the kind of righteousness we prefer to have: it demands that we step down from our high horse every once in a while and actually engage people with the desire to understand where they’re coming from based on their own words. It demands that we descend from our pulpits every now and then and interact with others not as a teacher, but as a student.

Bemoaning how stupid people are is easy. Holding yourself accountable to the art of getting different results from people is much harder. Of course, change is easier said than done, but it’s also better done than said.

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