A Lazy Susan for business

I think of Macon Leary often.

Macon, the main character in Anne Tyler’s book, “The Accidental Tourist”, was reeling after the murder of his son and painful separation from his wife. Adjusting to his solitary life, Macon proceeded to eliminate unnecessary effort in his life. He adopted a nondescript tracksuit as his uniform, alphabetised his pantry for easy access and sewed his sheets into something like a sleeping bag to avoid the need to make his bed.

I think of Macon whenever I systematise my life. As someone who dislikes wasted effort, I like to do things once and as efficiently as possible.

Take breakfast for example, I have all the elements to add to my oatmeal on a Lazy Susan in the pantry, so the next ingredient comes to me as if it’s on a production line. I don’t forget anything and it arrives at the point it is needed.

A Lazy Susan for work

Imagine if we had a Lazy Susan for work? What would that look like? A systematic way of getting answers about an issue at exactly the point you need them?

That’s effectively how I use behavioural economics. On my Lazy Susan are three main ingredients:

  • Apathy (System 1)
  • Paralysis (Paradox of Choice)
  • Anxiety (Loss Aversion)
Lazy Susan for business

When I am helping a client through a business issue, we metaphorically spin the Lazy Susan and explore which of the three reasons for resistance to change is in play.  Is it because the people you are seeking to influence:

  • Can’t be bothered? (A system one issue);
  • Are overwhelmed by everything you are telling them? (Paradox of choice); and/or
  • Are worried about proceeding? (Loss aversion)

By probing these three questions you can flush out all possible reasons for resistance.

While Macon was using his regimented lifestyle to make the world feel safer, and stifled himself in the process, taking a leaf from his well ordered book can be enormously beneficial in business. By always starting at the same spot, clarifying what kind of issue you have, you will eliminate wasted effort and use your time in the most effective way possible.

I have a free resource to help you do that. It’s called the Behavioural Analysis tool, is self-guided and will prompt you to think through what resistance you may face.

The elusive B-spot

When I was learning to drive a manual car, my father kept telling me to find the balance point – this seemingly mythical sweet spot where the car had enough acceleration and clutch to move without stalling.

I tried and tried, thinking if I moved my right foot from brake to accelerator fast enough I’d strike the balance. No luck.

Finally, my father told me to forget all about the accelerator, and just let the clutch out enough to shift the car. As if by magic I was able to get the car moving, adding in the accelerator once I’d begun. Yes there was a sweet spot, but I’d only been able to find it by concentrating on one component at a time.

Cars are one thing, but what does this tell us about how to get people out of neutral?

In my experience there are two elements you need to get right in order to affect change in behaviour; tension and effort.  People won’t respond if you have too much or too little of either, so how do you find this behavioural sweet spot?


Let’s take tension first. Tension is the anxiety people feel about what you are suggesting. If there is too much, they’ll avoid doing what you want. If there’s too little, they’ll be too bored to bother. The sweet spot is enough tension to feel that change is required but not overawed by what is being asked.  


Imagine a ride at an amusement park, for instance. If the ride is slow without any bumps or unexpected turns, you’ll get bored. Too many bumps or unexpected drops and you’ll be too terrified to buy a ticket.

In a work context, a proposal document that simply regurgitates known information will bore the prospective client. If it’s too heavy handed on the problem statement without any credible plan to resolve the issues, the client will be too nervous to proceed.


The second element is effort. If there is too much effort people feel over committed – they have to do or spend more than they want, so they won’t proceed. If there is no effort required at all they will be under committed, taking no ownership and therefore not proceeding either. The sweet spot is when they feel they have enough skin in the game to care.


Shopping centres realised shoppers were under committed to returning their trolleys – many couldn’t be bothered. The solution? Requiring we deposit $1 in the lock mechanism, so now we diligently return our trolleys because there is something personally at stake.

In a work context, offering free tickets to a seminar can seem like a good idea until half your audience doesn’t bother to turn up. They are under committed.  Coursera online course completion increased from 10% to 60%, for example, when they started to charge students. Asking people to pay up front for a workshop that they know very little about, however, is an over commitment – you are pushing too hard, which they may resent and decline.

Finding the B-Spot with the Behavioural Bowtie

By combining these two dynamics – effort and tension, you get what I call the Behavioural Bowtie.

Behavioural Bowtie

Use it as a reminder that behavioural influence is a balancing act – a search for the B-Spot. Without sufficient tension you won’t break people out of status quo, and without sufficient effort, people won’t feel any stake in the change you are seeking.

How expectations change ‘parformance’

Does labelling a hole par four or five change golfer performance?

Through a quirk of United States’ Golf Administration (USGA) decision-making, holes at Pebble Beach and Oakmont Country Club have been assessed as par four for some US Open tournaments, and par five in others. Same hole, different par.

This created a fascinating opportunity for behavioural scientists Elmore and Urbaczewski (2019) to look at how expectations impact behaviour. They hypothesised that when the hole was par four (so it is expected you should need only four strokes to hole the ball) professional golfers would tend to take fewer strokes than when that same hole was par five.

Indeed, that’s what they found, and the affect was significant. According to the researchers “we would expect that a professional golfer playing a hole as a par 5 to score between 0.22 and 0.31 strokes higher than when the same hole is rated a par 4. In other words, the results lend support to the notion that players tend to exert more effort when the hole is playing at a more difficult rating.”

Why do golfers behave this way? If they can take fewer strokes when a hole is a par four why should that change just because the rating is higher?

Loss aversion. People hate to lose more than they love to win, so if I miss par by taking five strokes on a par four hole I will feel worse than if I use five strokes on a par five (in which case I have met expectation and held my score – I haven’t “lost” a stoke). 

Again from the researchers; “The total effect over four rounds is potentially greater than one stroke, which is often the difference between 1st and 2nd place at the tournament.”

Implications for you

There are three main implications from this research to take into your day-to-day business life.

1. How expectations are framed changes behaviour

In our golf example, the difficulty of the hole didn’t change but its rating did. When golfers thought it was more difficult (par four), they tried harder than when they thought it wasn’t (par five). This is the curious thing about behaviour – the objective reality is often much less important than the subjective reality.

When managing staff this means paying attention to how they see the world. What’s on paper is unlikely to be what they are responding to.

With customers, you might think are superior to a customer on objective grounds but that may not compel them to choose you.

2.  Numbers are magnetic

Numbers tend to anchor people, so if I have par five in mind I am likely to be drawn close to it. When it comes to promotions, that means you can encourage people to buy more of an item than they perhaps intend by stating there is a “limit of five per customer”.

3.  Loss aversion impacts most aspects of business

When customers, staff, suppliers or investors feel there is something to lose, their behavour is likely to change. This can be good if you want them to focus and put more effort in (like having a par four), but they may not choose to play at all if what they stand to lose is much greater than what they may gain. If there’s no way I can make par four then I may not even try.

Why people reject change

In January we experienced two public debates that reinforced the essential equation when influencing people to change behaviour; what they gain must exceed what they stand to lose.

Getting people to accept a proposed change

Two important issues have been hotly debated this past month –  whether to change the date of Australia Day and whether people should opt-out of My Health Record. 

This blog won’t be dealing with the merits of either. Instead I want to focus on what we can learn about how these issues have been framed by those seeking to get Australians to accept a change.

Australia Day

It is my view that those who want(ed) to have the date changed from 26 January needed to propose firm alternatives earlier in the discussion.  Much of the resistance has come from the sense of “losing” the 26 January, without any reassurance that another date would be suitable.  Rather than being framed as a shift to something, it was a changeaway from the status quo, and that can be uncomfortable.  Instead of framing the debate as whether it should be moved, advocates should ideally have framed it as which date to move it to.

My Health Record

My Health Record, a centralised database of personal medical information, is fast becoming a case study in how not to roll out an online service. What should have been good news has instead been drowned out by data security and privacy concerns. Whether these fears are justified is almost secondary to the perception that has taken hold, and in my view this is also largely due to poor framing.  The agencies responsible were either too late or too quiet and their message around the benefits of a record has simply not cut through. Last I heard over one million people had opted-out, and given we are predisposed to leave things as they are, this rate of activity signals a significant and unfortunate rejection of the system as it stands.

Lessons for you

When trying to get people to accept a change, whether it’s a customer moving from not buying to buying, a website visitor moving from not clicking to clicking, or a colleague moving from not producing to producing, you need to carefully consider how you frame the message. If they feel that they have more to lose than gain, there’s no way they’ll bother. Nullify their sense of loss and amplify their sense of gain and you’ll be much more likely to move together in a mutually beneficial direction.

99% won’t.

99% of people will never use behavioural economics. 

That’s ok. I am writing for the 1%. Those who are frustrated with the status quo; who are looking to be better; who know they are missing something but just haven’t put their finger on what.

I’m writing for the people who were like me 10 years ago. I was in a corporate job and feeling like life was harder than it needed to be.  Days were wasted in circular meetings, research didn’t provide usable answers, customers said one thing and did another, revenue was plummeting. I knew I was missing something. That we were missing something.

Then I read about behavioural economics. Then I started using it. Then I started helping others use it.

The only urgency is what you are missing every single day

The world won’t stop spinning if you don’t use behavioural economics. A bit like ageing, it will only be when you look back at a time when you didn’t have these skills that you’ll realise how much time you’ve wasted on the wrong things.

There’s no real urgency here. Of course you can wait until another day when you are, you know, less busy, more ready, have the perfect project, the perfect time…

All you are really missing is how to better work with and through other people.

How important is that to you?

Working with and through others in a better way. Every. Single. Day.

Your meetings, phone calls, projects, proposals, emails. Most of us send and receive around 130 emails a day by the way. Imagine if those emails got the desired response every time? If they advanced your work rather than bogged you down?

So here’s my hope. If you are part of the 1% who is aware enough to know you are missing something, and that that something is important, please, stop just reading and start doing. I’ll help you. Starting with this.

I’ve designed a free resource for you to identify where to focus your attention. It will give you immediate tips on what to do and how to get support.

Go on. Start. Complete your free behavioural audit.

Hot tips from the tennis

With the Australian Open heading towards the finals there are three business lessons from tennis I’d like to share.

1. Tennis umpires wear sneakers:

Walk in your customer’s shoes if you want to influence them

Tennis umpires wear tennis shoes, and not just for how they look. They wear sneakers so if they have to walk the court to assess its condition (e.g. after rain), they experience it the same as the players do.

The lesson: Empathy – your ability to see a situation from your customer’s point of view by walking in their shoes – is paramount if you want to successfully influence behaviour. By starting in their world you can anticipate why they may resist your offer and devise strategies to compel them to act. .

2. Second serve is always slower:

Behaviour changes when there’s something to lose

Same player, same task, but different behaviour because the stakes have changed; that’s the difference between the first and second serve in tennis. The first serve is harder, faster and closer to the line. Why? Because if you miss it you get a do-over. The second serve is softer, slower and further from the line because if you miss this time you lose the point.

The lesson: Your customer’s behaviour will change dramatically as soon as they have something to lose. If you are putting too much pressure on them they are likely to walk away because that is safer than losing their time, money and credibility with you. To overcome this issue you need to make them feel safe to commit, using money back guarantees and returns polices for example.

3. Hawk-Eye challenges:

Let your customers complain

Players are able to challenge a line-call three times per set of tennis. When they do, Hawk-Eye technology is used to model the precise location a ball landed, either confirming or correcting the decision of the line official.  The opportunity to dispute the call is important because it gives players a feeling of control over their circumstances, reducing the likelihood they will lose their temper.

The lesson: Your customers need to feel they have access to and are afforded due process. That means letting them know how they can return goods or lodge complaints, and making it easy to do so. As soon as a customer feels they have no recourse they will get extremely angry and make a bigger issue out of something than it needed to be.

Dealing with the most difficult person of all

Dealing with difficult people is hard enough, but what if the most difficult person to deal with is you?

If ever you’ve failed to realise your full potential, follow through on goals that were once important, or break bad habit, then it’s time to rethink your approach.

You’ve been doing it wrong

There are three common mistakes we make when trying to change our own behaviour.  The first is relying on willpower and motivation. Willpower depletes too easily, and motivation is unstable. Instead you are better to focus on making your preferred behaviour easy to do.

The second is assuming you are in charge. You kind of are, but not really. We flip between two types of thinking throughout the course of the day; System 1 which is fast, intuitive, emotional thinking, and System 2, our slow, rational, fact-based thinking. System 2 thinks it’s in charge, but System 1 actually makes most of the decisions. That means you might know what to do and why you should, but find yourself doing something else instead. I know I should eat healthily but I reach for the chocolate, for example. We therefore need to stop planning for System 2 and focus on System 1 instead.

The third is the hot-cold empathy gap, where we mistakenly believe how we feel right now will be how we feel in the moment of truth.

Tips for wrangling your own behaviour

Cold state preparation

When you are in your ‘cold’, or unaroused, state lay the groundwork for the hot state to come. Three top tips include:

  • Make implementation intentions: Implementation intentions help you to pre-empt the hot state by noting what may arise and what you will do if it does. Simply write “if/then” statements so you have a pre-defined path to follow e.g. If my friends invite me to drinks I will take my favourite sparkling water to drink instead;
  • Structure your environment: Make good behaviours easy to do and bad behaviours more difficult. For example, if you know the mornings are rushed and you may not feel like exercising, put your exercise clothes on the floor next to your bed to eliminate the pain of having to choose what to wear. If you snack on food that isn’t good for you, don’t have it in the house, and if you do, store it out of sight and in a difficult to access spot.
  • Identify your triggers: Triggers are what reminds you to do something. If you want to stop a behaviour, remove the trigger (e.g. turn off phone alerts) or, it that’s not possible, remove yourself from the trigger (e.g. not going to the café that serves those yummy biscuits). If you want to start a new behaviour, make sure you have a trigger in place otherwise you are likely to forget (e.g. brushing teeth is a trigger to floss)

Hot state reaction

In the moment of truth, adrenaline floods your system and blood pumps to your muscles, making you feel warmer and more energised. Unfortunately, the blood flows away from your brain leaving you exposed to more impulsive decision-making. Indeed a 2006 study by Ariely and Loewenstein (PDF) found college students were more likely to engage in risky sexual activity when in a hot rather than cold state.

Aside from your cold-state preparation, two tips for managing your hot state include:

  • Recall your identity: Research by Patrick and Hagtvedt (2012) found reciting “I don’t…(do something)” rather than “I can’t…” eliminates overwhelm. This “empowered refusal” makes your decision much more clear-cut. Since becoming vegan, for instance, I have found it much easier to refuse ice cream because I just don’t eat dairy.
  • Answer for a friend: Creating psychological distance between you and the issue confronting you can help you do the right thing. Pretend you are making the decision for someone you care about because this will take you out of yourself and see the situation with a fresh, more objective perspective.

Learning to manage our own behaviour is the cornerstone of a productive and healthy life. You are the most difficult person you will ever need to influence, so the more you can learn about your behavioural patterns, the greater the odds you’ll have success shaping those same patterns in others.

Future proofing professional jobs

Those in professional service roles have been largely sitting on the sidelines until now, watching as retail, customer service and warehousing jobs have been buffeted by the winds of technological change.

I recently presented at the World Congress of Accountants and my message to accountants was they are on borrowed time. The topic was “The changing Role of the Trusted Advisor”, and I started with a scary reality check.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 report on the future of jobs, skills like managing finances or technology are expected to decline in the next four years, and those that require “grey area” thinking (often called soft-skills) will rise.

Skills in decline

The upshot is any profession that has relied on its technical knowledge – like accountants and lawyers – will find the bulk of their role replaced by technology. Wherever you have an “if/then” scenario, you are at risk of replacement by an algorithm.

There is only one way to future proof roles in these fields – get better at the people side. That’s dealing in the murk of difficult, grey area decisions. The murk of influencing what people do.

Designing an App? You need to influence people to download it.

Creating a website? You need to influence people to click.

Selling a driverless car? You need to get people to use it.

Being a “trusted advisor”? You need people to trust you.

A structured approach to influencing action

Accountants have had accounting standards to govern their technical work. Lawyers have precedent and legislation. What is the equivalent for professionals for behavioural influence? Behavioural economics. In my view a codified model of behavioural economics provides a common set of principles that define the basis of behaviour. Drawing on behavioural science means you can formalise how you engage with people rather than relying on guesswork.

Whatever job you have now or in the future, all roads lead back to influence. Become an expert in that and you will future proof your profession.

Effortless influence

5 minutes to design the logo.

2 years to convince her clients to use it.

In 1998, as renowned graphic designer Paula Scher sat listening to her clients discuss what the identity of newly merged Citicorp and Travellers Group should be, she doodled the new Citibank logo on a napkin.

“The design of the logo is not the hard part of the job”, said Scher, “it’s persuading a million people to use it”.

Whatever your role, I’m willing to guess your success relies on your ability to work with and through others. To influence.

I’m also willing to guess that the biggest frustration you have, why some days you feel worn down, exhausted and depleted, is when you can’t cut through.

Imagine a workday that felt effortless? Where your talents could shine and every traffic light turned green. Where stress melted away.

Imagine a world of business where people were smiling as they commuted because they couldn’t wait to get to work and ply their influencing skills?

That’s what I want for you. Effortless influence.

What’s the path to effortless influence?

1.  Make your environment do the heavy lifting

Just having a meeting in the right room can help productivity. Priming, which I write a lot about because it is so critical to your success, means people are influenced by environmental cues. Some supermarkets, for example, play the sound of thunder in the fresh produce section to remind their customers of nature and freshness.

Aside from the environment, how you contextualise your message is as important as what your message is. The behavioural principle of framing means you need to choose your images, typeface and words carefully. An email with “feel free” to get in touch is better than “don’t hesitate”, for example.

2. Anticipate resistance to design your effortless approach

Conceptualising the logo was the easy part for Scher. The hard part was convincing layers of management that the logo was the right one. We could explore dozens of behavioural principles underpinning client resistance, but all roads lead back to three core barriers

  • Apathy, they can’t bothered;
  • Paralysis, they are confused; and
  • Anxiety, they are worried about proceeding.

Know that the natural human state is status quo. Even if a client thinks they want change, you still need to convince them to move. That means the bulk of your work is getting people to move away from something rather than move towards it.

3.  It’s not them at fault, it’s you

You can’t control another person, but you can control your approach. If you are getting frustrated, then change how you engage, starting with empathy.  Just like a tennis umpire who wears sneakers so they can feel how the players experience the court, you have to see the situation from your customer’s perspective. By doing so you can work back to modify how you act and communicate. 

Effortless influence isn’t actually effortless

Is effortless influence actually effortless? Clearly the answer is no. But it’s good effort rather than bad. By skilling yourself in behavioural influence you gain efficiencies every day, in every interaction, turning your traffic lights green.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Sources: Paula Scher’s work was profiled in the Netflix series “Abstract”.

Getting staff to do stuff

“Why don’t staff just do what they’re paid to do?”

“Sometimes I feel like their parent rather than a boss”

“It’s exhausting constantly having to tell them what to do. Why can’t they show some initiative?”

Managing people can be tough. In fact, judging by the questions I get in coaching and workshops, it’s the primary, but shrouded, challenge of most business owners and leaders. I say shrouded because it’s easier to talk about supplier negotiations, marketing conversion and pricing than it is to ‘fess up to how difficult getting staff to do stuff feels. There’s an assumption that you should just know – I mean, you’re the boss, right?  If thinking about and dealing with staff performance is soaking up too much of your time and energy and you’d prefer to be focussing more gratifying activities, read on.

Three truths about staff

Let’s start by understanding how staff members are wired. Just like customers, there are three truths about how your staff engage with the world:

  1. They write the script – they have a narrative of how the world works, and anything contrary to that (i.e. you are not doing what I need you to do), will be ignored or distorted;
  2. They are the hero of the story – the business isn’t the main thing in their world – they are. Anything that threatens their self-worth (i.e. they are not doing something correctly) will be rationalised away (e.g. it’s your fault/the business’ fault/other people’s fault, not theirs); and
  3. They run on batteries – energy levels, mood and cognition vary throughout the hour, day and week. Some days they will be “on”, some days they will be “off”.

How to get staff to do stuff

The three truths about how your staff members are wired force us to shift perspective from us to them, and this is vital if we want to influence their behaviour.

“Why do I have to always be the one who changes?” I hear you groan.

As I wrote in a piece about stone sculpture, if you hit a block of stone front on you’ll get one of two responses. One, you might split the stone in half, which ruins both the stone and your plans. Second, your chisel will bounce off the stone, right back at you. This happens with people if we try to bludgeon them with our views. Being too direct will either break their spirit or be met with a wall of defensiveness. Instead, if we want to shape the stone we need to chip away using angles.  It doesn’t need to be difficult, but it does require some thought.

By this point, then, I’m hoping you are thinking how you can speak to your staff from their point of view, not yours. But let’s delve further. There are only three reasons staff don’t do what you are asking:

  • Apathy – they can’t be bothered;
  • Paralysis – they are overwhelmed or confused; and/or
  • Anxiety – they are scared.

What to do when staff can’t be bothered

There are two mistakes we tend to make when trying to overcome staff apathy.

1. Assume money is sufficient motivation

Money may motivate to a degree and for roles that are based time or piece-work rates, but most behavioural research suggests:

  • Salary doesn’t motivate once you’ve reached a point where basic needs are taken care of (e.g. food, shelter). Most salaried employees don’t wake up every day excited that today they will earn $x – its salience recedes in their mind. While you might be thinking “I’m paying them for this”, they won’t have the same connection between money and productivity;
  • Money can actually impair performance in high-incentive cognitive tasks; and
  • Reminders of money can make staff less collaborative, so if you are emphasising individual bonuses don’t expect a lot of team play.  

2. Assume it should be enough once we’ve motivated them

Motivation is not a stable state – sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down. That means you can spend a lot of time and energy getting staff enthused about their work only to see it naturally abate.

Instead of relying on motivation to get staff to be bothered you need to:

  • Hit the effort sweet spot – if something is too hard, staff won’t engage for fear of failure. If something is too easy (e.g. you do it for them), they won’t engage because they feel they bring nothing to the work – there’s no ‘skin in the game’;
  • Make it intrinsically rewarding – extrinsic rewards like bonuses and promotions are not as compelling as those that make your staff member (the hero, remember) feel great about the contribution they are making. Share with them the purpose of the task – why it’s important – and give them the space to actually do it. Swooping in and doing it for them may work in the short-term, but you’ve just killed any desire they had to contribute in future;
  • Foster a culture of endeavour – if people see others coasting along they will be more likely to conform to that behaviour. Instead you need to showcase those who try as the ones who get rewarded; and
  • Acknowledge their efforts. I know, I know, spending your time acknowledging them for work they are PAID to do should not be required, but it is. In fact, ignoring their efforts is as detrimental as destroying their work in front of their eyes. It can be as simple as a “thanks for the effort you put into this” email or comment – just make sure you do it and you do it at the time, not months later in an annual review.

What to do when staff are overwhelmed

If your staff seem like bunnies in the headlights who can’t make a decision, it’s probably because they feel overwhelmed.  This often happens when priorities are in conflict and everything seems equally urgent and important.

Your role is to help them clarify both their objective and their first step towards it. Keep it simple – they just need to start – and help them disentangle what is urgent vs. what is important.

What to do when staff are scared

The silent killer of staff performance is anxiety – they may know what to do and why, but they are worried about proceeding.  They may feel there is too much pressure to perform (high stakes, high profile), they are out of their depth (a competency issue) or to proceed means breaking the cultural dynamic (i.e. Tall poppy syndrome).

Your role is to give them:

  • Nothing to fear if they do what you want – Encourage a ‘growth mindset’ culture where trying and learning is rewarded; let them know their job is secure and that you have their back; let them feel safe calling out when they are out of depth – relating stories when you felt this way will make it permissible; and
  • Something to fear if they don’t – Send the message through your actions that people who don’t put in will be left behind; that they’ll miss out realising their own potential if they don’t try; reward teams for the behaviour you want to see, and have them acknowledge team mates that made a difference so you create a culture where those who don’t contribute will feel like they are letting others down.

Is managing staff sometimes exhausting? Yes. Thankless? Often. But it is also one of the best things you can do. It is my ardent belief that most people turn up to work wanting do a good job – your task is to let them.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.