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Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters

Hult International Business School

Professor of Leadership

Read more about Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters

What Bruce Lee and behavioural inertia can teach us about increasing our influence

What can Bruce Lee and behavioural inertia teach us about becoming more influential at work?
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When looking to increase your influence, the most important factor to consider is that other people’s behaviour is more predictable than you think. Even though you can probably recall many instances in which your expectation of another’s reaction was wrong – sometimes shockingly wrong! – the situations in which your predictions are correct often go unnoticed. 

Let’s begin with your immediate manager. When is he or she at their most energetic? Enthusiastic? Unreasonable? If you take the time to enumerate what you have learned about your manager’s behavioural patterns you will discover you can list many things. Now let’s move on to your most common team meetings. How much time is spent getting necessary technology to work? How often is the agenda overrun or derailed? What types of contextual or social stimuli most commonly cause participants to get side-tracked or begin lateral arguments? 

When you take the time to recognise common behavioural sequences at your workplace you gain advantage in exerting influence over people and decisions.

Influence starts with seeking out behaviour patterns

Data scientists examining large scale data sets can identify behaviour patterns in individuals that those same people may not recognise in themselves – as was demonstrated by Cambridge Analytica. While it is true that data scientists often have access to very large data sets, there are two additional reasons that they find these significant patterns: 

  • Human actions typically do not occur in isolation, but instead in a linked sequence that is invoked in a specific context

  • Humans look for these sequences. If you too spent time looking for predictable patterns amongst your colleagues and customers, you would find that you recognise quite a few

To give you an example of a behavioural pattern you can readily observe, consider your routine when you get home. Most people will perform a series of actions almost without any conscious effort – for example: open the front door, put the keys on a rack, take a drink from the fridge, kick off your shoes, sit on the couch, switch on the TV.

Your personal sequence may be different from this one, but it is still very likely you have one. Individuals learn to perform actions in sequences because forming habits makes for less mental effort.

In other situations, we perform predictable sequences because of an underlying template for what is appropriate behaviour. Behavioural scientists call this a ‘behavioural script’, and scripts are learned within cultural and social contexts – such as families, companies and countries. We operate according to a script when we do what we think is appropriate upon entering an elevator, arriving at a party or beginning a meeting or presentation.

Influence requires taking advantage of behavioural inertia

When you take the time to recognise common behavioural sequences at your workplace you gain advantage in exerting influence over people and decisions. This is because common behaviour patterns are often performed fairly automatically, as if driven by a force of inertia.

The players in the scenario will execute their behaviours without much upfront planning or conscious choice about what they are doing. In contrast, you have the potentially massive advantage of being able to plan in advance how you wish to respond under the circumstances that most people will simply react to. Given what is most likely to happen, what is your best move? 

To illustrate, suppose you learn that your important presentation to the board is scheduled to occur at the end of a long meeting, or is last amongst a series of presentations. In most workplaces that will mean that previous sessions will overrun, your allotted time will be cut short, the audience will be tired and some key decision makers might try to excuse themselves early.

While many people will become frustrated and flustered when they join the meeting and everyone looks exhausted – you can plan in advance how to best use the hand you’ve been dealt. For example, start by launching into an important and impactful insight. Cut what you were planning to say so it is half as long and twice as impactful. When the afternoon has dragged on, your audience will be all the more delighted by a punchy and succinct presentation. As a result, your presentation will stand out against a background of people who took their time and went into every detail. 

The key to using the Principle of Inertia is to identify a situation you want to influence. Consider when and where the situation will occur, what behaviour patterns are most likely, and how you can use – rather than fight – the probable flow of energy and action.

Becoming the Bruce Lee of your workplace

Bruce Lee trained in a form of martial arts that advocated using, rather than fighting against, your opponent’s energy. He is credited with saying “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it”. 

The key to using the Principle of Inertia is to identify a situation you want to influence. Consider when and where the situation will occur, what behaviour patterns are most likely, and how you can use – rather than fight – the probable flow of energy and action. Here are directions to get you started:

  • What is the context, who is involved and how are they most likely to behave at a group level? List out a few possible scenarios.

  • If you happen to know any of the people involved, ask yourself what you have previously observed about their reactions in similar situations. What is a typical reaction for them? 

  • Now – to bring this to life – if you were on a game show to win a prize with your predictions, which of these scenarios is most likely?

There are many social and environmental stimuli that elicit predictable behavioural patterns in people. Start looking for them and you will see them. When you do see these patterns, you can plan for them and harness them – so that you, too, can be like water. 

Amanda Nimon-Peter’s new book, Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion for Accelerating Your Career, provides professional business people with actionable insights to increase their personal influence in real and virtual workplace environments. It is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Author Profile Picture
Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters

Professor of Leadership

Read more from Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters
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