How to get people to do what you want them to do

Get people to do what you want

Whether we realise it or not, we spend a large chunk of our days trying to influence people to do what we want them to do.

  • We want our kids to put their school clothes on in the morning.
  • We want our partner to help tidy up after dinner.
  • We want our co-worker to eat their smelly lunch in the kitchen and not at their desk.

We’re also trying to influence the people around us to make bigger changes:

  • We want our mum to quit smoking.
  • We want our partner to eat more healthily.
  • We want a friend to take up running.

And I know what you’re thinking here. You’re thinking: why should people do what we want them to do?

Well, sometimes it’s because they need to. For example, my mum really does need to quit smoking. (Hi mum! PS: I’m very proud of how much you’ve cut back.)

And sometimes it’s because it just makes life smoother.

But we also need to understand that:

  • The kid who, no matter how many times we’ve asked them to put their shoes on, just can’t seem to do it …
  • The friend who, no matter how often we tell them it’s important that they’re on time, continues to be late All. The. Time …
  • The co-worker who seems completely unable to follow standard systems and procedures …

are not being deliberately obstructionist jerks. They just think differently to us. So if it’s important to us that they do the things we want/need them to do, then we need to make an effort to understand how they think.

Enter Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework; something I will confess I am obsessed with because I’ve discovered so many different ways it can be used to make life better.

The framework is all about how we respond to expectations; both inner (meeting a New Year’s Resolution, deciding to quit sugar) and outer (a work deadline, a request from a friend).

According to Gretchen, there are four types of people:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations.
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation only if they think it makes sense. (In essence they turn all expectations into inner expectations).
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

Want to know which you are? Take the test here.

Here’s how knowing about these four types can help you get people to do what you want.

Obligers are the most common type. They are the ones most likely to do something simply because you asked. (Watch out for a little thing called Obliger Rebellion however. Sometimes Obligers get so tired of doing everything that’s asked of them, they refuse to do anything at all!)

I have a theory that because Obligers are so common, it makes people who are the other types, (ie seemingly less amenable to simple requests), seem like jerks. But they’re not jerks, they just respond to expectations differently!

Take Upholders for example. If you’re trying to get an Upholder to do something, quite often they will be happy to do it simply because you’ve asked. However, unlike Obligers, Upholders are striving equally to meet inner expectations. So it’s important to know your request will be competing with the things they are asking of themselves.

If an Upholder is asking something vague of themselves (‘I really want to get back into yoga’), then your very concrete request, (‘Will you come with me to a networking breakfast this Friday?’) will take precedence. If an Upholder is working towards something firm (‘Argh my book deadline is next Monday’), then your concrete request will take less precedence. And if your request is not very concrete at all, (‘Can you take a look through this paper when you get a chance?’), that’s when Upholders are most likely to say ‘Can’t do it, sorry’.

Questioners? Well they can be annoying (my husband is a Questioner) because it feels like they never do anything simply because you’ve asked them to. That’s because they will only meet an expectation if it makes sense to them. My husband and I are currently building a house and we’re in charge of sourcing all the lighting for the house. Last year our builder asked me to provide him with the lights. Being an Upholder, my inclination was to simply source the lights and get them to him asap. My husband? He wanted to know why the builder needed the lights at that time given they were months away from being needed. Neither I nor the builder was able to provide a good answer for that at the time so … the damn lights still haven’t been sorted. If I’d known then what I know now I would have presented it to my husband thus:

“I don’t know why he wants the lights now but now that he’s asked for them, they are on my mind and adding to the overall stress I feel in managing this build. If we sort the lights now, that’s one less thing I have to keep tabs on in coming months.”

Given I know my husband will do pretty much anything to reduce my stress levels, this would have been a good enough ‘reason’ in his book to warrant sourcing the lights.

Here’s another example using my husband. I quit sugar over five years ago now. And ever since I quit, I’d been trying to get him to give it up. But I was never able to present the ‘why you should quit sugar’ information in a suitably impactful way. Then we went to see That Sugar Film. He quit the next day.

So it’s clear, if you want to influence a Questioner to do something, you need to provide them with some sound reasoning.

Finally, let’s talk about Rebels. These guys are a little frustrating because If you ask a Rebel to do something directly, they will either refuse to do it, or they will do the opposite. And if you praise them for having done something you wanted them to do … it’s pretty much guaranteed they will never do it again!

So how do we get Rebels to jump on board with something? Well, Rebels need to feel like they’re doing what they want, when they want. So, if time is on your side, try to plant a seed, and then walk away. Let’s say you want them to quit sugar. Don’t suggest they do it too. Just talk in general conversation about what quitting sugar has done for you and leave it there for them to mull over. Rebels like to feel that they are choosing to do something rather than having to do something. If the Rebel chooses to quit sugar, they will do it. If you try to make them, they won’t.

If time is not on your side, however, Gretchen suggest invoking the Strategy of Identity. Rebels place a high priority on ‘being true to themselves’. So, if you know how a Rebel likes to be seen/perceived on an identity level, you can leverage this. In this episode of the Happier podcast Gretchen uses the example of a Rebel work colleague who refuses to be on time for work meetings. Mandating to that person that they have to be on time will result in push back from them. But if you know that person prides themselves on being a team player, and you point out to them that, in continually being late for meetings that their colleagues perceive them as being bigger than the team, this can quickly lead to the desired behavioural change.

Now, reading back over all of the above – it all sounds quite manipulative doesn’t it? But I don’t see it that way. I see it as understanding how best to motivate people. We’re all managing many different personalities in our everyday lives, and I know from experience that’s it’s very hard to deal with people who don’t think the way you do. (Being an Upholder, I find it very hard to understand why people won’t respond to a reasonable request from me … and also why they can’t set themselves a task, and then execute it!)

If you want to find out more about the strengths and weaknesses of your own type, and also how to motivate people of other types, you can check out Gretchen talking about each on her Happier podcast here: Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, Rebels.

And let me know in the comments below if there’s someone in your life the above is going to be able to help you with!