It may be too late into this pandemic to share this research. It turns out that the shape of a glass can influence how much we drink. Sloped glasses can cause us to drink more than straight-sided glasses. The vessel we offer a drink within can influence how that beverage is consumed.
How else can we change the circumstances of something to influence someone’s behavior? I began thinking about this a few years ago when a national effort was underway to expose the flaws in board service. Board members were failing at their jobs, we were told, with grades of C-, Ds and Fs to describe their engagement in policy work, equity, and fundraising. The general message seemed to be, “You’re failing, so get your act together.” Somehow the fact that board members are volunteers with jobs, families, and lives failed to make it into the narrative.
Around that time, I heard Influence author Robert Cialdini talk about pre-sausion. He shows how we can influence someone’s behavior before we do or say anything. If French music is playing in a wine shop, you are more likely to buy French wine; German music, German wine. If I ask you on the street for your email address, you are unlikely to give it to me (33%). If I ask you first if you consider yourself an adventurous person, your likelihood of giving me your email address jumps to 77%. I can invite you to take an action that moves you closer to an identity you value.
All of this makes me think about those busy board members. Rather than talking about failure, how about we acknowledge their commitment and courage. I can authentically say, “You have been so courageous to serve your community as a board member. I need you to do one more courageous thing; I need you to call ____ about this policy issue.” In my experience, lifting people up opens up more possibilities then putting them down.
Leaning into identity increases motivation in a positive, affirming way. It also sustains change because people want to live up to what they believe to be true about themselves. James Clear, in Atomic Habits, gives us three levels of habit changing: goals, systems, and identity. Let’s take weight loss as an example. We can change our goal (I will lose 10 pounds), we can change our systems (I will exercise more or eat less), and we can change our sense of identity (I am someone who exercises and eats healthfully). It is the identity level that sustains our motivation. It keeps us returning to our goals and systems.
So after this election, I’m going to rethink the shape of the glass I use to drink my homemade tonic and gin. I’m going to invite the incredible, courageous, community-loving nonprofit people I know to be even more incredible, courageous, and community-loving by trying a few new ways of working. How can you use identity to lift up the people you work with?