This photo comes from one of our international trips. It’s clear that visitors to the park where the sign is posted aren’t allowed to do a lot of things. In fact, we’ve seen “NO” signs of many kinds all around the world.
Now think about this — how often do we talk about what we don’t want instead of what we do want?
For example, we took a small survey the other day in a waiting room here in the U.S., and counted at least four NO signs: “No eating,” “No drinking,” “No smoking,” and “No mobile devices.” While these types of signs may get some people to comply (although at least one person was still using a phone), they have scant effect on fostering positive relationships. Ironically, one other sign in the waiting room was “Exceed customer expectations.”
What might happen if we reversed “NO” signs and asked for the behaviors we actually need? Research in cognitive science offers a surprising insight into influencing behavior.
In his 2017 book Before You Know It, John Bargh, Ph.D. discusses the power of “priming effects.” These occur when recent experiences we have of hearing, seeing, or even smelling something strongly influence our thoughts and actions.
Positive priming influences are particularly strong because they embed themselves in our unconscious mind and change behavior. For instance, think about your impulses when someone famously suggests “Don’t think of Pink Elephants” or you catch a whiff of delicious donuts as you walk past a bake shop.
We’ve seen leaders use positive priming effects in several ways. One is to talk in aspirational rather than negative terms. “We can figure this out” is more likely to spark imagination and resourcefulness than “We better not mess this up.”
In addition, exemplifying the behavior we want others to adopt is especially important for positive priming. For instance, in Episode 137 of Growth Igniters® Radio, Ari Raivetz, CEO of award-winning Organica Water, Inc, told us about how he and his team share both the good news and the bad news with employees. As a result, this has had a powerful impact on opening communication throughout the company.
So the next time you need to influence others, remember that framing your request in an aspirational way, and backing it up through your own behavior, is most likely to produce even more of the results that are essential for success.