Real Leaders

How to Take Control When You Have No Control


More than ever, success in the workplace depends on your ability to influence others. Others you do not control. Others who have different priorities. Others who may have no interest in your success.

Welcome to the wonderful, intensely frustrating world of matrix management. In this world significant work must be done among teams of teams across functions, geographies, and departments.  Often, your responsibilities are great and your authority is nil.

You are told to collaborate but you must constantly fight through a jungle of competing priorities and individual urgencies that make collaboration a daily stress-dance of negotiation with other frazzled colleagues.

So how do you take control when the only power you have is the power of persuasion? Jedi mind tricks . . . that’s how.

Jedi powers were an invention that George Lucas invested in the tiny, ancient Yoda who had no power other than the energy of his mind which he harnessed to take control of the minds of others.

Well, science now shows us that mental energy is real and that certain ways of communicating can actually amplify your mental energy and capture the interest and cooperation of others.

We know this through the work of Dr. Uri Hasson who created a series of experiments scanning people’s brains to see what kind of information literally held their attention and opened their minds.

His conclusion is that “facts never speak for themselves.” This can be frustrating for analytical oriented professionals.  Engineers, accountants, scientists and lawyers typically distrust any claims that are not fact-based. That’s fine but they also assume that if someone has the same fact-set that they have there would be agreement. They also tend to assume that when people agree on the facts that people will harmonize the commitment to act on those facts. It turns out nothing could be further from the truth.

Hasson reports that his studies, which recorded people’s brain scans as they were shown a series of related facts, showed almost immediately that people’s thoughts begin to wander and signs of mental boredom appeared as soon as a few facts are presented.

Conversely, he found that when facts were presented in a certain formula that leads to a ‘call for personal action,’ people’s brains became focused.  He also discovered this formula stimulated the areas of the brain that also open the door to creative problem-solving.

Here is why. Dr. Richard Davidson of University of Wisconsin- Madison discovered that new facts come into our brain through two distinct gates. One gate is the right prefrontal lobe found just behind and slightly above your right eye. Our prefrontal lobes are the mental traffic cops for our brain. They sort stimuli into positive and negative categories. Stimulus that triggers the right pre-frontal lobe tends to excite our amygdala, which reduces thinking versatility by as much as 96%. Our amygdala is our threat assessment center, which not only sorts responses for fight or flight, but it’s also excellent at blaming and self-justification for not helping.

Davidson discovered that our drive to help others and to solve problems is stimulated when facts are presented as stories that stimulate our left prefrontal lobe. That part of your brain is just slightly above your left eye. It seems that our brains can much more easily digest the guts of a story and develop a wide range of creative and cooperative responses.

Fortunately, another scientist, Dr. Randy Olson has discovered the exact formula of a story presentation that engages our left prefrontal lobe.

A simple version of this formula is now consistently used by Hollywood scriptwriters to write movies that better engage audiences. The leadership version of the formula is simply FACTS + BUT + THEREFORE + CONSEQUENCES + ACTION (FBTCA).

Here is how it works. (FACTS) Our customer service complaints are rising because our new products are breaking at a high rate. BUT customers report loving our new products when they work. THEREFORE we need to work together on a new, more rigorous testing system. (CONSEQUENCE) If we fail to act now our company’s growth and reputation could suffer so significantly that our jobs could be in jeopardy.  (ACTION) I propose we work together to pilot a phased testing program so we can stress test our products at the key stages of development to avoid rework and product failures.

Although this is just an example, I hope you can see that this is far more compelling than simply calling a meeting and showing a slide of a statistical graph showing an increase in customer complaints or product failures.  I myself have been in many, many, meetings where such data has been shown and yet has caused no relevant response. The cause for this is that uncomfortable facts alone produce a defensive response in our brains that literally close our minds. Simply repeating or amplifying those facts only harden resistance, denial and self-protection.

Let’s try another example. This time I will use the word YET in place of BUT as it is sometimes helpful to use a less jarring “pivot” word.

(FACTS) Our mid-level women engineers are continuing to quit at a very high rate and exit interviews are showing that the primary reason is that they feel overlooked for promotions. YET when we do promote female engineers at the same pace we promote males these women are actually more loyal than men. THERFORE we need to programmatically review the pace of our female engineering promotions to make sure our women engineers are getting the sponsorship and opportunity they need to feel valued. (CONSEQUENCE) If we don’t, we will continue to suffer a talent drain that will block our growth and innovation. (ACTION) I propose we do and immediate internal survey examining the length of service of our women engineers. We will want to compare their job responsibilities, title and pay against male engineers with the same education and length of service. If we discover a gap we can go to senior management and present a business case for active sponsorship for advancing women. See, a simple Jedi Mind Trick that transforms facts to action!

The action step is critical to initiating high-impact collaborative work.  The action requested should nearly always be either a request to immediately prototype a solution or partnering to gathering validating evidence.  A pilot initiative that produces success data is usually the quickest way to get change.

(FACT) Our brains resistance is low when we are asked to try something new that we can easily abandon if it doesn’t work. This is why apps are so popular. BUT resistance to permanent change is very high. THEREFORE I recommend you always propose a pilot or a test to initiate change. If you don’t take this approach I am afraid the CONSEQUENCE of your call to action will fall on deaf ears. (ACTION) Think of a current persistent problem you have that someone else can help resolve. Try this formula out on them and see if you engage them to help you.

FACT: establish your credibility
BUT: interrupt old mindsets
THEREFORE: create focus on your recommendation
CONSEQUENCE: stimulate motivation to change
ACTION: create hope, momentum and accountability
With practice you may become as powerful as Yoda!


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