The X-factor of leadership. Source II: Let people make choices out of free will.

During an experiment, children were put one by one in a room with five toys. The most interesting toy, a robot was a “nono”. The children got a warning. One group got the warning: “It’s wrong to play with the robot, and if you do, I’ll be angry and I’ll have to punish you.” The other group got a warning without threat: “It’s wrong to play with the robot.” Then the experiment leader left the room. Which group of children did comply most to the warning? Both groups complied for almost 100 %. The real difference came six weeks later. The children were again confronted with the robot, in another room, with another person. No warnings of threats. Of the first group of kids, 77 % started playing with the robot. Of the second group only 33 %.

Cialdini* illustrates with this experiment the power of commitment and consistency. First of all, people like consistency. We like it for ourselves, and we like it in others. Consistency makes things easier and predictable. We choose one time, and then we stick to our choice. To products, suppliers, shops and beliefs. We even construct our reality to reinforce our choices. We neglect negative evidence and look for extra proof.

Most of the time, consistency pays off. But it can also mislead us: one small step in a certain direction and we’ll automatically step further in that direction. Even if it’s the wrong direction. This is how norms and values can get blurred and behaviour compromising.

The power of consistency lies in commitment. If people make a choice out of free will, even a small one, without external pressure, reward or threat, then this choice changes our self image. Further requests along the same road will be granted more easily to confirm our self image. This is why the instruction without threat worked better to prevent the children from playing with the robot. Commitment works better if it’s supported by an act, e.g. writing, if it’s made in public and if it takes effort. E.g. initiation rituals make people commit ‘through thick and thin’ to their group afterwards, because the effort was huge, public and out of free will. Research proves that groups with the harshest rituals have the strongest cohesion, like e.g. the navy seals. In short: we do a lot to prevent damage to our ‘credibility’.

The low ball tactic in sales or negotiations works in this way: you make your offer nicer than it is in reality. Once people accept your offer, you stall time. When the moment of buying comes, you can take away the nice details or add some less nice details. People won’t back down on the deal because of this ‘bad luck’. They got stuck to their ‘choice’ through the force of consistency and commitment.  I once bought a house and only at the second visit discovered an important shortcoming, after signing the preliminary agreement. I felt bad, but I went on with the deal…

Leadership taps into this force of commitment and consistency. It invites people to make personal choices. Not for ‘the greater cause’ nore for more mundane rewards. The motivation needs to be intrinsic to stick. Management in today’s company relies heavily on command and control. No wonder that people don’t commit or feel the need to be consistent: “It’s not personal, …” Leadership doesn’t thrive on sticks and carrots and makes things personal.

Any comment?

*CIALDINI, Robert (2007). The psychology of persuasion. New York: HarperCollins publishers, 320 p.


About Koen Marichal

Director Future Leadership Initiative at Antwerp Management School
This entry was posted in 10. Freedom & choice, 19 leadership thoughts, Academic insights & evidence, English and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The X-factor of leadership. Source II: Let people make choices out of free will.

  1. Pingback: Leadership thought 17: “Talk the walk.” | Thefutureleadershipinitiative

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