As leaders, influence is our “stock and trade.” It’s what allows us to get those jobs done that we need our team to do. But are we influencing people the right way? Subtle changes can make a message either very effective, or cause people to dig in their heels against the message and resist the change. This article describes a situation that describes this subtlety well.

Consider the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, which loses more than a ton of petrified wood each month because of theft. In hopes of preventing the vandalism, the park has instituted a deterrence program in which prominently placed signs make visitors aware of past thievery: ‘Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time'” (p. 85).

The sign sounds good. It alerts people to a problem in the hopes that people will realize that they shouldn’t be stealing the petrified wood. But the result?

… a woman he described as someone who would never take even a paperclip or rubber band without returning it – he was astonished when, after reading the sign decrying vandalism, she whispered to him, ‘We better get ours now'” (p. 85).

The core to the problem in that sign was an implicit approval of stealing because others were doing it also. How many times have we seen people do something at work because someone else was also doing it. Or, have you mentioned to your team the amount of time that some people are doing something that is a waste of time, and it only seemed to encourage that pattern of behavior?

In order to test this assumption, the authors created a situation in hotels with the “help save our environment by reusing towels” cards in the rooms. By changing the wording on the cards to, “Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment,” they were able to increase participation in towel reuse by 34%. By implying that everyone was doing it, other hotel guests began to join the program.

So be aware of “how” you’re saying something when you’re working with your team. You might be inadvertently encouraging the behavior you’re trying to stop.

— Griskevicius, V., Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2008, Winter). Applying (and Resisting) Peer Influence. MIT Sloan Management Review.