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How to start a change in people

“By doing it yourself in the first place.” The answer is deceivingly simple, but it works. People love consistency and actions that match words. In those situations they feel safe, can develop rapport and trust, which is usually followed by accepting ideas and habits over a longer period.

Human communication had begun long before spoken or written word came into existence. That means we had to master reading body language to be able to convey and receive a lot of information. Even after we got hold of the full communication repertoire, the body language is still dominant channel which we use to get around 70-80% of information when communicating.

When spoken words and body signals are out of sync, our brains fire a lot of warnings, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. This usually results in distrust, doubt, and similar negative emotions. If it happens regularly, we’ll mark the offenders as not likable or with a hidden agenda, and we’ll usually try to distance ourselves from them.

Body language is short-term and immediate, but the same principles apply for a broad range of complex human behavior, habits and patterns.

It starts when we’re born

Most of the things we learn come from observation and mimicry. Our parents serve as the first role models and our peers take over later in school. As the time passes, more factual things are learned orally or by reading, but the majority of things that affect our behavior are still learned by observing.

The interesting part is that nothing changes when we grow up. By that time we have more experience and can catch more subtle signals, which means other people’s actions only affect us more.

A scientific theory

Update 2019-03-25: I was too eager and not as informed when I heard about this discovery for the first time. Mirror neurons exist for sure, but their effect on behavior in the context of this post is still being debated by scientists. Take my comments and quotes with a grain of salt.

There is a relatively new theory of mirror neurons that could explain why learning by observation happens. An interesting talk on TED by V. Ramachandran, one of the researchers in the field, explains a theory in eight minutes. A Wikipedia article on the topics says:

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. … Researchers argue that mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation.

So if you’re watching a person performing an action, it’s almost like you’re doing it yourself.

Make the most of it

Science will eventually show us why this phenomenon happens, but the fact that it’s happening since time immemorial is undisputed. There are a few ways you can use it to benefit yourself or others.

If you want to start a positive change in yourself, surround yourself with people who exhibit such behavior. It’s sometimes hard to find motivation and energy to follow through hard decisions and to make it a habit, but if people around you are doing it every day, your chances are much, much higher. The common saying that a person is mostly influenced by the five closest people is true.

To influence someone else you have to be a part of the closest circle of peers or a perceived authority.

Peers. One example is getting an addition to your development team. What you and your teammates would like is that this new person adopts team’s best practices in coding standards. One effective way is to talk to your team beforehand and ask them to be careful and aware of the things they do because the new teammate will look at their work and try to, with some instruction and mentoring, copy the existing workflow. The first time someone makes a shortcut or a sloppy piece of work in code, documentation or commit messages during the “learning” phase, your credibility is significantly undermined. What you have just demonstrated is that it’s sometimes OK to deliver suboptimal work due to time constraints or negligence, even if it backfires in the long run. That’s probably not what you intended, but the message is transferred nevertheless. I mentioned at the start of this article that people love consistency, and it’s crucial in cases like this.

Authority. Teachers, bosses, religious leaders, experts in a domain have a particular authority, and if you’re one of them, it’s much easier to start a positive change. You don’t need a circle of people (although it’s much easier and effective that way) and you can influence a lot of people at the same time. The downside is that all eyes are pointing to you and watching all the time. Consciously or not, every step is analyzed and dissected. Many people in that position make a mistake of thinking that only what they say counts and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Watchers are connecting every word you say with your actions, and if they misalign, trust evaporates like dew in a dessert.

A teacher who scolds children for being late on class but regularly fails to make it on time on the first morning class is not a great role model. If they ask the teacher why there are double standards and the only answer is “because I’m a teacher”, guess who won’t be invited to a reunion or mentioned as a childhood inspiration.

A manager who preaches open and healthy communication, but often withholds information, talks about people behind their backs and never in their face or criticizes them publicly will find no one supporting his initiatives or even worse, find his subordinates mirroring his behavior and driving the company culture to the ground.

If you’re an owner of a small business hit by a bad cash flow period and need to make some cuts, the best way would be to communicate the problem openly to your employees. After the measures have been set and put into motion, be very conscious of your actions. Do you need a new computer you’re using for email and documents only or maybe one of your designers can make a better use for it? Switch to a smaller car, take the biggest pay cut and avoid expensive business dinners. When people see you live by your words every day, they will soon follow. Some of them will willingly leave a course to save money; others will try harder to get a discount from a supplier. Not getting a bonus will hurt less if you give up yours. With a clear goal and people supporting you, it’s very likely you’ll soon recover.


People are very complex beings. Starting a change in others is not a trivial thing. A person needs to be motivated to do it, but that can often be accomplished with open communication and a clear goal. The second ingredient is what this article is all about - serving as a role model. That’s the harder part. “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” comes immediately to mind.

Before you start telling others what to do, look at yourself first. If you’re keen on inspiring your friends, cultivating a company culture or building rapport, always lead with an example. And do it consistently.

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