There are 3 ways to get people to do things they don't want to doA reader recently asked me a pointed question: “I’ve read your work on creating user habits. It’s all well and good for getting people to do things, like using an app on their iPhone, but I’ve got a bigger problem. How do I get people to do things they don’t want to do?” Taken aback by the directness and potentially immoral implications of his question, my gut reaction was to say, “You can’t and shouldn’t!” To which his response was, “I have to; it’s my job.”

This gentleman, who asked that I not disclose his name, is the corporate equivalent of the guy the mob sends to break kneecaps if a worker doesn’t do as they’re told. For the past decade, he has run the same methodical process of cajoling, and at times threatening, people to do things they don’t want to do. “It’s really unfair and mean. I know it is,” he said. “But people have to comply or else people get hurt.”

This man is an identity and access management auditor at a well-known public accounting firm. Not exactly Good Fellas, but high-stakes nonetheless. His Fortune 500 clients pay his firm to ensure managers complete lengthy inquiries involving hundreds of employees collecting thousands of pieces of information, usually on tight deadlines. “Ever since Sarbanes-Oxley, these user access reviews just have to get done.”

Though the auditor’s job is unique, getting people to do uninteresting tasks (specifically those that are infrequent and involve work done outside normal responsibilities) is a common challenge. What are the ways to get people to do things they don’t want to do?

A Shot in the Arm

I pondered this question and searched my mental database for examples of companies I’ve worked with or could reference as case studies. But instead, I thought about the last time I saw someone willfully doing something they didn’t want to do; my four-year-old daughter came to mind.

We had recently taken her to the pediatrician for a final round of shots before kindergarten and, to our surprise, she left the doctor’s office with a spring in her step and a smile on her face. To a child, there are few things more terrifying than getting stuck with needles, and it was the closest equivalent I could think of to completing the auditor’s “user access reviews.”

What made my daughter’s visit to the doctor so painless helps illustrate three tactics anyone can use to get people to do things they don’t inherently want to do.

1. One Prick At A Time

When the nurse stepped into the examining room, my daughter knew something was up. On a small tray, she carried four intimidating syringes. But instead of showing them all to my daughter, she thoughtfully kept them out of view. At the appropriate time, she reached for a needle, one by one, careful to consider how her actions would be perceived by my daughter. She tamed the instruments of toddler torment through what designers call progressive disclosure; to the nurse, it was just considerate common sense.

Staging tasks into small conquerable chunks is so basic yet so underutilized. Who wouldn’t take the time to ease a child’s fear with a little well-planned parsing? Yet in the office, it is all too common to lob large complex requests at our colleagues and be surprised by the ill-will we get in return. In the auditor’s case for example, he admitted that his clients start by sending long memos accompanied by even longer spreadsheets detailing the entire tedious task. No wonder their emails are met with contempt.

Managers pushing down tasks know all the level of details and tend to think everyone else should, too. But that’s just not the case. Most users just want to know what to do next, and flooding them with too much information induces stress and fear. Having the forethought to appropriately stage the work can reduce this fear, which ironically, in both children and adults, is often much worse than the prick of the needle itself.

2. Reduce The Pain With Progress

In the auditor’s case, his requests were particularly painful because they were too infrequent to become skill-building routines. Whereas many tasks become easier with time as people improve their abilities, corporate fire drills are dreaded for many reasons. For one, they distract workers from their regular duties. They often require learning new processes or hunting down long-discarded information. And worst of all, they can last for an undefined period of time, providing little visibility into when the pain will end.

Just as parsing tasks into smaller chunks can make a job seem more achievable, providing greater insight into the progress made is another way to reduce cognitive stress. In the pediatrician’s office, the thoughtful nurse asked my daughter to count to five as she administered each shot, giving my daughter an idea of how long the pain would last and creating a sense of control.

For years, game designers have utilized mechanisms to track advancement. Progress bars help players understand where they are in the game just as tracking and estimation tools could help workers better plan their work. These tools help inform how much time the next task should take and its relative place in the entire job. Providing a sense of progression is a form of feedback and is a key component of making unpleasant tasks more manageable.

3. Get Out The Treasure Chest

To our amazement, even after receiving four shots, my daughter left the doctor’s office without shedding a single tear. The nurse used staged disclosure and eased the pain through progress indicators, but the final secret sat just outside the examination room.

There, on her way in, my daughter ogled a mysterious box she knew was filled with prizes. “After your visit,” the nurse told her, “you’ll get to pick anything you’d like from the treasure chest.” Offering prizes for the completion of certain tasks is effective in both children and adults, but beware, there is risk in rewards.

Numerous studies have shown that extrinsic rewards — incentives that are separate from the activity itself — often backfire. Reinforcing behavior this way tends to extinguish the pleasure of doing something for its own sake. For example, studies of children rewarded for doing activities they already enjoyed — like playing drums or drawing pictures — resulted in less motivation to do the activity later on.

Where long-term behaviors are the goal, more purposeful incentives are better. Self-Determination Theory, as espoused by researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, contends that people are motivated by deeper psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Clearly, making sure people know why their work matters is always the first step.

But while motivating through meaning is preferred, there are circumstances when prizes are in fact appropriate. When it comes to tasks people don’t want to do, specifically infrequent and uninteresting assignments, utilizing extrinsic rewards is safe because there is no existing behavior to de-motivate or extinguish. Shots in a four-year-old’s arm and the boring, routine work doled out by the auditor qualify as just such occasions.

What are appropriate rewards? Like everything in design, that depends on the person. Making a game out of the task doesn’t necessarily mean giving away points and badges if the user doesn’t find those incentives appropriate. However, utilizing other incentives, particularly those awarded with an element of variability, can be highly encouraging, just as long as they’re used only in this very specific condition and not as part of day-to-day operations.

Better Behavior Design

Unfortunately, the corporate norm remains drawing up a long list of what needs to get done and throwing it over the email wall to be completed … or else! There will always be tasks people don’t want to do. But, there are ways to get people to do things they don’t want to do. There are better ways to motivate others, principally by designing conditions where people actuate themselves.

Fundamentally, people resist being controlled and both the carrot and the stick can be tools for unwanted manipulation. Instead, designing behavior by putting in the forethought to appropriately stage tasks, providing progress indicators, and finally, offering celebratory rewards under the right circumstances, are easy ways to motivate while maintaining a sense of autonomy.

Whether in the doctor’s office or the corner office, it is the job of the person inflicting the pain to do their utmost to ease it. Not doing so is intellectually lazy, whether to a kid or to a colleague. Considering how the receiver could more easily comply with the request is at the heart of inspiring action.

Photo Credit: Corey Ann

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  • sajid saiyed

    This reminds me of one example. Once a man told another man., “You have to make me go to that lamp-post you see there? Your task is to send me there against my will to go there. Condition is, you cant touch me”. So this other man thought for a while and then said, “I may not be able to do that. But what I can do is, I can bring you from that lamp-post to here without touching you, that too against your will.” Surprised by his answer, this man unintentionally goes to that lamp post and says, “Ok, call me near you. Without touching me. Against my will.” ………………… The other man just laughed and said, I did what you asked me to do. I sent you to that lamp post. :)”

  • Nir, I just found you through Danny Iny, and am very glad! My own website is intended to help teachers motivate their learners, and I can definitely share with them a lot of the information you provide on this site. This article, in particular, is of interest to me as I think about a conversation I had with a teacher yesterday. We agreed that Dan Pink’s definition of motivation (autonomy, mastery, purpose) is key (which is almost the same as you state above: autonomy, competence, relatedness). The problem is that she has a few kids who simply do not see the purpose in reading a book, so they don’t (grade 9). They already break up the task into chunks – chapters – and can see progress – the end of the book. Rewards? Would that be the missing ingredient? Because clearly these students just don’t care about a grade.

    I have only just begun to read some of the articles on this site. Can you offer any additional advice for a teacher meeting this type of resistance? If we can come up with something that works, I’d love to do a case study with you!

    • Why not let them read something they actually want to read? I think good content is key. Instead of trying to get kids to read as the end goal, I think the goal should be to develop a love of reading. Like all habits, we must start with behaviors we want to do, not have to do. See:

      • Great article you link to, thanks! Yes, we are working like crazy to help them develop the love of reading! They CAN choose whatever they want to read during a period of time every day. Anything, with no tests or assessments. There are just some kids who have developed the self-identity of “I don’t read”, and have decided that they are proud of it. It is very sad because they just don’t know what they are missing. And other than encouraging them to “try this” and “try that” and have them read a little at a time, we just don’t know how to make a difference for them in their attitude and behavior.

  • You are the first person who can help me understand a theory and know how to apply them immediately in my work, can’t wait till your book come out! Please consider doing an audio version too 🙂

  • Anil

    Here’s a problem that defies the above. I am (my startup is) in the business of getting people to download and watch video legally (copy-protected video) instead of through pirate sites. Your thoughts?