Live from Safety 2008: General Session Examines Science of Influence

When conditions are uncertain—on the job or in life in general—there are steps you as a professional can take to become more persuasive and move people to do what is right, necessary, and safe. That was the message and the focus of this morning’s general session keynote address delivered by Arizona State University psychology professor Dr. Robert Cialdini in the Las Vegas Hilton’s Barron Ballroom, kicking off day three of Safety 2008—ASSE’s Professional Development Conference and Exposition.

Cialdini, who is also the author of the best-selling book Influence and the upcoming Moments of Power, expounded on what he called “the best set of social principles that science has ever uncovered for moving people,” noting it is often the way safety professionals frame their already meritorious case for promoting safety and health that determines the outcome and people’s willingness to heed or ignore the message. He focused his presentation on three principles: scarcity, authority, and consensus.

The principle of scarcity revolves around the idea that people naturally want more of the things they can have less of. Cialdini advised the audience of about 2,500 SH&E professionals to inform people of what they stand to lose—not gain—by failing to listen to their proposals, because loss is the ultimate form of scarcity. “When you describe the new features or advantages of what you are offering, it’s not enough to tell them what they will gain,” he said. “The research is very clear: People are mobilized by knowing what they will lose. This means that to achieve safety, peace of mind, a hazard-free environment, you need to tell them what they will lose.”

He added that safety professionals as a group are “fortunate” in that the messages they have to deliver have merit and can prevent injuries and save lives. “You have a meritorious case to make. Pushing the message is your challenge,” he said. Provided the safety message is framed in the right way, with timely information, people will listen to your concerns, he said.

“Here’s a little mnemonic you can use: For every day of delay, you incur a day of decay. Don’t let the message get old. Information is not like wine—it doesn’t get better with age. It’s like bread,” Cialdini said, leading to his second principle of authority and how safety professionals become better communicators and present their cases when people recognize their backgrounds and expertise. “It turns out that in the literature of social sciences, there is one kind of communicator who is more successful than any other kind we have ever uncovered—the communicator who conveys knowledge and trustworthiness. . . . If you are a straight shooter, what evolves is a perception of you as a credible source of information who accurately depicts reality for the audience you are in front of.” Cialdini recommended employing the psycholinguistic strategy of first admitting a fault or weakness and pivoting on the word “but,” using that conjunction as a bridge to then immediately present all the strengths of the message and obliterate the initial weakness. “The word ‘but’ signifies to the listener to take away the information I just gave you—take it away—and focus on what I’m about to say,” he said. When presenting a case or safety message, the human tendency is to do things the opposite way, he noted. “This is my strongest argument,” Cialdini said. “You can do this. I’m not asking you to change the words of your message—just the sequence of the words, to get you the influence you deserve.”

Finally, Cialdini discussed the persuasive power of the consensus principle, which revolves around the fact that, when confused, people look to outside sources—experts, peers, others who are just like them—to determine what is appropriate and important for them to do in that situation. “This concept is often misused by safety communicators when they are presenting new initiatives, new products, or new procedures,” he said. “They say, ‘So many of you are failing to use your safety glasses or gloves or other protective devices,’ and ‘So many of you are failing to follow proper procedures that we have to initiate these new procedures.’ The problem with that message is that by virtue of the principle of consensus, we have now validated the problem, telling them that they, like everybody else, are doing it wrong. It’s validating incorrect behavior.” The better way to proceed with the message, Cialdini said, is to marginalize the incorrect, unsafe behavior, noting the consequences for the many when even one person fails to behave correctly.

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