Dr. Zoe Chance: Leadership through Influence

At Oslo Business Forum, Zoe shared intriguing insights and practical steps to help leaders take their influence to the next level.

Dr. Zoe Chance is a writer, teacher, researcher, and climate philanthropist obsessed with the topic of interpersonal influence. She earned her doctorate from Harvard and now teaches the most popular course at Yale School of Management, which is the basis for her international bestseller, “Influence is Your Superpower.” Her framework for behavior change is the foundation for Google’s global food policy. Today, Zoe helps people to use their superpower of influence as a force for good.

More Influential than You Think

As leaders struggle to guide their teams through uncharted territory, the power of influence can’t be underestimated. A leader’s ability to persuade others has become critically important to navigate their organization’s near-term challenges—and earn their employees’ long-term trust and engagement.

This isn’t news to Zoe, who describes her life’s work as researching and teaching others to be more influential.

"Influence isn’t rocket science. The simplest thing we can do is just ask"

Often, when Zoe asks those she works with to name the biggest lesson they’ve learned in their work together, the answer is simple. They walk away, understanding that influence isn’t rocket science, and the simplest thing they can do is ask.

“Most people don’t realize what they can ask for,” said Zoe. She shared hard evidence, pointing to statistics demonstrating how asking leads to results.

“Sixty percent of executives have never asked for a raise or promotion,” she revealed. “The majority of people who did got what they wanted or even better.”
The reason, Zoe believes, is that we are more influential than we think.

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Behavioral Economics: The Gator and the Judge

Leaders often fail to be more influential because they misunderstand the beliefs and behaviors that guide people’s reactions and responses to attempts at influence.

"Influence doesn’t work the way we think because we don’t think the way we think."

In her work with organizations, Zoe provides basic but important insights connected to behavioral economics. In concept, behavioral economics describes two systems that work together—and sometimes in opposition—to drive all our thinking and behavior.

Zoe offered leaders at Oslo Business Forum an analogy to depict behavioral economics at work, describing the two systems as the Gator and the Judge. 

System #1: The Gator
An alligator is primal and efficient. The Gator is constantly scanning its environment for opportunities and threats, but its work is habitual, almost effortless. “Gator brain” is unconscious processing based on emotion.

System #2: The Judge
A judge is careful and rational. The Judge is commonly thought of as objective and driven by fact rather than emotion, but in truth “Judge brain” is biased and influenced largely by the Gator’s habits, shortcuts, and assumptions.

The mistake some leaders make is imagining that the Judge is the dominant piece of us. Contrary to this, Zoe says the Gator is the first responder (always), and the Judge is the second guesser (sometimes). “The Gator is the gatekeeper of the Judge,” she explained.

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Influence and Engagement

In her work, Zoe has observed that when “gators” are happy, teams and organizations thrive. But what is the most critical link between influence and engagement? The manager.

“Employees with likable managers are seven times more likely to be engaged,” she said. “But 90% of bosses are bad.”

When people talk about the worst leaders they’ve had, there are common characteristics they describe. Many “bad bosses” are perceived as either incompetent or disrespectful. Disrespectful bosses occupy the largest bucket, and this significantly undermines their influence.

Zoe revealed an important insight to leaders: “As an influencer, you are a threat.”

People typically have an immediate, visceral response to influencers. Challenges to our beliefs activate fear, just like physical threats. Our brains are hard-wired to trigger survival instincts, even when a threat is not real.

“We process messages in the emotional parts of our brains instead of the logical centers,” said Zoe. “This means people can end up feeling disrespected even when you’re trying to do something helpful.”

This makes it critical that leaders frame messages appropriately—and the wrong approach is focusing attention on something that is being taken away. “Increasingly, we are facing an environment where more things are taken away,” she said. “It’s difficult because Gators feel losses more strongly than they enjoy gains.”

Moments of Truth

Beyond message framing, there are many things for leaders to consider as they strategize how to engage employees. Zoe offered leaders at Oslo Business Forum a simple place to start: moments of truth.

She described moments of truth as employees’ “first days and worst days.” The first days—interviewing, onboarding, and meeting their teams—can make powerful, long-lasting impressions. The worst days—when scandals emerge, pandemics break, or layoffs occur—matter even more.

“A lot of people neglect to focus on the worst days,” Zoe said. “You can’t be perfect, but you can focus on these days and try to do the right thing.”

She drew a parallel to the Paradox of Service Recovery, research that demonstrates a customer who has a “worst day” (such as a service failure or mistake) can sometimes become more loyal than if they had never experienced the problem.

“This can be the same in our personal and professional relationships,” said Zoe. “If this ‘worst day’ doesn’t go well, you can lose them forever. But when they feel your support in a moment they didn’t expect it, their loyalty can pay dividends for years.”

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The Magic Question

Leaders striving to use influence to unlock employee engagement can benefit from asking one simple question that Zoe believes is the key: What would it take? She refers to this as the “magic question” and shared a story from her time at Guidant Corporation.

"Being influential requires being influenceable"

With a new product that achieved unprecedented demand, Guidant was on the brink of creating employees’ worst days by asking them to work overtime through the holidays. One leader took an unconventional approach and asked employees the magic question. She was met with an unexpected response. The employees asked for simple concessions that met their basic needs and concerns, like cab fare, free pizza, and gift-wrapping services. The leader granted their requests and, in return, earned their long-term engagement, respect, and loyalty.

It turns out that the magic question works both ways. Zoe shared examples from numerous organizations where employees—who would otherwise be perceived as having limited influence—broke new ground by simply asking. By earning their companies’ investment in everything from progressive new health benefits to impactful social programs, these employees proved that influence is often easier than you think.

But Zoe offered leaders a word of caution. “Especially if you care about equity, inclusion, justice,” she said. “Don’t make your employees have to ask you.”

Evidence that “asking” is unevenly distributed is all around us. It spans gender, race, ethnicity, and social class. Men are three times more likely than women to ask for more pay. Middle-class kids are seven times more likely than working-class kids to ask for help.

“When you grant a privilege to one person,” Zoe said. “Consider granting it to everyone who hasn’t asked.”

As she closed, Zoe encouraged leaders at Oslo Business Forum to put what they learned today into practice immediately. She left them with this prompt: “What would it take for you to start asking the magic question?”

Key Points

  • Influence doesn’t work the way we think it does because we don’t think the way we think we do.
  • Our thoughts and behaviors are guided by two internal systems: the Gator and the Judge.
  • The Gator is our unconscious, emotional response, and the Judge is our deliberate, rational response. The Gator is the gatekeeper to the Judge.
  • We process messages in the emotional parts of our brains instead of the logical centers, which can result in resistance to influence and poses an obstacle for leaders.
  • Leaders striving to use influence to unlock employee engagement can benefit from asking the magic question: “What would it take?”

Questions to Consider

  • As you reflect on your journey as a leader and influencer, when can you recall advocating for yourself, or asking for what you want?
  • What do you believe has held you back from asking?
  • What techniques do you rely on today to engage and influence your teams?
  • What would it take for you to start asking the magic question?

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