Management by Provocation

When you are leading people, you will come into a lot of situations where you find the need to influence them not only in their behavior about what they are doing but also on a deeper level regarding their attitudes and work habits. When you read the literature about influencing people, you usually come across the “soft approach” as I would call it. You influence them by encouragement, appreciation, empathy and mild criticism. You are showing the positive aspects of the requested change and try to make it as comfortable as possible.

This approach actually works quite well a lot of times and you should definitely be able to use it. There are however a lot of situations, where this approach does not work at all. This is the case, when the effort, the affected person needs to put into implementing the behavioral change, exceeds the level of ambition this person has. The reason can either be a great effort for the person, because a major change of behavior would be needed, or a low level of ambition, or both.

When this situation occurs, I have found that a different approach works much better: the provocative approach. You make a small provocation that triggers an emotional reaction within the person. The person might feel slightly offended, embarrassed, intimidated or annoyed because of your provocation. You might think that this is a bad thing at first. But due to this emotional reaction the level of ambition within the person rises and this finally leads to the necessary energy the person needs to implement the change in behavior.

So consider a case when a person has a problem defeating monkey business and your job as a manager is to coach this person in overcoming this problem. Instead of saying “I appreciate your desire to help your colleagues. What you should also consider is that you also have made commitments to others and you probably can’t keep those when you keep being occupied by the requests of your peers.” you could say ”You know what you’re doing by doing the work of your colleagues all the time? You are making them dependent and helpless. Do you really think that is the right thing to do? Actually that’s not a very great service to them”.

Or you are confronted with a person that always makes excuses for not performing well instead of taking responsibility. In the soft approach you would say something like “I understand that you had difficulties and I think we should find ways how you can overcome those difficulties in the future.” while in the provocative approach you could try something like “Do you know that you come across totally weak when you make excuses. It conveys the impression that you have no power to overcome difficulties. But you actually aren’t weak, are you?”.

In order for the provocative approach to work you need to make the following considerations:

  • You have to have a relationship with that person that allows for the provocation. You simply cannot provoke everybody.
  • You need to show the person that you still have a friendly attitude towards him/her and that you want to help.
  • You assume it to be likely that the person will react with a raised level of ambition. Not every person reacts well to provocation. It depends on the personality.
  • You should find the appropriate level of provocation to trigger a big enough emotional reaction. Don’t overdo it.
  • You should avoid personal insults. When you look at the above examples closely, you see that there is no criticism about the person, only about the behavior. I didn’t suggest saying “you are weak” but “you come across weak”.
  • You should consider trying the soft approach first, because the provocation always contains a risk if you don’t do it well.

Besides the soft approach and the provocative approach there are other approaches as well. As a good manager you should be familiar with most of them. The difficult thing of course is to know which approach is the best one in the situation at hand.

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