Motivating People by Reference

by Steven Cerri

Have you ever noticed how people make decisions? Most of us haven’t analyzed this topic. But how we and others make decisions is directly tied to motivation. And the way we process data directly relates to how we make those decisions to be motivated to do something or not.

Let me give you an example. Many years ago I purchased my first single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to buy an SLR and as a college student it was a big investment. So I wanted to buy a camera that I knew would be what I wanted.

And that was the major question… what do I want and why? Perhaps because I was an engineer I decided to build a matrix. The matrix was on a large piece of paper (2’ x 3’) so I could view all the information at once. I took every conceivable parameter that I could evaluate and compared those parameters in twenty different SLR cameras.

Using the matrix and all the parameters in my matrix, I narrowed my search down to three cameras. Then I went to a camera store and asked to see and hold each of the three finalists. I held each camera as if I was using it to take pictures. I played with the controls. I took off each of the lenses. I asked the attendant questions. Finally, I selected the one that “felt” the best in my hands. I purchased that camera and I’ve loved it ever since.

That is how I made my decision to buy my camera. But was it a random process or was their some predictability to it? Do I do that every time I buy something? Have you noticed how you make decisions or is it something that you don’t give any thought to?

I can tell you that the process is not random. It is predictable. In fact, if you watch closely you will notice that there are certain people who make decisions based on reviewing evidence, talking to people, and gathering information. They gather as much “external” data as possible before making a decision. If they want to buy a car, they read magazines, they go on-line to read reviews, they talk to people who own the cars they are considering. They believe the idea that word of mouth is the most important type of marketing and the most important source of accurate information. This is exactly what I did in the first part of my decision process by doing research and constructing a matrix.

You’ve probably noticed other people who seek information from no one, but instead make decisions based on a set of rules “inside their heads”? They want a personal experience or they go through a personal, internal process to make their decisions. If they are interested in buying a car they’ll go for a test drive. They’ll rent the car for a week and see how it feels, how it drives. They’ll decide what car to buy based on their own experience of the car. This is what I did in the second portion of my camera buying decision by holding each of the cameras and running scenarios as if I was taking pictures with each.

Therefore, in the first portion of my decision making process I sought out external information, while in the second portion I wanted to experience it for myself.

Now you might say, “Well that was about buying a camera and that was a long time ago. That probably doesn’t have much to do with the present or with management in my technical organization.” Well, let’s see.

Lets fast-forward from my college days to just a couple of years ago and see if my purchasing strategies had changed over time.

Several years ago I wanted to buy a kayak. I decided to make my decision by learning all I could about kayaks. This seemed reasonable since there a many different types of kayaks and I wanted to understand what my choices were.

I searched the Internet, read magazines, and talked to dozens of people about the different types of kayaks. In the course of a couple of weeks, I had accumulated more than enough “research” information for my decision and although I didn’t make a matrix of the data I had a “sense” of the groups I would choose from. But I didn’t know how to choose the right kayak from the narrowed field I had developed. I felt overwhelmed by the different choices and I didn’t have an innate sense of how to prioritize and filter the remaining choices.

My next step was to attempt to find some way to “personally” experience the various kayaks I had placed in the final group. That meant I had to do something that would give me the personal experience I needed to filter and prioritize and decide which kayak to buy. I needed to actually use each kayak that I thought would be a choice.

I sought out an opportunity to use several different kayaks. I found an outdoor store that was sponsoring a day on the water with kayaks. Potential customers could use as many kayaks as they wanted for the day to get a sense of what kayaking was all about. I now had my chance to actually use several different kayaks. So I jumped at the chance to spend a day on the bay.

It soon became clear to me which kayak I wanted to buy. Not because someone told me but because of my personal experience using it. I could now make my decision based on my own experience, my own “internal” experience.

If you look closely at my two buying strategies, for the camera and the kayak, you’ll notice that they are the same. In both cases I did “external” research until I reduced the possible candidates down to something I could experience, and then I had an “internal” experience of each. From there it was easy to make my decision.

In the vocabulary of communication, management and linguistics, we say that when I was doing research I was being “externally referenced” and when I was gathering information from my own personal experience I was being “internally referenced”.

Therefore, my buying strategy for purchasing both the camera and the kayak was to be “externally referenced” first, by seeking information from the outside world and to be “internally referenced” second, by gaining a personal experience. This allowed me to feel comfortable that I understand my choices and then to feel confident in my decision. Why is this such a big deal? The reason I’m spending time on these examples is that I want you to understand that decision-making strategies are not arbitrary, they are predictable. Human beings have “processes” that we use over and over again because, from our personal perspective, they work.

And I’m not making arbitrary distinctions. Just as a computer has software applications that we run to solve certain types of problems, each of us has a set of internal mental programs I call Personal Behavioral Sub-Routines (PBSR) that we “run” when we want to solve problems or make decisions. Some people use certain PBSRs that allow them to make their decisions using “external references”. That is, they seek information from the outside world. They want to know what others think, what others have experienced. Other people use PBSRs that rely instead on their own “internal experience” to decide. They rely on an “internally referenced” program to make a decision. And some people use a combination of both and in different order.

This has to do with management…? What does this have to do with technical management and with motivation? Actually…everything. Whether we are talking about your technical customer, your boss, your direct reports, or your colleagues, each person makes decisions using data from a specific set of sources and by a specific set of processes. People also use these processes (their PBSRs) to either be motivated to do something or to not do it. People either gather data from certain types of external sources or they use their own internal source and / or some combination of both, but the process is predictable.

And here is the significant point: if a person can’t get the information the way they want it (i.e., either internally or externally referenced in the way they want it) then they won’t make the decision or they won’t be motivated. As in the examples of my camera and kayak purchases, if I had been unable to get the internally referenced information, I would not have made the decision. In your business world, if your boss, your colleagues, or your customer, can’t get their information the way they want it, they won’t make the decision they and you want them to make. This means that if you don’t motivate someone according to their “motivation” Personal Behavioral Sub-routine they won’t get motivated. It’s that simple… and that subtle.

Therefore, what makes this so important for management is that if you attempt to convince a person by using a strategy that doesn’t match theirs, one that doesn’t match their PBSRs, you will frustrate them and they will resist your influence.

My basic premise in management is that everyone is doing what they think is best at the time. Therefore, if someone is resisting you it’s not because they want to be difficult. It’s probably because they truly believe that they are doing what is best for them, for the company, and for the task. If this assumption is true then it is your responsibility, the person who is trying to motivate them, to change your motivation strategy to fit what they need to see, hear, and know in order to be motivated. In reality, this is the way it works all the time, even if you don’t know it on a conscious level. Everyone is motivated to do anything; have dinner with you; take your direction; vote for a presidential candidate; like a specific song; all because the communication and the data they receive resonates and matches the data they want in the way they want it.

Some examples: Let’s take several examples. Let’s say you have a client to whom you are trying to sell your product. If your client is internally referenced they will want a personal experience of your product or service, or they’ll want to understand the subject for themselves. If you keep offering them the names and phone numbers of your other satisfied customers for them to contact, you are giving them external references. That’s not what they want and they will become frustrated. They want to experience and understand your product for themselves.

On the other hand, if your client is externally referenced, they will want to talk to others who have used your services or your product. If you attempt to give them a direct experience of your service or product, or if you keep explaining your product to them you will frustrate them as well. They are being externally referenced and you are feeding them internally referenced information.

This is also be important when motivating people. If you are managing an internally referenced employee, you will frustrate them by giving them too much direction. You’ll be thinking that you are helping them and they’ll be thinking, “Just let me start… I’ll figure it out once I get into it.”

However, an externally referenced employee will want to know everything you can tell them about the task before they start. They’ll take the position, “There’s no use reinventing the wheel. I might as well get as much information as possible before I start.”

Without understanding these two differences, you may be communicating in ways that make your desired outcome harder to achieve. Imagine giving too much guidance to an internally referenced employee or giving too little to an externally referenced employee.

And here is an interesting example. Suppose you have a very internally referenced employee. And suppose you have given this employee a job that is really beyond his capability but you know that he can learn enough to do the job successfully. But while he is learning, you’ll have to monitor and guide him very closely. Here is your dilemma… the employee is very internally referenced, which means he wants to be left alone as much as possible. Monitoring and guiding him closely is an externally referenced strategy. How do you reconcile your need to impose an externally referenced management style on the employee’s internally referenced work style without the employee feeling that you are micro-managing him?

Another example of this often occurs in technical meetings. A project manager will be attempting to convince a decision-maker of a position by quoting other sources (i.e., external reference). If the decision-maker is very internally referenced he or she will make the decision only when they understand the situation well enough to make “their own decision”. Quoting what others say or have done won’t sway them. But providing them with data and information that they can absorb and understand will allow them to become internally referenced and then make their decision.

You’ll also find that highly externally referenced people want to have meetings with all the potentially affected departments before making a major decision. Whereas highly internally referenced people make decisions on their own, and then wonder why other departments are upset for not being consulted.

Imagine putting a highly externally referenced person on a team with a highly internally referenced person and making them relatively equal in power and authority. The internally referenced person will want to move forward based on their internal understanding of what they believe is right. The externally referenced person will want to talk to all potentially affected people and departments and then make the decision. The internally referenced person will think that the externally referenced person is incapable of making a decision, and the externally referenced person will think the internally referenced person “shoots from the hip” and is not a team player.

The bottom line is that if you attempt to influence in a way that is not aligned with the way a person makes decisions, you will often frustrate them and therefore, fail to influence them. This may not be because your argument is weak, or because you haven’t enough information. It may be because you’ve packaged your message in a way that is counter to the way the listener wants to receive it.

Think of it as two databases exchanging information. You are one database and the listener is the other database. As you know, data in a database is stored according to formats for the various fields. If you transfer data from one database to another in a sequence and format that is not compatible with the receiving database you will get corrupted data. It’s the same for human communication. If you send your message in a sequence and form that is not in the listener’s sequence and form, the listener will reject it. Your influence is gone.

(The choice of which reference is applied is dependent on the situation and the circumstances, so pay attention to when a certain reference or combination of references are used.)

As I stated previously, the process of being internally or externally referenced is one of several “PBSRs”. In business, there are 15-20 PBSRs that people can use, but most people use only five or six of those consistently. By understanding a person’s PBSRs you’ll understand how they want to have data transmitted to them and you’ll know how best to communicate with them. Since the same PBSRs are often used in different situations, your goal is to notice a person’s meta-program usage at any given moment.

Those of you who are more externally referenced can find additional information and references on my web site:

Those of you who are more internally referenced can call me, Steven, directly at 925-735-9500 to have an exploratory interview experience in person.

Which approach feels better to you?

Be well,