Thinking About Incentives

It’s counterproductive to threaten someone until you determine their incentives to refuse compliance.

In other words, what do I gain by refusing to remove them? Nothing. In fact, it’s in my readers’ best interest to make it accurate or remove it. Threatening me with Darth Vader-speak like “compel compliance with [our] demand” just pisses people off, and I could have still been a strong proponent of theirs. Too bad –

How Not to Use a Lawyer, by Tim Ferriss

Tim is really a genius at boiling complicated things down to their core and then leveraging that knowledge to do something he wants. What he’s saying here about incentives though, I think, is really important. I’ve been very lucky in that for a long time people have let me shadow them without having the responsibility of having doing what they do.

They’d go Ryan, why is ____ doing that? What makes him act like _____ in meetings? What do you think about _____? And then usually I’d answer incorrectly and they’d explain it from some point of view that I hadn’t thought of. Very slowly, I realized they were giving me an eye for incentives. Tim’s example is exactly the reason why that’s so important.

Cesar Millan does this very well with dogs. First, he wants you to realize that there is no such thing as a dog having a barking problem – dogs bark, you just don’t want them to. So then you figure out why the dog is doing it and then decide what you’d rather them do instead and what you have to motivate them to do that. What he does, basically, is take the energy that’s causing the first problem and turn it into the means for accomplishing an alternative.

Recently, I’ve been working on solving a Google Image Search problem – a search for the company/person negatively affects the company’s image which in turn trickles down into all aspects of the business profile. Because of problems in the past, the results show bad, outdated photos or worse, ones that are inaccurate. How do you change that?

First, you figure out what’s causing the problem. Why are people linking and using bad photos and why does Google favor them? Then, you decide which ones you’d rather show up. Shooting new photos and replacements and a new protocol. Lastly, you create a convincing reason for that new direction. How do you make it easier than using the old photos? And in this case you also have to decide how to get people to change out the old ones, so you start the cycle over again. Why did they choose the photo they did? How can it disappear? How can I make that want to do that?

Yesterday for the first time, a news reporter wrote a negative hack piece about the company, not even knowing that they were using the exact new photo I’d baited them into to taking. Energy, used against itself.

Not understanding incentives is to be worse than Sisyphus. It is a constant steam of failure, of turning blue in the in the face, of extra, unnecessary work. Then you die. When you’re trying to accomplish something that is dependent on other people’s actions, the only solution is to examine their incentives. Step back and examine what makes them act the way they do. Figure out their self-interest and many times, you won’t even need to do anything but explain how what you want is exactly that.

So think about incentives. Always. Your own. Theirs. Ours.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.