Book Summary: Three keys to unlock your influence.

Book cover: Influencer

Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change

by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

The premise of this book is that leaders are agents of change. Whether they’re heading an organization, leading a social change movement, or parenting, genuine leaders are always trying to create something better and more impactful. And to do that, influence is the most critical tool in the leader’s tool belt.

The book outlines three keys and six sources of influence. Organized into two parts, part one outlines the basic principles, and part two covers each of the sources of influence in depth. To bring the techniques and tactics to life, the authors profile leaders who used these tools to create a world-class hospitality company, eradicate disease, and help convicts rediscover themselves and regain a valued place in society. The first edition of Influencer was a New York Times bestseller. And the authors’ research was named the “Change Management Model of the Year” by MIT Sloan Management Review.

In the authors’ own words: “The lion’s share of the problems don’t call for additional technology, theory, philosophy, or data (we’re up to our necks in that); instead, the problems call for the ability to change what people do. What qualifies people to be called ‘leaders’ is their capacity to influence others to change their behavior in order to achieve important results. The brief explanation for why they’re successful is that they see themselves not simply as owners, managers, or leaders, but as full-time influencers. They think about influencing behavior, talk about it, and practice it, and all of them have created remarkable changes in domains where failure has been the norm–often for decades.”

The authors are the founders of Crucial Learning (formerly “VitalSmarts”), a company offering training in communication, performance, and leadership. They previously co-authored Crucial Accountability, which builds on the ideas in their earlier NY Times best-seller, Crucial Conversations (written by Grenny, Patterson, McMillan, and Switzler), a guide on how to manage difficult conversations. Click here for my summary of Crucial Conversations.

The ideas outlined in Influencer are universal. Whether you are a community organizer, leading an organization or team, or a parent, this book can help you change behaviors at home, in your organization, your community, and around the world.

This summary reflects my takeaways from a book I found useful and recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: e-book | Audiobook | Print

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s authors.


Leadership Is Influence

Leadership calls for changing people’s behavior. Influencers are those leaders who understand how to create rapid, profound, and sustainable behavior change.

The Three Keys to Influence

Influencers do three things better than others. They are clearer about the results they want to achieve and how they will measure them. They focus on a small number of vital behaviors that will help them achieve those results. They overdetermine change by amassing six sources of influence that both motivate and enable vital behaviors.


Influencers start with a clear focus and set concrete measures. They know fuzzy objectives or lack of accountability won’t create change. They set clear goals that not only engage the brain but touch the heart and thus change behavior. And they set consistent, clear, and meaningful measures to track their efforts and hold themselves accountable.

Three common mistakes that undermine influence:

  • Set vague, uncompelling goals.
  • Don’t develop credible measures to track progress, or don’t measure consistently.
  • Choose flawed measures–measures that drive the wrong behavior or that measure the wrong thing.

Begin any change effort by turning your end goal into a compelling goal statement. Carefully craft a statement that engages the brain and the heart.

Set measures that matter. Avoid intuition and hunches. Create measures that inform and drive behavior. Refresh them regularly to maintain attention and influence behavior.


Not all moments are created equal. Influencers focus on helping people change a small number of high-leverage behaviors during crucial moments.

Influencers find and focus on changing the vital behaviors that drive results. They focus on high-leverage behaviors that make a difference–the two or three actions that produce the greatest amount of change.

Vital behaviors occur during “crucial moments” when someone’s choices can lead to significant results or a chain of negative behaviors that result in problems or perpetuate them. Crucial moments have a disproportionate influence. Influencers meticulously identify these moments and associated behaviors because they are the levers of change.


“Overdetremine” the change effort by engaging all six sources of influence. Instead of applying one or two of their favorite tools (like most of us do), successful influencers identify all the various factors that influence behavior and get them working for them, not against them.

Four vital behavior search strategies:

  1. Notice the obvious and under-used. These are candidates that are obvious to you or that experts have already spotted.
  2. Look for crucial moments. These are times when behavior puts success at risk. Look for these moments, the underlying behaviors, and potential points of failure.
  3. Learn from positive deviants. The positive deviant exists in the same world as everyone else, but produces superior results. Identify them, and then observe how the normative community and the positive deviant behave differently.
  4. Spot culture busters. The first step for influencers seeking culture busters is to map their own culture, which they can do by gathering stories. Once these unwritten rules are exposed, the related vital behaviors can be identified and changed.

Master the Six Sources of Influence

Influencers are more methodical than the rest of us. The overdetermine change. They carefully identify what influences are promoting the wrong behavior and work to reverse them. They rally all six sources of influence to support the change. Change follows.

Two basic drivers of behavior: ability and motivation–”Can I do it?” and “Is it worth it?” In the authors’ influence model, motivation and ability form the first two domains. They subdivide these two domains into personal, social, and structural sources.

PERSONALHelp Them Love What They HateHelp Them Do What They Can’t
SOCIALProvide EncouragementProvide Assistance
STRUCTURALChange Their EconomyChange Their Space
  1. Personal Motivation–Help them love what they hate

Influencers help people change how they feel about vital behaviors by connecting them with human consequences both through direct experience and through potent stories.

Personal motivation answers the question: is the behavior intrinsically pleasurable or painful?

When identifying problem behaviors, avoid making two common mental leaps: (1) assuming the people doing it don’t care. (2) And the reason they don’t care is because of some moral defect. This tendency to attribute others’ worst behavior to a character flaw is so common that psychologists have named it: “fundamental attribution error.” The authors say that it’s more likely a “moral slumber,” not a moral defect–they’re not thinking about others right now.

Four tactics to help people love what they hate:

  • Allow for choice. Having the freedom to choose is at the top of the list of motivational strategies because it is the gateway to all other methods. Replace judgment with empathy and lectures with questions. Stop trying to control others, and the fight for control ends. When you ask thought-provoking questions and listen to others, they figure out what to do. A committed heart empowers a person to influence even highly addictive and entrenched behaviors when coercive methods are swapped for personal choices.
  • Create direct experiences. Direct personal experience is the best method for inspiring motivation. Let people experience things on their own terms. Direct personal experience is a potent tool for helping people understand the impact of important actions. People resist change because they know what they’ll lose but not what they’ll gain.
  • Tell meaningful stories. Meaningful stories create a second form of potent experience, vicarious experience. Leaders who inspire a sense of mission in their organizations are always storytellers.
  • Make it a game. In order to make any activity engaging, research has found that reasonably challenging goals and clear, frequent feedback are necessary. Some elements of an enjoyable game:
    • Scorekeeping: Clear, frequent feedback transforms tasks into accomplishments and generates intense satisfaction.
    • Competition: Besides providing data, seeing numbers carries a sense of meaning: Am I doing better than before? Are we doing better than anyone else? Although this element can lead to unhealthy rivalry, competition is an effective way to take satisfaction out of a repetitive job.
    • Constant improvement: The actual numbers aren’t as important as the direction you are heading. Are you improving?
    • Control: Ensure individuals can control the measures they use to track their work’s impact. Many find the impact far more rewarding than the job itself. When numbers are tracked at higher levels, they lose their meaning to the individual and the team.
  1. Personal Ability–Help them do what they can’t

New behaviors require new skills. Over-invest in helping people learn how to master skills and emotions.

Mastery requires deliberate practice. According to Dr. Anders Ericsson, practice is not enough. It takes what he calls deliberate practice to create improvement. Deliberate practice is experience coupled with feedback. Ericsson says that no matter the field of expertise, for elite status, time spent in a profession has no correlation with performance level.

Identify mini-goals for achieving mastery. Top performers focus on improving behaviors or processes rather than outcomes as part of this focus. You must also ensure that their expectations of success grow along with their ability. “Take complex tasks and make them simple; long tasks and make them short; vague tasks and make them specific; and high-stakes tasks and make them risk free.”

  1. Social Motivation – Provide encouragement

Harness the power of social influence by engaging leaders and opinion leaders in encouraging vital behaviors.

Humans have amazing power over one another, and instead of denying it, lamenting it, or attacking it, embrace it and enlist it. When people adopt vital behaviors, they ensure they feel praised, emotionally supported, and otherwise encouraged by those around them. When people choose unhealthy behaviors, they also discourage or even sanction them socially.

Beware of the negativity bias. It’s ingrained. In any ambiguous situation, behaviors and motivations are usually interpreted negatively. It is critical to have multiple positive, credible examples for the new way to become accepted practice.

Engage formal leaders and informal opinion leaders.

  • Spend a lot of time with formal leaders to make sure they’re encouraging the vital behaviors. They create plans for formal leaders to teach, model, praise, and hold their subordinates accountable for new and better behavior.
  • Identify and work with informal opinion leaders. Opinion leaders are always engaged and wield a lot of power. Observing and judging is what they do, including passing judgment on your influence strategy. Because they are respected and connected, they will exert their influence widely and can decide your strategy’s fate.

Seek examples. When a respected person succeeds at a vital behavior, it can motivate others more than almost any other source. But only respected models have that power.

Set the example. People will look to you for cues. Make sure that you’re modeling the vital behaviors. Give people an obvious reason they should follow you, especially in situations where trust is an issue.

Making a personal sacrifice can boost your influence. When you ask people to make difficult, disruptive, and even frightening changes, a heartfelt plea is unlikely to work. You must sacrifice to influence those you want to change. Sacrificing time, money, ego, or other priorities proves your priorities are true.

Create new norms. When inappropriate behavior becomes “normal,” you’re in trouble. The odds of your success are slim unless you take direct action to create a new sense of normal. Developing new norms makes change almost inevitable.

Create an environment of 200 percent accountability. Change occurs when everyone holds everyone accountable. Ensure that everyone is accountable for not only enacting vital behaviors but also holding others accountable.

Unhealthy norms are perpetuated by silence. Breaking the silence around a problem is the first step to changing it. By openly discussing the unspeakable, you openly embrace rather than fight the power of social influence. In order to change behavior, change what you talk about. Talk about the new norms.

  1. Social Ability–Provide assistance

People need more than just encouragement; they often need help in order to change how they act during crucial moments.

Turn your “me” problem into a “we” problem. Enlist the power of social capital–other people and their networks of relationships.

If networks are part of the problem, they need to be part of the solution. Networks are often responsible for reinforcing the status quo, including undesirable behaviors. You need to assist interdependent workers and their teams to find more effective ways to work together–engaged in the vital behaviors that produce results aligned with your goal.

Tap the power of peers. Consider making your more experienced people coaches, trainers, instructors, and mentors in your change effort.

Fill in your blind spots. Because you can’t always see what works and what doesn’t, get real-time feedback from experts or other knowledgeable sources.

Two heads are better than one. Multiple perspectives can help to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the situation. Working together can help generate new ideas and solutions to problems, especially in volatile or novel situations.

Foster group solidarity. Sometimes we must give up ourselves for the larger cause and act for the benefit of all otherwise, the plan will fail. Use the sources of influence to make sure people rally around instead of rally against your changes.

  1. Structural Motivation–Change their economy

Modestly and intelligently reward early successes. Punish only when necessary. Be sure to use incentives third, not first.

Structural motivation includes rewards, perks, bonuses, and salaries, as well as disciplining actions when necessary. Changing their economy involves removing the disincentives and making sure that both positive and negative incentives support and don’t undermine your influence message.

Use incentives carefully. Use sources 1 and 3 (personal motivation and social motivation) and extrinsic rewards third. Don’t use incentives to make up for not engaging in personal and social motivation.

Reward behavior is not just results. Rewarding results can sometimes lead to inappropriate behaviors to achieve the result. External variables can influence results. Behaviors are under people’s control–they can change them. The results will take care of themselves if you reward people for their actual actions.

Consider small, meaningful tokens of appreciation when selecting rewards. The motivating value is in the reward’s symbolism, not necessarily its monetary value. (See my summary of Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us for a more in-depth discussion about the pluses and pitfalls of extrinsic rewards.)

  1. Structural Ability–Change their space

Change people’s physical surroundings to make good behavior easier and bad behavior harder.

A third source of ability is the environment–space, buildings, information, data, sights, sounds, and other environmental factors. We are often unaware of powerful elements in our environment. And, when we notice, we rarely know how to deal with the impact it’s having on us.

W. Clement Stone pointed out that, “You are a product of your environment. So choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective. Analyze your life in terms of its environment. Are the things around you helping you toward success–or are they holding you back?”

Learn to notice. When we pay more attention to the surrounding space, we can be better prepared to deal with the “silent forces.” In addition, the more we notice how we fall prey to simple, silent things around us, the more likely we are to extend that vigilance to other aspects of our lives.

Bring people together. Scientists studying “propinquity” (physical proximity) say that the frequency and quality of human interaction are largely a function of physical distance. Increased physical distance increases the likelihood of silos and reduces the likelihood of collaboration. Besides altering the physical layout, meetings and other interactive sessions can break the distance barrier.

Make it easy. Change things to make the right behavior easier while making the wrong behavior more difficult.

Make it unavoidable. The best way to enable behavior is to alter the physical world in a way that eliminates human choice entirely. This is where structure, process, and procedures play a key role.

Mind the information stream. Information flow is another part of the environment. Information affects behavior. Differences in perspectives can often be attributed to being exposed to different sets of information. Make sure the information stream supports the vital behaviors that you seek to instill or change. Information must be current, consistent, and relevant to have an impact.


Influence doesn’t come by accident. It comes through careful diagnosis, patient testing, and eventual success with all three keys to influence.

Using influence to effect change is all about the three keys:

  1. Focus and measure. Determine your goals and how to measure them. Identify what you really want and turn it into an inspiring goal. Then devise measures that keep the focus on your goal. And make sure that your measures focus on the right thing and that they influence the right behavior. Measure often.
  2. Identify the vital behaviors. Identify the critical behaviors associated with your goal. Focus on instilling or changing the two or three behaviors that will contribute most to the change you want to make.
  3. Get all six sources of influence working for you. Determine the areas that are working against you and engage all six sources to get them working for you. As you apply each source, study the results and make improvements.

Go all in. Some leaders tinker with change rather than lead it. Some would-be influencers attempt to create change “on the cheap” by selecting one idea to add to their already ineffective efforts. It’s a cafeteria-style method of tinkering. A successful influencer learns to overdetermine change by assembling enough sources of influence to make the change inevitable.

Book details and where to buy it:

Get the book on Amazon: e-book | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links*)

Amazon rating: 4.6

Goodreads rating: 4.0

Page count: 337

Publication date: May 17, 2013

Author website:

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