Decision Incentives

Leadership is the art of influencing others to accomplish a common goal. There’s a lot to unpack in that sentence, but today I’m going to focus on the influence others bit, and if I’m being honest, only on a tiny portion of ‘influence others’.

There’s a quote that has really helped crystalize a started point for understanding others’ decision making:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair

And this gets into the influence part because before you can try to influence others, you have to understand what drives their decision making. In the case of software, there may be financial incentives for them to act a certain way. For instance, if your VP is compensated based on percentage churn, then they may be incentivized to make it harder for users to churn (like the dark pattern of requiring a phone call to cancel your online subscription). In this case, it wouldn’t matter how passionately you spoke of improving the experience for your users — your VP won’t go for it. It would literally hurt their finances.

Next time you come across human behavior that’s hard to explain in your workplace, think about the incentives that would need to exist to make this behavior seem rational. Often that’s the first step to understanding why people make the decisions they do, and as they say, knowing is half the battle1.

1We could still use a good G.I. Joe movie. I’d pay for that.

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