How to get people to do what you want them to do

I remember a certain day several years ago when I found myself as a frustrated missionary, living in Newcastle, South Africa. I don’t remember the specific circumstances or source of my frustration but I do remember that I was upset. That evening, I came to a bitter and somewhat dramatic conclusion: “The only way to ensure that something is done correctly, is to do it yourself.”

Looking back, I realize that I was being rather juvenile. That being said, I’ve continued to wonder about the art of getting somebody else to do something for you. I’m not talking about hypnosis and I’m not talking about the beer-bellied man sitting on the couch with remote control in hand, yelling out “Make me a sandwich” (there is no art to that, my friend).

What I’m referring to seems to be one of those undervalued, unmentioned, streetwise skills. It facilitates things like flashmobs, reversed charges, reconsidered applications, networking, volunteering, and grassroots politics. It allows you to be in several places at once. It’s related to resourcefulness, confidence, deliberateness and tact. Whatever it is, it is a mistake to blow it off and assume that it isn’t a legitimate skill.

Now I certainly don’t have the answers here but I have read some really interesting information on the topic. Getting people to do what you want has a lot to do with motivating them and a little to do with designing the task.

Daniel Pink wrote “Drive”, a New York Times bestseller that eagerly discusses what motivates people like you and me (you can watch an interesting video-readers-digest version here). In the book, he explains that we traditionally use incentives to motivate. Incentives like, “if you meet the sales quota, then you get a bonus” or “if you are good at the grocery store, then you can have a candy.” However this motivation model falls flat on its face when we ask ourselves questions like “how does Wikipedia get thousands of volunteers to spend their own time, without pay, monitoring the website, ensuring that every article is accurate, well-referenced, unbiased, and complete?” The fact is that despite the absence of incentives, Wikipedia’s motivation model works. It works so well that Wikipedia is consistently found in the top 10 highest traffic websites on the internet. Pink calls this model Motivation 2.0, which represents intrinsic motivation, rather than the system of rewards and punishments that we still use in our education system (If you study hard and perform well, you get an A! If you mess around, you get detention).

Intrinsic motivation is more powerful than incentive based motivation but it can be difficult to produce. Pink has a lot of suggestions on how to produce intrinsic motivation (I highly recommend the book, especially if you are ever in a situation where you’re trying to motivate people) but I believe that motivation is only one part of the puzzle.

Designing the task is also important. Imagine that you need to get 50 people to take a survey. There are only a handful of ways to do this well and tons of ways to mess it up. Consider this example:

Poor Survey Design

This may be an extreme example but you get the picture. There is a lot that you can do on your end to improve your odds of getting your 50 responses.

In a similar vein, the web UI guru Steve Krug wrote a book called “Don’t Make Me Think.” As the title suggests, he talks about how us human being hate to expend any unnecessary effort or thought. If you actually watch yourself when you Google search for something, you’ll see that you will try a link, and if you cannot find what you are looking for in the first 5 seconds, you’ll give up on that site and try another link. You’ll do this 4 or 5 times (never moving beyond the first 3 pages of Google listings) before you try different search terms. In short, if we have to make any real effort digging through the pages of the site, we quickly abandon ship and try another site.

Humans don’t like effort. Part of Apple’s huge success in recent years is due to the fact that they are obsessive about making their products easy to use. Did you notice how revolutionary their app store is? Prior to this platform, if I wanted an application for my computer, I would have had to drive down to Best Buy, search around the store for the software (praying that it is in stock), ensure that it was compatible with my computer’s hardware and operating system (highly unlikely, if you used a Mac 10 years ago), try and remember if you had enough space on your hard drive, spend $30 on one of those boxes with an instruction manual and a CD in it, go home, pop in the CD, run some installation file, figure out if you need to pop in the CD every time, or just during installation and then finally, use your program. There was no chance on earth that Grandma would be able to do this on her own.

What do you do on your apple device now? Click the button to bring up the app store. Search for the app you want. Click “buy.”


No trip to the store. No compatibility issues. No section of your bookshelf for instruction manuals. It’s no surprise that software sales are going through the roof.

There are a lot of other tips and tricks in getting people to help you out (There is a whole chapter in Carnigie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People called “making people glad to do what you want”). However, I just want to mention one point I learned in a networking presentation by David Bradford, the “most connected man in the west” (he’s maxed out his number of facebook friends). He said the biggest key to building a strong network is to help other people with no expectation of getting anything in return.

Now that’s a mantra to live by.