The Art of Subtle Influence

How to lead when you don’t have control

Midjourney/prompt: "Chess pawn, hero shot, watercolor —c 10"

We all have people in our lives who we wish acted differently at times. Perhaps your colleague refuses to delegate, responds negatively to critical feedback, or is abrasive when engaging with other teams.

In my work with founders, I hear challenges like this a lot. When we work closely with someone, we get a front seat to both their talents and their neuroses. These minor issues are often outweighed by what a person brings to the team. In these situations, what’s a leader to do?

If you’re the CEO, you may be able to give feedback on a blind spot and direct them to act differently. However, if you’re located elsewhere in an organization, wielding authority to enact change may not be an option. And even as CEO, it’s often more effective to cultivate a teammate’s own internal desire to change, rather than mandating it.

How can we help our colleagues grow and change when they may not yet recognize the issue? We can find a solution in a surprising place: addiction research.

Addiction is like an extreme example of a blind spot, where a person is out of touch with the consequences of their behavior. In recent decades, psychologists have developed a number of effective tools for helping people who struggle with addiction, and these same tactics can be used to gently point our colleagues toward areas for potential growth.

In this piece, we’ll explore several frameworks from addiction psychology about how to help people change and will look at how you can apply these tools to lead in a non-coercive way—no matter where you sit in an organization.

Beyond confrontation and passivity

When dealing with a cofounder or colleague who is stuck in a blind spot, we tend to use two core strategies:

  • Confrontation—giving someone direct critical feedback or an ultimatum about something to change
  • Passivity—hoping it will change on its own, deciding it’s not a big deal, or simply firing them to avoid dealing with the conflict

Historically, if a loved one was struggling with alcoholism or addiction, you would engage them in a similar way:

  • Confrontation—the classic “intervention,” giving the person direct feedback on their addiction and how it affects those they love
  • Passivity—also known as “detach with love,” cutting a person out of your life and hoping they hit rock bottom on their own, eventually deciding to change

Research has shown that with addiction, neither of these approaches is super-effective, each with around a 30% success rate at getting someone into treatment. 

However, in the 1970s, researchers developed a new approach called Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT), which had a 70% success rate—more than twice as effective as confrontation or passivity.

What is CRAFT’s secret? It teaches people why the common strategies for encouraging change are counterproductive and offers a set of evidence-based skills to help people connect with their own desire to change—and these same skills can be applied in the corporate world.

The skills of subtle influence

When we give someone feedback at work, we do so expecting that they’re ready and willing to change. In reality, this is often far from the case.

In the early 1980s, two smoking cessation researchers came up with a six-stage model for understanding the process of how people change. While direct feedback can be helpful when someone is already ready to change, it typically backfires if utilized earlier in the process. 

In the early stages of change, a person feels ambivalent about changing their behavior. Part of them may acknowledge the need for change, but another part is drawn to the status quo, or sees the costs of change as too high. This is where most people are, most of the time, and is why direct confrontation rarely works. 

Instead, in CRAFT, you are encouraged to relate to your colleagues and loved ones like a stoplight. When their light is “green,” a person is open to feedback. When their light is “red,” feedback is likely to backfire.

If a person is talking about their desire to change or is actively taking steps toward it, their light may be green and they may be open to feedback. Otherwise, their light is probably red. This is where subtle influence comes in—a set of skills from addiction psychology that you can use to help a person become open to change, shifting their light toward green.

It’s important to note that these strategies only work when a change aligns with a person’s own long-term interests. These aren’t tools for manipulating someone for your own ends; they are ways to help people connect with their own intrinsic motivation for change, and won’t work when that internal motivation isn’t there.

Here are the key skills of subtle influence that are applicable to work relationships:

Preserve autonomy

According to self-determination theory, humans have three basic needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. One reason why nudges toward change often backfire is that they can feel like a violation of autonomy, leading someone to do the opposite as a way to regain a sense of freedom.

As a result, well-intended feedback can actually reinforce the bad habits we’re trying to change—eventually leading to a dynamic where any attempt to bring up the problem is seen as an attempt at coercion. This is a worst-case scenario, as it means the person is unlikely to be open to even looking at the problem, let alone discussing it.

Yet our gut reaction to seeing someone engaged in self-defeating behavior is typically to try and fix it, what addiction psychology calls the “righting reflex.” So the first step in preserving autonomy is noticing when we’re coming to a person with a change agenda, and letting go of overt attempts at creating change.

You can also reinforce a person’s autonomy by naming it. For example, when giving feedback to a cofounder who is poorly managing his calendar, you might say, “Ultimately, it’s up to you how you want to approach this.” Earnestly reinforcing someone’s autonomy can help build trust and bring down the walls that protect against outside influence.

Utilize natural consequences

When someone is ambivalent about making a change, they see the costs of change as outweighing the costs of staying the same. Our goal is to help them connect with the natural consequences of their behavior, effectively tipping the scale toward change.

Let’s say you have a cofounder who is spending too much time putting out fires and not building the systems needed to scale the company. They might acknowledge the need to change, but feel overworked and so continually put it off.

In this case, you might acknowledge how busy they are and gently point your colleague toward the consequences, both for the team and themselves. One way to do this is through asking open questions, such as, “How likely are we to lose <key employee> if things keep going like this?” or “How is life at home?”

In this way, you can help orient them toward the costs of the status quo, so they can see through their own eyes how their behavior stacks up against what they hold most important. Change then happens as a result of helping them align their actions more fully with their long-term values, resulting in a durable motivation to sustain the change.

Reward positive behavior

People are rarely uniform with their behavior. Rewarding positive behavior is about noticing positive deviance from the norm and reinforcing it, making it more likely to occur.

For example, if you have a colleague who refuses to delegate, you might make a point to notice and acknowledge the small ways in which they cede control to other members of the team. It can be as simple as sending a DM that says, “I see you let <direct report> own the analysis for that project. It seemed to mean a lot to them.”

In order for rewarding positive behavior to be effective, it has to be specific. Being generally nice to someone is not enough; you need to notice a concrete behavior and reinforce it with friendly praise or acknowledgment. 

If it’s not clear to the person how your behavior is different from your normal way of interacting, it won’t make much of a difference. Whatever your baseline level of positivity, you need to turn up the volume enough that it registers as distinct and directly connected to their behavior.

Invest in the relationship

People are most receptive to feedback from people they like and trust. Therefore, a foundational part of subtle influence is keeping the relationship strong and making sure it doesn’t lead to a situation where most of your interactions are about trying to get the person to change.

The main way to do this is to make sure that you continue to have shared positive experiences. This could mean going out for drinks after work, celebrating a shared company win, or joking around in between meetings. These positive interactions keep the relationship warm and continue to build trust, so that a person is open to feedback from you when the light changes to green.

This can be difficult, as our gut instinct in conversation may be to bring up what we think they should change. Thus, investing in the relationship goes hand in hand with the next skill—learning to manage your own emotional reaction to the situation.

Manage your own reaction

When dealing with someone who is engaging in self-destructive behavior, it’s not uncommon to have an emotional response that leads us to act in counterproductive ways.

For example, a client I worked with had a cofounder who was in a constant state of overwork and burnout. Even when there wasn’t a crisis, her cofounder couldn’t seem to shut off. He would spend nights and weekends stressing about the project, never allowing himself to fully reset.

When we started working together, my client was frustrated. Her cofounder was thinking of stepping back from the business—yet he continued with the same pattern of overwork. My client’s natural reaction was anger; how could her partner not see that he was creating the situation that was wearing him thin?

Her first reaction was to point this out to him in increasingly blunt ways, which only served to create distance in their relationship and stress him out more. Our work then became about learning to work with her emotional reaction—what fears the situation brought up for her—and responding in a more skillful way using some of the strategies I’ve outlined here.

If you can notice your emotional reaction when it comes up and own it as an opportunity for self-learning, you’ll be less likely to engage with a person in counterproductive ways, and can instead utilize the more effective methods detailed above.

It’s always a people problem

Computer scientist Gerald Weinberg once wrote, “No matter what the problem is, it's always a people problem.” The above strategies are a basic toolkit for addressing people problems more effectively. 

By taking these strategies to heart, you can engage in leadership from anywhere in the organization. Practiced consistently over time, this can help create a culture of intrinsic motivation in a workplace, rather than one of coercion and fear.

These skills are not always easy to implement. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to fall back into confrontation or passivity. I encourage you to practice these skills in small ways when the stakes are low, so that when a more emotionally salient issue comes along, you’ve built the habits needed to respond in skillful ways.

If you’d like to go deeper into CRAFT and the theory behind these interventions, here are a few resources:

Casey Rosengren is a founder, coach, and writer living in New York City. To receive his articles and get early access to workshops and retreats, follow him on Every:

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