Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant, and Shape the Path


by Philip Verghis
July 29, 2016

Psychologists have long told us that there are two independent “always-on” sides of our brain. One is the emotional side, the other the rational side. NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses a lovely analogy to explain both: the emotional side is the elephant, the rational side is the rider. The rider of the elephant looks like he or she is in charge, but when there’s a disagreement between the elephant and the rider, the elephant usually wins.

Chip and Dan Heath's superb book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, builds on this analogy and talks about directing the rider (rational brain: responsible for planning and direction, but can get paralyzed overthinking things) and motivating the elephant (emotional brain: prefers quick gratification over long term, but gets things done). Numerous experiments show that the rider can get exhausted trying to motivate the elephant and needs time to recover. This is why, if you’re trying to eat healthily while on the road, you tend to make bad choices at the end of a long day and opt for that extra glass of beer.

Direct the Rider

If you want to make sustainable, meaningful change, you have to get the elephant and the rider to happily go on the path together. First, direct the rider. Don’t get paralyzed by how to figure out how to measure something as intangible as knowledge-sharing. In his brilliant book, How to Measure Anything, Douglas Hubbard talks about a three-step clarification chain:

  1. If it matters at all, it’s detectable/observable.
  2. If it is detectable, it can be detected as an amount (or a range of possible amounts).
  3. If it can be detected as a range of possible amounts, it can be measured.

Don’t get paralyzed by overthinking how to measure knowledge-sharing success. How about a simple test? Randomly survey customers who have gone through the traditional process for support as well as those who go through a knowledge-enhanced process. See what the outcomes are for each: Has their customer satisfaction, NPS, or customer effort score improved? Has employee engagement improved? How about revenue and repeat customers?
If you haven’t already, start work on aligning your measures with that of the business.

Motivate the Elephant

In order for knowledge sharing to stick, people have to want to share information, and it has to become part of how you do your job. In this context, motivation is all about the team understanding the benefits of the practices and receiving the right incentives (performance measures, recognition, rewards) for that behavior. Document the “what’s in it for me” and provide training that shows both why they should share knowledge and how to do it.

Shape the Path

Here's where another powerful technique comes in: shaping the path. This means focusing on the surrounding environment to make change easier. In one experiment, simply changing the size of popcorn containers in a movie theater changed how much popcorn was eaten, even though the popcorn was terrible in both cases. The bigger the container, the more you eat. Shape the path.

For managers, this means that if you want your team to do certain behaviors, then all things being equal, you should make it easy for the team to choose the right behaviors. Look for way you can remove the points of friction that keep people from choosing the right behavior.

Lessons for Leaders

One of the best ways to direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path is to set meaningful metrics and develop a managerial style that allows people to “guide, not grade.” Let people understand what’s in it for them and make it easy for them to capture, structure, and reuse information in every single interaction they have.


Phil Verghis, author of The Ultimate Customer Support Executive, is a long-time innovator and supporter of HDI, including being past chair of the HDI Strategic Advisory Board and the chair of the metrics subcommittee of the 2012 Customer Technical Support Advisory Council. Phil has won numerous awards and has spoken all over the world.


Tag(s): workforce enablement, leadership, people, performance management, supportworld

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