Influentials: Unlocking potential

by Rebecca Macfie / 19 September, 2013
Real influence now comes from the ground up as often as it does from business and political leaders. And by understanding the six principles that drive people’s behaviour, organisations can work far more effectively.
For the past few weeks, the New Zealand flag has been waved with great fervour all along the San Francisco waterfront. Such symbols have long been known to embolden us: now psychological research suggests certain cultural signals not only boost morale and determination to win but can have such a powerful influence that they trigger a phenomenon akin to medical placebos.

In this special issue of the Listener, we spotlight a range of the sometimes hidden cultural forces that influence New Zealanders’ lives.

Our thanks to the University of Auckland for unlocking the online features and making them available free to all. Please share your thoughts on what influences New Zealanders.

Getty Images/Listener photo illustration.

Lorde. Gap Filler. The Student Volunteer Army. They’ve all stamped their authentic, self-made influence on us. Without the intervention of talent manufacturers or reality TV shows, 16-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor – aka Lorde – is storming the music charts in-between classes at Takapuna Grammar. Gap Filler started without money or resources, just a well-networked group of creatives and the will to turn a devastated Christchurch into a vast canvas for urban experimentation. No one made thousands of students go out into the post-quake mayhem and shovel silt for weeks on end in the city’s eastern suburbs; they just did it because it needed to be done, others were doing it and it had become cool to help out.

Influence is no longer the preserve of those who have collected impressive titles in business, politics or professional networks. Gap Filler, conceived by people who previously performed their art at the fringes, has done more to reconnect Cantabrians with their broken city centre than commercial property developers or the grand Government blueprint. And the thousands of Student Army volunteers have probably done more to enhance the University of Canterbury’s brand image than any number of costly marketing brochures and billboards.

Brad Jackson: we need new forms of leadership. Photo/David White.

Just as well. As Brad Jackson, co-director of the New Zealand Leadership Institute at the University of Auckland points out, today’s complexities demand new forms of leadership and influence across the private, public and non-profit spheres. New Zealand, like every other country, has had to navigate the global financial crisis and the Eurozone debt crisis – to hardly mention the catastrophic failure of our own finance-company sector. We’ve endured the biggest natural disaster in our history and at Pike River the worst industrial calamity in a generation; we’ve swept Auckland’s fractious factions into a single governance entity; we’ve seen vast damage done to one of our biggest export industries by the PSA vine disease; and we’ve realised with horror just how easily the dairy industry might have been devastated by a breakdown in food-safety systems. And we’ve watched the Bay of Plenty’s pristine environment turn slick with oil from the stricken Rena. The list of challenges, of course, goes on and on: child poverty, unaffordable housing, youth unemployment and more.

Yet the dramas of the past few years have also unearthed reassuring evidence that the skills to drive change exist in our communities and organisations – and very often the people who end up having the greatest influence are complete unknowns. Who’d heard of Sam Johnson at the start of 2010? Who had any idea Gap Filler’s Coralie Winn would become one of the most influential people in post-quake Christchurch? How many people knew of the broad networks and deep organisational skills of Rosalie Crawford? Rosalie who?

That’s right; you’re unlikely to have heard of her. But Crawford is another example of the kind of bottom-up, adaptive influence that can channel the resources and energy of ordinary people with something to contribute, and turn it into effective action that improves lives.

Tauranga-based Crawford had a sizeable network of connections with iwi, community groups and politicians through her work establishing Webhealth, a directory of Bay of Plenty social services. Then the February quake struck and suddenly she found herself in the thick of the action – without leaving Tauranga. She had family in Christchurch, and started keeping a watch on a Facebook group, where information was being posted about people who badly needed help. Through family and an ever-widening network of contacts on the ground she was able to sit with her computer and cellphone in Tauranga and direct people offering to help to those in need. For instance, when her sister discovered a woman immobilised by shock and with her property inundated by silt, Crawford put a note on Facebook calling for help: the next morning 20 people turned up.

Distressed families then started arriving in Tauranga, and Crawford tapped into her health networks to source the housing, resources and social support they needed. The project was called Rise Up Tauranga, and Crawford used the power of social media to aggregate the efforts of those who had something to offer – furniture, food, money or time – and match it with those in need. Over time, about 800 Cantabrians came to Tauranga, either temporarily or for good, and about 700 people helped out in some way.


Jackson says there are moments in a crisis where a command-and-control leadership style is needed – in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, for instance, or in the urgent rush to contain the oil leaking from the Rena. But as people like Crawford illustrate, the role of the quiet “post-heroic” leader is just as influential.

“The great leadership scholar James MacGregor Burns, who wrote about transformational leadership, said there were only two things that distinguished leaders from followers – and it’s nothing to do with personality types or profiles. It’s taking the initiative and taking responsibility. In the past we might have talked about the charisma of the leader, but now I think it’s important to talk about the charisma of the cause.”

Arguably, even Team New Zealand are illustrating that change in emphasis – where Sir Peter Blake stood as the singular leader in the past, the crew at San Francisco appear to be operating under a more distributed model where the integrated role of each team member is dramatically evident on our TV screens.

Can we create in our regular workplaces and organisations the kind of targeted energy displayed by Crawford’s Rise Up Tauranga and the Student Army, and the seamless collaboration evident on the flying boat in San Francisco? And does it provide a model for the way other urgent social problems might be confronted? Perhaps, thinks Jackson, but only if we are prepared to tolerate experimentation and mistakes along the way. Somewhere between the Student Army’s spontaneous energy and the risk-averse nature of entrenched bureaucracies lies a happy medium – organisations with a willingness to try things out, fuelled by individuals with a clear sense of the organisation’s purpose.

In any organisation, “commitment is priceless”, Jackson says.


Yet in most workplaces that commitment is largely absent. As Auckland leadership consultant Chris Johnson points out, research shows only about 20% of the average workforce is “highly engaged” – motivated and committed to the organisation’s purpose.

Given the pace of change in today’s world, the command-and-control mode of management won’t succeed in unlocking the commitment of the remaining 80%. Nor is it a suitable model. Instead, managers “have to trust the people who work for them”, says Johnson (although that also means being willing to clear out non-performers). In turn, that means genuinely engaging with the ideas and concerns of the workforce and listening to whistle-blowers.

“Think of it as a shift from individual accountability to mutual accountability, a change from ‘I know best’ to ‘we know how’.” Collaboration between people inside organisations, as well as between the public and private sectors and academia, is increasingly recognised as key to dealing with complex problems.

Social media is both a challenge and a vast opportunity to tap into the leadership abilities and skills of potential influencers tucked away inside organisations and communities. “It starts with clarity of purpose, followed by a ‘let’s try things out’ attitude, and it becomes possible to grow an organisation from within. There is a huge amount of latent potential,” says Johnson.



In unlocking that potential, it helps to understand how influence works. American academic Robert Cialdini, emeritus professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Arizona, has been studying the raw psychology of persuasion for decades. By understanding the triggers that cause people to behave in certain ways, Cialdini and his many global followers say it’s possible to help any organisation work more effectively.

He has reduced the “principles of persuasion” to six behavioural drivers:

1. Consensus
People look to the actions of others to determine their own behaviour. In one experiment looking at what makes hotel guests reuse their towels, Cialdini changed the standard message asking patrons to think of the environment before reaching for a fresh towel to one stating that 75% of guests who had stayed in the room reused their towel. Compliance shot up by 33%.

The power of the Student Army and the Mud Army following the Brisbane floods was unleashed when people saw others getting out and helping. Lending a hand became the normal thing to do, says Anthony McLean, a Brisbane trainer who helps governments, non-profit organisations and companies apply Cialdini’s principles of persuasion to achieve better results.

2. Liking
People are more likely to say “yes” to those they like, and who are like them. McLean urges people to apply this principle in simple ways – for instance, in starting an email, build a sense of common ground by referring to something you know is happening in the other person’s life or sharing something of yourself that you know will resonate with the email recipient. In one study, a group who sent emails that got straight down to business without bothering to take this step hit blockages in their projects 30% of the time; the group that invested a couple of sentences building rapport hit blockages only 6% of the time.

3. Consistency
People like to be consistent with what they have already said or done, and in particular they want to live up to things they have written down. Cialdini therefore suggests encouraging people to write down their values, goals and priorities.

4. Authority
People tend to defer to credible experts. McLean helped the Pharmacy Guild of Australia increase patients’ compliance with medication regimes by encouraging pharmacists to come out from their labs and interact with patients when handing over the prescription. They were encouraged to ask questions such as “Do you know why you are on these pills?”, and to get the patient talking about important things in their life that required them to be healthy; for instance, “My granddaughter is getting married next year.” McLean says by engaging the authority – the pharmacist – in conversation with the patient, compliance rose dramatically.

5. Reciprocity
People feel obliged to help those who have helped them. The neighbour who takes a batch of scones to a new arrival in the street is more likely to be helped by the other person when he or she needs a ride to hospital or to borrow a cup of sugar.

6. Scarcity
People value things that are scarce. McLean says managers who claim to have an “open door” often find they’re unable to use their time efficiently. By remaining committed to the principle of an openness, but shifting from an “open door” to an “open calendar”, in which a regular block of time – say, from 9-11am – is set aside daily for any employees to book a slot with the boss, everyone tends to use the time more effectively.

In a complex and constrained world, says McLean, everyone is having to do more with less. But by understanding and applying the key drivers of behaviour, it’s possible to unlock major improvements without spending a cent.

Making a mark

Lloyd and Hinga Whui. Photo/Mahmood M.

Fifteen members of Hinga Whui’s whanau died young from heart disease or diabetes. All were smokers. They left a great void, and the trauma of the family’s loss galvanised Whui and husband Lloyd into action: they developed a stage performance with an anti-smoking message, Maui Tamatoa, and played in primary and intermediate schools from North Cape to Bluff for 15 years.

They turned their attention on their Waipapa Marae in Kawhia, working to make it a smoke-free zone – a goal achieved in 2005.

As a part-time health promotion worker and secretary of Waipapa Marae, Whui has also been a driver for change in the type of kai served from the marae kitchen. The death of Dame Te Atairangikaahu in 2006 prompted action. “She suffered from diabetes,” says Lloyd. “Her thinking was that if her people went to all the trouble to prepare all this food, then she would eat it. So without knowing it, her people contributed to her illness.”

Waipapa shifted away from fatty, bulky meats to low-fat fare, with more salads and fruit. Soft drink was replaced with water. Regular exercise classes were also introduced – an uptempo version of line dancing. Kuia in their seventies come along and join in.

“We hope we have influenced a lot of people in terms of the way they eat and look after themselves,” says Lloyd. But it’s not for him to boast. “In Maori there is a saying: the kumara doesn’t talk of its own sweetness.”

Click here to read more from our Influentials series.
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