Influence and Success

Your choice of influencing determines your success.

Young people are influenced in one of FIVE ways that can be classified into two categories: external and internal.

EXTERNAL Approach 1 – Manipulation (Bribes and Rewards)

Rewards can serve as effective incentives—if the person is interested in the reward. School grades are a case in point. The reward of a good grade is important to some students but not of interest to others. If a good grade—or ANY REWARD—is not important to the person, that reward has little value as an incentive.

Rewards can also serve as wonderful acknowledgements—ways of congratulating merit and demonstrating appreciation. But notice that these are awarded AFTER the behavior—not as bribes beforehand.

Regardless of how much we may think that rewards lead toward internalizing desired behavior, there is no evidence that this ever occurs. In contrast, there is much research to suggest that an “external locus of control” (external motivation) does NOT transition to an “internal locus of control” (internal motivation).

An example of this was vividly shared with me after one of my presentations to the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

My name is George H. Orfe, and I am the principal from South Dakota who told you the story of the boy and the $5.00 his father gave him for each “A” grade. You asked that I relate the story to you. Here it is.

I had a father of a fifth grader who gave his son $5 for each A on his report card. The first marking period the child received eight A’s and $40 from his father. The second marking period ended in January, and report cards went home at the beginning of February. The father was quite upset since his son had dropped to only one A, 2 B’s, and the rest C’s.

In the conference with the father, I suggested we call his son in and see what the problem was. The boy came into my office, sat down, and we began to talk. My first question was, “How is it that your grades have slipped so much this marking period,” and the boy quickly responded, “I didn’t need the money!”

Rewards are quick and easy to use, but their long-term effects are often overlooked. They promote a mentality of “What’s in it for me?” which lacks any sense of moral development or social responsibility. Most importantly, the reward becomes the motivator–instead of the expected behavior.

In disciplining, here is another point to consider. In giving young people rewards for appropriate behavior we are fostering the concept that, when they get older, society will also reward them for such behavior. This simply is contrary to fact. Society does not reward people for acting appropriately.

Note: It is common to hear the argument that society gives rewards for employment. However, compensation for a person’s labor or expertise is a contractual relationship, not a reward.

EXTERNAL Approach 2 – Coercion (Imposed Punishments)

If you believe that young people ARE NOT YET adults, then the use of IMPOSED punishments should be examined. If this type of punishment worked, then once a youngster is punished the same behavior would not be repeated.

Punishments–which is very often confused with discipline–operate on the theory that young people must be hurt to learn, that they must be harmed to instruct. Can you recall the last time you felt bad and did something good? People do not think positively with negative feelings. People do “good” when they feel good.

Imposed punishments can force compliance but never commitment. Have you ever seen anyone punished into commitment? Punishments kill the very thing we are attempting to do–change behavior into something that is positive and socially appropriate.

Punishments are ineffective with far too many young people. Escalation is a testament to its ineffectiveness. In schools when punishments fails to work, inevitably more punishments are prescribed.

Punishments are temporary and transitory. Fear and force only produce changes in the short run. Once a punishment ends, the youngster has “served his time” and is “free and clear” from further responsibility.

A coercive discipline approach that works in the short run does not mean it is effective in the long run. Threatening a youngster with punishment may force compliance—but only so long as the threat is present. Needless to say, it does not change behavior when the coercion is gone—nor does it change the way a person WANTS to behave.

One reason we keep thinking punishment works is that sometimes the behavior stops. This may be the case with very young children if the behavior is caught early before it becomes a habit and if the punishment itself is a novel experience.

But in the vast majority of cases, imposed punishments engender enmity–the exact opposite of what is needed for a lasting, influential approach.

EXTERNAL Approach 3 – Pressure (Telling)

A less coercive approach—but one of pressure-—s telling (as contrasted to sharing information). You can tell how effective this approach is just by completing the following sentence:

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you . . . .”

If telling worked, you would not have to repeat yourself and people would do what you wanted them to do.

Whenever you tell someone, you convey a message that the way the person has been performing is wrong or not good enough. TELLING implies that something has to be changed, but people tend to resist change that is thrust upon them. This is the reason that telling often creates defensiveness and a tendency to resist.

For a moment, think of how you feel when someone TELLS you that you have to do something. Notice the negative feeling that erupts.

Conclusions for using EXTERNAL Approach 1, 2, and 3

If these EXTERNAL INFLUENCING approaches were effective, discipline problems would be a footnote to teaching and parenting. These approaches are too often ineffective and are counterproductive to fostering self-discipline and responsibility. In addition, they have little lasting effect on the person whose behavior requires change.

Here is the paradox: We want to assist young people to be self-disciplined and responsible. Yet, both of these traits require INTERNAL motivation. However, rewards, punishments, and telling are EXTERNAL influences and PLACE THE RESPONSIBILITY ON SOMEONE ELSE TO INSTIGATE A CHANGE.


EXTERNAL Approach 4 – Peer Influence

A 104 year-old woman was interviewed. She was asked what she liked most about her age. Without hesitation, came the response: “No peer pressure.”

The influence of others starts at a very young age as indicated to in the following communication to me. 

“I just discovered the Raise Responsibility System, but I can definitely relate it to my experiences trying to potty train my daughter. I started working with Emma and her potty skills when she was 12 months old. She was very interested in her potty-chair and loved to sit on it and play. When she finally realized that there was a certain feeling when she needed to go, I started using stickers as a reward for using the potty instead of her diaper.

“She would use the potty sometimes, but more often she would just rely on her trusty old diaper. This went on for TWO YEARS! I was at my wits’ end. We worked intensively on this all summer. I was home and I felt this was the perfect time to get this concept down. Unfortunately, Emma didn’t agree.

“When summer was over I took her back to the baby-sitter apologizing profusely. Emma was almost THREE YEARS OLD! Peggy, my sitter, had been watching kids for 40 years. When I told her that Emma still wasn’t out of diapers, she said, “Oh, I can train her for you.”

“My sitter’s advice was, ‘Throw away the diapers. Buy her some old fashioned training pants and let her wear those. The kids will do the rest.’

“In TWO DAYS Emma was completely potty trained.

“All she needed to see was that all the other kids already used the “big potty.” She was in no mood to be left behind. There were no stickers, or candy, or even extra praise involved. Emma just realized that this is what was expected by her peer group, and she fell in line.”

It is really important to keep in mind the power of peer influence. For example, it does not matter whether a teacher is asking for legitimate behavior from a student. If the student believes that his or her classmates will perceive the teacher’s request as disrespectful, the student will react negatively. Even if a student likes and has a good relationship with the teacher, we need to remember that peer influence vies with every dynamic of so many students’ lives.

Peer influence need not be negative, but it needs to be recognized as a major influencing force in people’s behaviors.


An internal approach appeals to the person’s self-interest. This may seem startling and problematic but it is the basis of our economic, political, and social systems.

Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations” referred to the “invisible hand”–arguing that when we are concerned with our own best interest it would also profit others. James Madison argued in the “Federalist Papers” that a democracy could work on a large scale BECAUSE the self-interests of so many people would prevent a “tyranny by the majority.”

In social situations, the flight attendant makes the point very clear when your are told to put on your own oxygen mask first–before you attempt to help anyone else. The reasoning, unarguably, is that you will be in a better position to help others if you are prepared first.

In education, if the vision is clearly presented to students that their learning and their appropriate behavior is in THEIR own best interests–rather than for others, such as teachers or parents–you will be significantly more effective in influencing them to do what you would like them to do.

  1. I am an instructor at the UNiversity of Northern Iowa. My preservice teachers are seeing a discipline management style in our area schools called the “clip up, clip down system.” In this system, students’ names are put on clothespins and they move up the chart for good behavior and down for poor behavior. What do you think of this system? It seems to me that it is public humiliation and not much different than the names on the board technique. I’m sure that no practicing teacher would want this system used on them during a faculty meeting, so why are they using it on children?

  2. I would use this approach ONLY AS A LAST MEASURE and ONLY with a student who has very poor impulse control. This technique aims at obedience–which does not create desire. Used for an entire class, the technique is coercive, counterproductive, and inappropriate.