Identity Rules

A couple of weeks ago, I was dropping my 4 year old son off at kindergarten early one morning. So early in fact that the kinder room hadn’t opened yet. Sam would have to go into the “red room” - one of the childcare rooms which he knew was for the two year-olds. Or as Sam calls them, “the babies”.

Sam flatly refused, even though he knew going into the kinder room wasn’t an option. The only way forward as far as he was concerned was for me to take him back home until kinder had opened. 

Desperate to be on my way to work, I tried every angle I could think of to persuade him to relent: I sold the benefits (“there’s toys in there you won’t have played with before!”). I tried to broker a deal, offering bribes along the way (“if you go into the red room, I’ll get you a treat on my way home”). I even pulled out the perennial favourite - parental authority - for good measure. Each was met by the same shaking head. 

In the end, it was one of the carers - let's call him SuperBen - who saved the day. SuperBen knew what was going on: Sam wasn’t having a bar of being in with the little kids. 4 year olds don’t go into the red room. He’d been there, done that. To go in there now would be a humiliating step backwards. 

SuperBen came over and said, “Sam, I’m in here looking after lots of the young kids. Kinder isn’t open yet – so do you reckon you could give me a hand to set up the red room for the day? I’m on my own and need someone’s help. What do you say?” Instantly, Sam let go of my hand and marched off to the red room, identity in tact, proud that he’d been asked to help a teacher. Wow. That there is the magic of buy-in.

Every time we ask someone to accept our idea or proposal, they are asking themselves: Would someone like me do what you’re asking? How does your proposal - and the way you’re presenting it - sit with my sense of identity? My reputation? My pride? My status? My affiliation to others?

How often have you been faced with pushback or resistance that might stem from an “identity crunch”? Take a moment to step back and ask yourself: what might be going on for them? And what can you do – like SuperBen - to help them reconcile your proposal with their sense of self? Perhaps you can better respect their status or seniority? Or show greater appreciation? Or help them to feel more closely connected to particular groups of people? In doing so, you might be addressing the one thing that’s holding them back from saying “yes”.

For a great example of how identity being used to get people on board with an idea, take a look at this clip. It comes from a famous campaign of ads run in Texas to stop people throwing rubbish out of their cars along the highways. The power of the campaign lies not only in the great slogan - "Don't Mess with Texas" - but in the fact that the message comes from famous Texans.The ads are a powerful expression of local pride.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts. You can leave your comments below.