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Engage Like a Cult Leader: Blair Warren's Five Keys to Winning Followers

Engage Like a Cult Leader: Blair Warren's Five Keys to Winning Followers

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I write self-help for managers and business owners—and anyone else who cares about making a difference and getting results. What you may not realize is that I also read this stuff like a maniac. And, until now, it was a mystery to me why I haven't slowed down. When you devour this much self-help, shouldn't you get diminishing returns?

It would make perfect sense. And yet, I find provocative titles as irresistible as I did when I started my business. I follow Tim Ferris (4-Hour Workweek), Robert Cialdini (Influence, Pre-Suasion), Ryan Holiday (Trust Me I'm Lying), Scott Adams (Dilbert comic strip), Tim Urban (WaitButWhy.com), Simon Sinek (Leaders Eat Last), Chris Voss (Never Split the Difference), Nir Eyal (Hooked)... The list goes on. And I discover new amazing authors almost daily.

Something run of the mill, like "EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT I LEARNED FROM MY CAT," wouldn't grab my attention. But The One-Sentence Persuasion Course: 27 Words to Make the World Do Your Bidding did. And I was not disappointed. Not only did I learn something new, I learned something new about myself!

What I learned shot straight to the heart of my self-help addiction. It explained why the stuff I read and re-read doesn't need to be earth-shattering news to have an effect. Nor does it have to be brilliantly written. I don't even need to check the author's credentials.

All of that is secondary to what we actually look for in leaders and leadership advice—inspiration. Simon Sinek says it like six times in one paragraph in this book, Start with Why. Okay, great. Good to know. But where does inspiration come from?

That's what I love about Blair Warren. He has a formula. If you plan to read his article—and I think you should—you better do it now, before I've ruined the punch line for you.

For those ready to hear them again, Blair Warren's twenty-seven words are as follows (minus the numbers, which I put in for reference):

"People will do anything for those who...

  1. Encourage their dreams,
  2. Justify their failures,
  3. Allay their fears,
  4. Confirm their suspicions and
  5. Help them throw rocks at their enemies."

I knew he was right because I tried all five points on myself and they all fit. I always forever want help with each one. When I hire people, I expect them to help me with at least three out of five. And vice versa: I routinely do all these things for my employees.

Okay, Tim, I get items one through three. But what about four and five? What's that all about?

Let's go through them in order. If my theory is correct, then any fail-proof employee engagement strategy must include Blair Warren's principles. So, what does each one look like inside a workplace?

1) Encourage Their Dreams

This one should be easy—or at least easy to understand. Start with their career ambitions. (If you want details and examples, check out Chapter 9, Support Career Development, in Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?) Give your employees a chance to practice their natural talents. (Chapter 8, Use Them or Lose Them.) Support their pet causes (Chapter 22, Engage Outside of Work.) But I wouldn't stop there. The real bond between you and your people begins when you learn their life's passions—whether or not they are charitable or job-related.

For example, Wegmans, a grocery store chain on the East Coast, known for both customer and employee loyalty, sends its store clerks to college. Most, of course, don't come back after they graduate. They become teachers, police officers, computer geeks... whatever they want. But the company doesn't worry about that. It has a reputation for taking employee dreams seriously. According to Fortune, employee turnover at Wegmans is 17% overall and only 4% for full-time employees. For comparison, the average retail turnover is 66% for part-time and 27% for full-time employees (source: WSJ).

I wouldn't wait too long to find out. Ask them at the job interview. It doesn't need to be a formal question, such as, "If you had a million dollars and six months to spend it, what would you do?" Although I somewhat like that idea. But you could also casually steer the conversation toward interests and hobbies and figure out what makes them happy. It might help you see if taking a job with you would bring them closer to or take them further away from their dreams. And that should tell you a lot.

2) Justify Their Failures

In the context of your employees, this becomes sharing responsibility. I talk a blue streak about it in Chapter 13, Help. You want people to own their projects and tasks, not look for an excuse to fail. But, assuming they are already doing their best, they will go out on a limb for a boss who shares their risks with them. Especially, the ultimate risk of failure.

3) Allay Their Fears

Some say fear is good for discipline. Well, fear comes in different flavors, and most of us have too much of it, rather than too little. Also, fear only motivates where there's hope. When people fear something outside of their direct control, they disengage.

Above all else, this means that you don't want your people to worry about losing their jobs. For many companies, layoffs are the first line of defense against stock fluctuations and down markets when it should be the last.

Instead of cutting heads, you could start by asking everyone to watch their spending. SAS CEO Jim Goodnight did this in 2009, when he promised to keep everyone's job safe that year. You could even set a specific cost-cutting target and ask your people to come up with creative ways to achieve it. This was Edward Jones' plan to survive the Great Recession, and they, too, did it without sacrificing jobs.

4) Confirm Their Suspicions

Now we arrive at the most interesting part of Blair Warren's formula. Because we usually—excuse me—we always do just the opposite. We go out of our way to deny the pesky rumors. We ridicule the panic mongers. We put on our biggest fakest Enron-Phillip-Morris-Monsanto executive deadpans and vomit forth the scariest mumbo-jumbo. All to prove that we know what we are doing and no one else does.

Wait a minute, Tim/Blair! Didn't you just say, "Allay their fears?"

I did. But when did skirting the issue ever allay anyone's fears? We hope it might. But we are only kidding ourselves. We speak from a place of disempowerment and fear, and it leads to more of the same.

Notice that SAS and Edward Jones confirmed their employees' worst suspicions. Yes, the numbers are bad. Yes, the recession is here. But then, instead of hiding their panic, they showed their will to survive with concrete steps designed to save jobs.

5) Help Them Throw Rocks at Their Enemies

Okay, Tim, you get a squeaky pass on number four. But number five sounds more like dirty politics than anything I'd ever want to say to my employees.

I don't disagree. Let's remember that any true insight works universally, and it's up to us whether to wield it for good or for evil. You can easily see on your own that, in unscrupulous hands, number five becomes a weapon of mass manipulation. So, let me give you one example of an honest and effective use of this principle in the workplace.

In 2009 CNN, CBS, and other news stations featured a story about Haruka Nishimatsu, then CEO of Japan Airlines. Like many American companies in and outside of the airline industry, Japan Air had been struggling to survive. Nishimatsu was forced to cut jobs, but he also did something that made him wildly popular in this country. Before he announced the layoffs, Nishimatsu gave up all of his corporate perks and most of his earnings. For three years he earned less money than his pilots, just $90,000 in 2007. He said it was the least he could do while sending other employees his own age into early retirement.

Nishimatsu resigned in 2010, when Japan Air filed for bankruptcy. But the old video of him taking a city bus to work is still making rounds on the Internet. Its sole purpose is to put filthy-rich American executives to shame. Millions of Americans believe that corporate greed is the enemy, and Nishimatsu is their hero. WDRB.com quoted him as saying,

"We in Japan learned during the bubble economy that businesses who pursue money first fail. The business world has lost sight of this basic tenet of business ethics."

Here's that video I mentioned:


If you are a cult leader, then write your own book, because I don't want you to use mine to get a head start.

If you'd like to learn more about persuasion at work, then click that link, because I wrote a 13 post series about how you can master the topic.

Tim Eisenhauer
Written by Tim Eisenhauer

Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.

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