Fall Conference Keynote: How Great Leaders Influence Behavior
What makes some people better leaders than others? Rene Rodriguez, the professional speaker and author who delivered the opening keynote address Oct. 30 at the AIHA Fall Conference on Leadership and Management in Tampa, Fla., has made a career out of answering this question. His consulting company, Volentum, teaches people practical ways to exercise influence. At the Fall Conference, Rodriquez told attendees that the first step for any leader is to capture the audience’s attention and energy. This seemingly simple task is increasingly difficult in an age where every email, tweet, and Facebook post screams for attention.
“How do we engage hearts and minds,” Rodriguez asked, “in an environment where everyone is trying to do the same thing?”
Leaders need to produce results, and results often depend on others’ behavior, Rodriguez said. But attempts to change behavior will fail because people are predisposed to resist these efforts.
To explain why people resist change, Rodriguez summarized the research of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who has shown that people have two “systems” of thought. System 1 is reactionary and rooted in the present, and operates on very little information. System 2 focuses on the long term and carries out far more complex, time-consuming operations; it’s the brain’s analytical mode. As Rodriguez explained, System 2 is what motivates people to set their alarm for five a.m. so they can go to the gym; System 1 is what makes them hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off.
These ideas have immediate relevance for industrial hygienists and occupational health and safety professionals, who often need to convince people to do things for safety and health reasons that run counter to System 1 thinking. This built-in resistance to change can’t be overcome by a System 2 approach that appeals to logic and reason.

“How do we engage hearts and minds in an environment where everyone is trying to do the same thing?”
“If you’re trying to influence behavior just based on data, it’s not going to work,” Rodriguez warned. “You have to go after what drives” behavior—that is, you have to change what people believe. Changing beliefs requires making an emotional connection with others, a process governed by System 1. One way to establish this connection is through storytelling, Rodriguez said. But most people don’t know how to tell stories effectively.
To illustrate his meaning, Rodriguez described the work of the marketing consultant Simon Sinek, which explores the reasons why some leaders and companies are more successful than others. For Sinek, Apple’s success in the marketplace stems from marketing messages that demonstrate the company’s belief in pushing the status quo in everything it does, which establishes an emotional connection in potential customers. In contrast, Apple’s competitors merely describe what they do, not what they believe.
According to Rodriguez, one lesson of Sinek’s work is that good leaders inspire action because they have developed better storytelling skills. “When I tell stories, my brain lights up, and so does yours,” Rodriguez said. “The best leaders are the best storytellers.”
Editor’s note: The AIHA Fall Conference will not be held in 2018. AIHA will host the 11th conference of the International Occupational Hygiene Association Sept. 24–26 in Washington, D.C.