Little dark-haired girl playing role of business woman

Want to Encourage Greatness? Try Altercasting!

Have a sales person who never pitches any grand, high-end arrangements? A designer prone to stuffing? A manager reluctant to handle disputes?

If your employees are lacking in initiative, demonstrating conduct you’d like to change, consider altercasting.Little dark-haired girl playing role of business woman

I recently learned this term in a Wall Street Journal article, though I’ve long been familiar with the practice. It’s a persuasion technique that involves characterizing someone as a certain type of person (say, “a talented sales person,” “a scrupulous designer” or “an apt mediator”) in order to nudge him or her to behave in a desired manner.

You’ve likely observed or engaged in altercasting at some point. Psychologists say it’s very common among advertisers, fundraisers, parents, spouses, teachers, etc. It follows the principle that people respond better to kindness/encouragement/praise than criticism.

There are two types of altercasting.

In “manded” altercasting, you openly state a role for the other person. (“Susan, you have such a beautiful vocabulary. The way you describe the colors and textures of a floral arrangement is so enticing. You’re the perfect person to help me sell some premium designs with the cymbidium orchids that just came in today!”)

In “tact” altercasting, you don’t say anything but change your behavior to suggest a role to the other person. (My father does this with my mother when it comes to packing for vacations. He’ll start to throw clothes haphazardly on the bed and she’ll inevitably get frustrated and take over.) Although annoying, it’s different from being passive aggressive, which involves indirect hostility.

For the sake of running a flower shop, it’s probably best to stick to manded altercasting, as the latter could come off as clumsy or confusing. Who among us would want employees questioning our competency?

The WSJ gives these tips for using altercasting:

  • Know your audience. Cast the person in a positive role that he or she wants to have. (I’m on the board of directors for my local alumni club. When someone called me a “great salesperson” to try to get me to chair the fundraising committee, the suggestion fell flat as I have no such skills and no sincere desire to develop them. When another board member complimented my writing and suggest I handle club correspondence, well, then I caved.)
  • Emphasize the relationship. Most of us want to make the important people in our lives happy. It also helps to tell your employee how much you appreciate him or her.
  • Talk it out. Spell out what role you want your employee to take and why. This transparency removes the perception that you’re trying to be manipulative or exploitive.