It Is Never the Rider, It’s the Elephant

When working with others, we often encounter people we find hard to understand. We try to connect with them, we try to influence them, and we try to understand why they do the things they do.

And yet, they remain a mystery. We can’t understand them, and if we can’t understand them we can’t communicate with them and support them, manage them, or influence them.

I’ve found a technique that has made me more effective as a coach and a leader. It is called, “The Elephant and the Rider”.

The Elephant and the Rider1

It goes like this…

Every person…every adult, every child, every employee, every executive…can be thought of as an elephant and a little rider sitting on its back.

The rider represents logic, reasoning, planning, analysis and long-term thinking.

The elephant represents passion, motivation, energy, fear, frustration and short-term thinking.

Another way to think of this is ‘head’ and ‘heart’.

In order to fully connect with and communicate with someone you need to speak to both the rider and the elephant. And, if you want to influence them to take action or change a behavior you have to (as Chip & Dan Heath say in Switch) “direct the rider and motivate the elephant.”

What does this really mean?

The Rider

Have you ever needed to influence a group of people at work to make a change? You create your presentation deck, and you invite everyone to a meeting. You share your ideas, backed with charts, graphs and hard data. Everyone nods their head and agrees that your ideas are important and that your data and presentation are strong.

Then, everyone walks out of the meeting and…nothing changes. Why?

Because you were only talking to the rider. Your intellectual explanation of the problem and the need for change made perfect sense to the rider, but it didn’t communicate with the elephant at all.

When you talk only to the rider, you get understanding and agreement, but no action.

Conversely, you can talk just to the elephant and you’ll get different results.

The Elephant

Here’s a hypothetical situation that I certainly never experienced firsthand:

Imagine that you work in a division within a company and the CEO calls everyone together for a meeting and says: “We’ve decided to sell off this division. We don’t have a buyer yet, and we don’t have a timeline, and we don’t know what it will mean for your jobs….so just sit tight for a few weeks and keep doing what you’re doing.”

There is a word for when you motivate a lot of elephants without providing any direction. It is called a ‘stampede’.

In this (completely hypothetical) situation, I would imagine that the people in the affected division would be anxious and frustrated and not know what to do. Some might get together and talk poorly about the leadership of the company. Some might immediately reach out to their network and start looking for another job. But nobody would have gone back to their desks to go back to work as though nothing had happened.

When you talk only to the elephant, you get energy and action without focus.

Speaking to Both

You must communicate to both the elephant and the rider for one key reason.

If the elephant and the rider disagree on which direction to go, who wins?

The elephant, 100% of the time.

The mistake that we make over and over is believing and behaving as though people are all rider, no elephant. And this is particularly true when dealing with people whom we assume to be highly analytical and logical, such as technologists or finance professionals.

We may focus our message on the facts and data and the logical conclusions that can be drawn…and still find that they won’t take action. This is because they have the rider and the elephant, and we’re not doing anything for the elephant.

How to Speak to the Elephant

We are generally pretty good at speaking to the rider if we work in office settings. The tools we use (spreadsheets, presentation software, formal meetings, etc.) all make the rider very happy. We are not very good at speaking to the elephant.

To speak to or ‘motivate’ the elephant, we need to help them answer one key question…the WIIFM question.

WIIFM (What’s in it for me?)

WIIFM, or ‘what’s in it for me?’ is an elephant question. And unless you can help the elephant understand why what you’re asking for is of benefit to them, you will not succeed in influencing them.

To help them answer the WIIFM question, think through what they care about. What are their goals? What motivates them? What do they fear and want to avoid?

If you can help them understand why your idea gets them what they want, you get the support of the elephant. And once you have the support of both the elephant and the rider, you’ve got progress.


The next time you interact with someone and find that your communication and influence with that person isn’t what you’d hoped it would be, stop to ask yourself a question.

“What does their elephant need?”

If you find that you don’t know the answer to that question, or you feel that you haven’t been doing enough to communicate with their elephant, it is time to step back and reassess your approach.

When you understand and respect that those around you (and indeed you, yourself) are both rider and elephant, you are able to see and support their ‘head’ and ‘heart’.

  1. The metaphor of the elephant and the rider was created by Jonathan Haidt and shared in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. Chip and Dan Heath expanded on the metaphor and used it as a central concept in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, which I highly recommend. ↩︎