Working with influence: Nine (sometimes surprising) principles for persuading others at work

Amanda Nimon-Peters outlines her multi-disciplined approach to increasing personal influence in real and virtual workplace environments.

The power to influence people and decisions in the workplace has always been highly coveted by employees and business school students alike. Like all complex skills, influence and persuasion can be learned in the right context with the right method. Until today, the predominant approach to teaching and learning influencing skills has been based on Robert Cialdini’s research, which identified six principles of persuasion. However, in the 40 years since his book was first published the world has changed enormously. For a start, the sheer volume of behavioural science research from which we can derive principles of influence has expanded to include significant contributions from new fields such as neuroscience, as well as research from a much wider range of cultures and countries than was true when Cialdini produced his work.

Like all complex skills, influence and persuasion can be learned in the right context with the right method.

This was one of the factors that led me to a re-examination of the influencing literature in May 2020. The second key factor was a sense that students needed an approach to influence that went beyond a foundation built on “selling”. Cialdini identified his principles while working in used car yards and at telemarketing firms – in other words, influencing people to buy something that may or may not be beneficial for them. Instead, I was seeking an approach that was based on communication, collaboration and social capital. For most business school graduates, influence in the workplace is less about winning a one-time sale, and much more about building productive relationships with a wide variety of people across the globe.

Behavioural science can help us understand why people do what they do in the workplace. The multi-discipline approach includes studies from the fields of cognitive and social psychology, sociology, organisational behaviour and other disciplines that seek out systematic, objective patterns in what people do, as well as the stimuli that trigger those patterns. In my review of the international literature, I sought underlying principles of influence that are most relevant to a 21st-century workplace. It was important that each principle was supported by studies from many different countries. It was also important that students in my postgraduate business school classrooms could readily identify ways to apply the principles in their day-to-day professional lives.

The result is nine principles for increasing one’s personal influence over decisions and outcomes at work. Some of the principles are surprising, because the relevant research demonstrates that our most common approaches to influencing others can be precisely those that reduce our chances of getting the outcome we seek. The nine principles are organised into three sets of three to ensure they are easy to teach, learn and remember: Principles One to Three are people-related, Principles Four to Six are perception-related and Principles Seven to Nine are behaviour-related.

Planning an influencing strategy

When you identify a decision or an outcome to influence, it pays to plan an influencing strategy in advance. Consider the people involved, what perceptions are important, and what behaviour you should perform to execute your strategy. The nine principles summarised below can be used alone, or in combination. It does not matter which you use or how many you use – what matters is that by appropriate application of these robust, science-based principles you can increase your success rate above what it would be otherwise.

People-related principles

Principle One is Status. Humans everywhere show a tendency to be more heavily persuaded by the statements of people perceived to be high status. At work, a position of formal authority (like being the boss) endows high status, but status in the workplace – or any team activity – is also established within the specific context. You can increase your contextual status so that your contribution receives increased attention in a critical decision. One approach is to add status to the argument itself: a contribution that leverages valid and relevant data carries more status than a competing suggestion. Another option is to increase your own status by leveraging experience, qualifications or past successes that are related to the decision at hand. You will need some tact to bring this status to people’s attention so you are not perceived as bragging – but if you can manage it, you will increase your influencing power.

Principle Two is Social Imitation. The immediate social comparisons available to us in any one moment influence how we behave, what choices we make, and what goals we set. Options that are positioned as the usual or most popular choice influence our own choices. Further, the power of normative information on decision-making increases when people are tired, when they don’t have strong opinions, or when the cost of the choice is relatively low. Principle Two also highlights the ethical aspect of leadership, because the more senior the person within a company, the more that his or her own behaviour affects what is perceived as normal and expected behaviour for employees.

Principle Three is Affiliation. Although it may seem obvious that we are influenced more by people we like than people we dislike, the full extent to which one person’s sense of affiliation for another can exert influence is startling. Decision-makers can feel affiliation towards someone who shares the same opinion, who knows the same people, or even someone who has a similar first name. Creating a sense of affiliation between yourself and other people can help tip decisions in your favour during an interview, a client meeting or whenever you are seeking help, advice, or resources. To create a sense of affiliation, identify important, shared features that you have in common with the person you aim to influence.

Perception-related principles

Principle Four is Value-Framing. In human perception, the value of most objects is judged through comparison, rather than in absolute terms. It is a surprising feature of daily communication that generally we omit the information that could elevate the value of our projects and contributions. For example, we say “this is an important project” instead of “this project is so valuable that we could wipe out all our negative results for the year”. There are three sets of techniques you can use for value-framing: choice of context, use of a comparison and value conversion. These techniques enable you to create the perception that an object is cheap or expensive, fast or slow, beneficial or risky.

Principle Five is Effort. Humans generally take the lowest effort pathway to achieve the outcome they seek. Whether the effort involved is physical or mental, the more difficult it is to do something, the less likely people will do it. Our default attempts to influence others rarely take this into account. Indeed, it is a common pitfall in work-related interaction that often we make high-effort requests of those who have low inclination to help. The first step in applying the principle of effort is to narrowly define the behaviour you want the other to perform. Don’t ask more than is necessary. The lower the budget required in terms of seconds spent thinking, and calories spent doing, the better. Master this perspective, and you will increase the rate at which people comply with your requests.

Principle Six is Reasoning. Large-scale studies in the workplace show that the most common approach to persuasion involves giving the influence target logical reasons for taking the requested action. Surprisingly, this approach is far less effective than you might expect. The reasons that would-be influencers generate are often reasons that matter to themselves rather than to the influence target. Further, people act as if the more logical reasons they give, the more persuasive they will be. Studies indicate the opposite is true: messages accompanied by many reasons become less persuasive. In fact, people are more influenced by the perception of rewards and benefits than by information-based generic reasons. For example, your friend is more likely to drive you to the restaurant because arriving with a friend makes him or her look popular, than because the drive to pick you up is convenient.

Behaviour-related principles

Principle Seven is Inertia. The typical behaviour of large groups in common situations (like a presentation hall or populated zoom call) can be relatively predictable. Instead of attempting to change what most people are likely to do, the goal of Principle Seven is to use an understanding of behavioural inertia to your advantage. For example, when a host asks the audience if there are any questions, it is common for no one to react for 20 seconds or more. If you plan for this in advance, and your hand shoots up ready to ask a question, it is likely you will get the spotlight first (when everyone is listening) even if you are the most junior person present, or there are 500 other attendees at the conference.

Principle Eight is End-Goal Focus. Behavioural science reveals there are a multitude of ways in which we are pre-programmed to be diverted by the allure of short-term distractions. These might occur in the workplace as the chance to win an argument, or an opportunity to look clever in front of senior management. Although winning an argument or looking good in a meeting might seem like a victory, such reflexive reactions can weaken your chances of achieving the outcome you planned for. You will have more influence over outcomes in your professional life if you define a specific end goal and then stay focused on it, even as everyone around you gets caught up in distractions and side arguments.

Principle Nine is Execution. Making a plan and executing a plan are not the same thing. You could train for years to perform in an Olympic event, but the value of that effort can only be realised when you cross the finish line. The final step in influencing is to consider how characteristics of your physical behaviour can add to (or detract from) your influencing power in the moment of the influence attempt. The physical elements identified by science as most effective for increasing influence are significantly working with influencedifferent from the default posture, words and voice people use daily. Practising micro-adjustments in your execution must be done in advance because it is too hard to focus both on what you are saying and how you are saying it in the moment when everyone is looking at you.

About the book

Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion for Accelerating Your Career provides professional businesspeople with actionable insights to increase their personal influence in real and virtual workplace environments. Each principle is covered in a dedicated chapter that begins with an easy explanation of the science behind the principle, then provides the reader with examples and exercises for developing skills in applying that principle in his or her own environment. If you are an educator, professor or trainer seeking teaching material, diagrams or PowerPoints, please contact the author.

Working with influence

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