Nutshell: The science of persuasion – how to understand and build influence at work

Written by
Future Talent Learning

05 Oct 2020

05 Oct 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

The ability to influence others is about more than having positional authority or status. What really matters is understanding human behaviour, connection and relationships.

In February 2018 the instant messenger app Snapchat, lost $1.3bn off its market value in just a few hours. We might think that it had suffered from a shareholder revolt, a major new competitive threat or a corporate scandal. But no. The drop was widely attributed to an 88-word tweet from reality TV star Kylie Jenner who was less than impressed by Snapchat’s redesign: “Sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me... ugh this is so sad.” Jenner had no formal relationship with Snapchat. She is not (as far as we know) an expert investor, a financial journalist or a market commentator. But, in that one simple message, she showed that she could move markets. In short, she demonstrated unequivocally that she had influence.

We’re increasingly attuned to the world of social media influencers, whether that’s the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo being paid millions of dollars for Instagram endorsements or any one of Kylie Jenner’s Jenner-Kardashian extended family. They can influence what we buy, perhaps even how we feel, because they have reach: social media has provided the platform for them to connect and communicate with millions of fans and followers in a single click. 

We probably rarely stop to think, though, about what this form of influence might teach us about the concept of influence more generally, and how it might relate to our own behaviour as leaders. After all, it makes sense that Ronaldo – as a footballer at the top of his game – has the power to influence his fans to buy a particular brand of football boots. But that doesn’t explain why Kylie Jenner could wipe millions off the Snapchat share price with a single tweet.

Could it be that we live in a world where it’s not just the person with the power who has the influence, but the person with the influence who has the power? And, if that’s true, what does that mean for how we lead at work?

Influence and leadership

Influence is the process by which we win over hearts and minds, shape opinions and encourage other people to act. As our fundamental leadership challenge is to get things done through other people, it’s no surprise, then, that the ability to influence others is a key skill for leaders. Author Kevin Krause has even gone as far as to define leadership as “a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others towards the achievement of a goal”.

That doesn’t mean that influencing others is easy or comes naturally. When we first become leaders, we can fall into the trap of what Mark Thompson calls the “illusion of control”. We have some authority, we feel responsible and we therefore try to control things. The problem is that we might be able to control systems or processes, but trying to control people is not for the faint-hearted. The only person we can really control is ourselves, and we need to use that control to work on how to become better and more constructive influencers, to be able to bring people along with us to achieve what needs to be achieved.

In that sense, the ability to influence can seem like more of an art than a science. Certainly, like so many areas of leadership, it needs practice. But it matters, and, as complexity and uncertainty demand that we be more agile, inclusive and collaborative to survive and thrive, the signs are that it matters more than ever.

In more traditional hierarchical structures at work, when the people at the top of the org chart called the shots, influence was based on power. There were clear top-down rules and the person with the positional authority had the influence too.

These days, those hierarchies are under threat; playing the “I’m the boss” card is not only demotivating for everyone but unlikely to get the desired result. With the move towards flatter structures and cross-functional teams, power is increasingly about our ability to influence others in positive and collaborative ways, irrespective of traditional reporting lines or where we sit on that org chart.

London Business School’s Gary Hamel uses the term humanocracy as a shorthand for this move away from strict, bureaucratic hierarchies at work. He believes that the more we put people, rather than structures or processes, at the core of organisations and focus on contribution rather than compliance and competence rather than credentials, the more creative and innovative our organisations will be. Being a leader, then, is about having “the courage, the compassion, the sense of community to step up and make something happen”.

Kevin Krause agrees. He believes that effective leadership is no longer about seniority or job titles, or even personal characteristics (“hero” leaders, anyone?). Instead, it’s about social influence built by working with others towards an intended goal or outcome. In the words of author and consultant Ken Blanchard, “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”

Ethical influence

When we talk about influence, the spectre of Niccolò Machiavelli’s 16th-century prince – that archetype for a scheming and cunning deployer of influence at any cost – is never far from our minds. Influencers can be seen as arch manipulators, achieving their ends by whatever means it takes, even if that means tipping over into unhealthy manipulation or abuse. We might ask: is Ronaldo exploiting not only his position as a top footballer, but us too, when his Instagram posts ping into our feeds and the dollars roll into his bank account.

But that, according to Robert Cialdini, the “godfather of influencing”, is to misunderstand the real power of what he calls the science of social influence. Taking ethical shortcuts, using influence deceptively or coercively, is “ethically wrong and pragmatically wrongheaded”. Devious or high-pressure tactics might work in the short term, but they’re hardly the basis for long-term trust and co-operation, whether we’re influencing our colleagues to get on board with change or looking to sell football boots to our fans. Influence must be founded on stronger roots than that.

To avoid falling into the trap of unethical influence, Cialdini suggests that we look to behavioural science. His work is based on the idea that we can persuade and influence by being mindful of “a limited set of deeply rooted human drives and needs”. By understanding these, we can learn and apply some basic principles to influence effectively – and ethically.

Based on his research, Cialdini has identified seven key principles we can use to boost our influence at work:

Liking: people like those who like them

The liking principle speaks to heart of what builds influence: we’re much more likely to be able to persuade others if we have first established some common ground – “a presumption of goodwill and trustworthiness”. Cialdini encourages us to have informal conversations with colleagues to create those bonds, to create opportunities for co-operation and connection, and to use praise as a way to reinforce – or even repair – our relationships.

It’s much easier to build a coalition of support for a new project or initiative if people are already inclined to be on our side.

Reciprocity: people repay in kind

Just as we need to be generous when building our networks and connecting others, Cialdini exhorts us to give what we want to receive. This might be a matter of modelling behaviours we want others to assume, or helping someone when they need it. They’re much more likely to offer help in return when we need it too.

Social proof: people follow the lead of similar others

We’re social creatures, us humans, and we often take our cues about how to behave or act from the people around us. When we see evidence that others like us have said or done something, we’re more likely to join in. That means that influence is often best exercised horizontally rather than vertically – an idea that supports the notion that influence is central to leadership in less hierarchical structures.

The classic example here is the work done by Cialdini and colleagues with a hotel chain looking to encourage customers to reuse their towels. Messages about environmental impact were not hitting home. But when the message was changed to suggest that most other people who stayed in the hotel re-used their towels, the positive effect was significant. In follow-up research, the effect was found to be even more pronounced if the message pinpointed the people who had stayed in the same room.

We can see the same effect at work in the power of customer testimonials and online reviews and likes. Similarly, if we want to get people on board with a change and we’re faced with a group of stubborn resisters, the more we can get buy-in from the people most like those resisters, the more influential they’ll be in (horizontally) persuading the non-believers.

Consistency: people align with their commitments

When we can encourage people to commit to what we want them to do, they’re much more likely to follow through. And, according to Cialdini, the more “active, public and voluntary” that commitment is, the more consistent that follow through will be.

So, if we have a team member who is persistently late for work, getting that person to (voluntarily) commit to a change in behaviour is likely to be more effective than pressurising them or issuing threats. And those voluntarily made commitments can be even more powerful if they’re made actively – in writing or spoken out loud – and if other people are aware of them. One study reported that a health centre was able to reduce the number of missed appointments by 18% simply by asking the patients rather than the staff to write down appointment details on an appointment card.

Authority: people defer to experts

Tapping into reliable, credible expertise is a good way for any of us to cut through the noise and make good decisions. In influence terms, we can improve our chances of success if we establish our own expertise first. And we also need to show that expertise; we can’t assume that everyone knows what we can do well without telling them. This can be tricky; not all of us can have a diploma on display to establish our credentials or feature on a reality TV show.

But, if we can find ways to signal – ourselves or through others – that we are good at what we do, our influence is likely to be greater as a result. We might, for example, build our expertise and know-how by attending industry conferences, taking a certified class or programme, blogging on LinkedIn or being active in a relevant professional body. These are visible and public signs that we are staying up to date and informed and have the knowledge and experience to boost our persuasive powers.

Scarcity: people want more of what they can have less of

We instinctively understand the persuasive power of exclusivity. We can all feel that warm glow if we’re party to, or able to access, something that others aren’t. The power of 'loss language' is well established: research has shown that potential losses have more weight in business decision-making than potential gains; when BA announced in 2003 that it was discontinuing its London-New York Concorde flights, bookings for the last remaining seats skyrocketed.

Done ethically, channelling scarcity by, for example, sharing a confidential report with key colleagues before it’s circulated more widely can boost our influence. Or we might encourage someone to act by suggesting that the window for that action might be closing soon.

Unity: it’s all about us

Cialdini added his seventh principle years after the first six were first published. It speaks to our innate sense of wanting to belong, to be part of a community. The more we are perceived as “one of us” the more likely we are to be influential. Reminding someone of a shared identity makes us more persuasive.

A strong sense of unity might manifest itself in an effective team with clear expectations of each other and a shared language, or who are charged to create something together. If we can be seen as “genuinely and recognisably” part of a group, our ability to influence increases.

Cialdini also reminds us that the principles can become even more powerful if used in combination. So, for example, if we’re looking to build connections (liking) with colleagues, the chances are that we’ll end up having conversations that also show our expertise (authority) – increasing our influence even more. Or, encouraging a team member to commit to delivering part of an action plan (consistency) will be especially powerful if done in front of a recognisable group with shared characteristics and concerns (unity).

How to build influence

Now that we have some underpinning principles to hand, how can we use them to build our own influence at work? Here are some tactics to consider.

Identify your default influencing style

As with so many aspects of leadership, self-awareness about how we prefer to influence is a good starting point. If we can identify our own influencing style, it’ll help us to consider whether we tend to apply the same approach to each person or individual and when we might need to flex and adjust as circumstances demand.

Researchers Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe have identified five distinct influencing styles, the tactics we’re most likely to default to when we’re looking to influence someone. We’re also likely to be more receptive to someone else who tries to influence us using the style we’re most comfortable with.

To think about which of the five styles we most readily deploy, we can ask ourselves a series of questions:

Rationalising: Do you use logic, facts, reasoning and experience to present your ideas and persuade others?

Asserting: Are you a straight shooter, willing to challenge and debate? Do you use your confidence, rules, law and authority to help motivate others to act?

Negotiator: Do you look for compromises and make concessions in order to reach an outcome that satisfies your greater interest? Do you make trade-offs and exchanges in order to meet your larger interests?

Inspiring: Do you encourage others towards your position by communicating a sense of shared mission and exciting possibility? Do you use inspirational appeals, stories and metaphors to encourage a shared sense of purpose?

Bridging: Do you attempt to influence by connecting and uniting others? Do you use reciprocity, superior support, consultation, coalitions and personal relationships to get people to agree with your position?

When identifying our influencing style, we might also reflect on whether we tend to be more successful with some types of people and less so with others. Musselwhite and Plouffe make the point that, as there are five styles, there is the potential that sticking rigidly with one style will misfire with “as many as four out of five people”. We can increase our influence by reflecting on our preferred style/s, identifying any gaps and learning to recognise and use each of the styles as needed.

Understand the context

When we want to influence, we need to take stock of the situation we’re in. Who do we need to win over and about what? How can we take into account their needs and perspectives? What style might work best for the people involved and the context we find ourselves in? Do we need to understand the office politics involved?

We need to listen to and understand what we’re dealing with to give us the best chance of success.

In a crisis situation, where rules or protocols need to be followed or when clear guidance is needed, asserting is likely to be a good strategy. For example, when COVID-19 hit and a lot of people suddenly found themselves working from home, giving clear instruction about what would happen next was an important way to bring people on board with such a disruptive change.

If colleagues need to understand when something needs to happen and why, we might want to show our workings and rationalise. If people are demotivated or are struggling to see the end goal, we might need to be more inspiring. If we’re working cross-functionally, people need to feel heard or relationships strengthened, bridging might be the right tactic.

Just as we need to match the medium to the message when we’re communicating, so we need to match our style to the context when we want to influence and persuade.

Practice makes perfect

It takes practice to develop our influencing skills. It’s a good idea to start small, trying out different approaches in non-critical situations so that we develop our muscle memory for times when the stakes are higher.

Cialdini-style, we should also look to build our credibility and authority, working on our trustworthiness and forging genuine connection and relationships. Remember that social media influencers can influence because of the reach they have – and that’s because of the connections they’ve nurtured.

Modelling consistent and positive behaviours, having an eye to our body language and tone, will also help others to commit to what we need them to do. Be curious, empathetic and open, too. Asking questions, listening and showing interest will all help to find that common ground, as will sharing our passions and ideas.

The ability to influence and inspire has always been an important leadership skill. And, as examples as diverse as Kylie Jenner and Gary Hamel’s humanocracy show us, it’s never been more important. Influence – like leadership – is no longer just about power conferred by our job title or status, if it ever was. It’s about how we build two-way reciprocal relationships, how we read the room and respond accordingly. It needs us to understand how human behaviour works; to use our expertise and experience in positive ways, and give people a real sense that we’re working together towards a common goal. The former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told us that “power is nothing unless you can turn it into influence”. We’d be wise to listen to Condi if we want to bring others along with us to achieve our goals.


Test your knowledge

  • Explain why Kevin Krause believes leadership to be about social influence.
  • Outline why Robert Cialdini suggests that influence is often best exercised “horizontally rather than vertically”.
  • Describe three of Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe’s influencing styles.

What does it mean for me?

  • Think about a person or situation where you’d like to achieve a certain outcome. Consider the influencing style that will work best in that situation, and give it a try.  Reflect on how well it works and what you might change in a similar situation next time.