Influence in the workplace

09 May 2022

I went to university at the age of 16. I’m not sure that is something I would recommend, but it meant I had graduated with Honours by the age of 19, when I began working as a junior lecturer in psychology at the Flinders University of South Australia. Preparing for my first class, I was aware that many of my undergraduate students would be the same age as me, and that they would likely be skeptical when I walked into class. That is one of the earliest times I can remember reading studies on how to project authority and influence.

The power to influence people and decisions in the workplace is highly desirable for employees and students, as well as young junior lecturers. Like all complex skills, influence and persuasion can be learned in the right context with the right method. Until today, the prevalent approach to teaching influencing skills has been based on Robert Cialdini’s research which identified six principles of persuasion. However, in the almost 40 years since his book was first published, the world has changed enormously. 

Cialdini’s research took place in American sales-based companies such as telemarketing firms and car yards. As a result, his model of influence replicates an approach to selling. However, in today’s interconnected, global workplaces, employees seeking to exert influence in the workplace cannot afford to treat their interactions like a one-time sale. Instead, we need a science-based approach to influence in the workplace that builds relationships and strengthens social capital, rather than potentially borrowing from them.

Another core reason we need a renewed approach to influence in the workplace is that there is a much wider range of relevant research studies available today. New fields of psychology and behavioural science – such as neuroscience – have opened up, producing studies that use functional magnetic resonance to demonstrate what happens in the brain when opinions change. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is vastly more relevant research available from countries outside the US, from universities and institutions in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, that was not readily available last century.

In mid-2020 I began an examination of the international academic literature on factors that influence people’s perspectives and decision making. My search was focused on finding principles most suited 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 in a way that they felt was appropriate and ethical. After reviewing more than 200 peer-reviewed articles on how people make decisions at work, a nine-principle model for influence at work emerged. 

Re-thinking what it means to influence

Start a conversation on influence in the workplace and people will interpret it as synonymous with using mind tricks to control other people’s behaviour. The nine-principle model for influence at work follows a different approach. It focuses not on controlling other people, but instead on generating greater personal success. Success is defined as achieving the outcome for which you planned. The principles increase your ability to achieve those planned outcomes because these science-based insights enable you to nudge other people into helping you get there. There is no need to pretend, to say anything untrue, or to bargain for favours. Simply, use of the model involves modifying your usual approach to influencing people and outcomes, so you incorporate the factors that affect other people’s decisions. 

The nine principles are organized into three sets of three to ensure they are easy to teach, learn and remember. Principles One to Three are people-related and involve consideration of who you aim to influence. Principles Four to Six are perspective-related and focus on how changes in communication modify the way a message is perceived. Principles Seven to Nine are behaviour related, focused on how you physically execute your influencing plan. The goal is to apply one or more of these principles to increase your success rate relative to what it was before you used any of the principles. 

Give me a demonstration

To begin increasing your influence over people and outcomes at work, let’s start with some examples of what people usually do, and what they could do instead by applying some of these principles. 

In our day-to-day communication with peers, managers, and clients, we often fail to express the value of our work in terms that are inherently valuable. For example, we say “this is an important project” instead of “the value of this project exceeds the combined value of every other contract we have secured this year”. Both statements can be true, but only the second results in the project being ranked as more important than other projects. Once your project is perceived as more important, it will be more likely to attract attention and resources. This is just one example of the application of Principle Four, which is Value Framing. 

Value Framing involves modifying how an item is perceived by modifying the context within which it is presented, the set of alternatives to which is it compared, or the units of value in which it is expressed. Value Framing works because the tendency to judge value in relative rather than absolute terms is not only universal in adult humans – it is true also for kindergarteners, Charles River rats [1] and even ants [2]

Principle Five is Effort. The Principle of Effort derives from the well-documented tendency of humans everywhere to take the easiest, lowest effort pathway to achieve the outcomes they seek. For example, computer scientists can predict the movement pattern of pedestrians quite accurately by identifying the routes from one location to another that represent the absolute minimum caloric energy expenditure for the people involved [3], and the linguist George Zipf demonstrated an inverse relationship between the length of a word and the frequency with which it is used [4]. Whether the effort involved is physical or mental, the more difficult it is to do something, the less likely that people will do it. Our default attempts to influence others rarely take this into account. For example, when designing a form, we rarely ask people for the absolute minimum information we require from them – instead we ask them for anything we can think of that could be useful to us. 

In order to increase your influence using Principle Five, start by imagining every employee has an extremely limited budget of mental and physical effort to be spent on performing the target behaviour. The lower the budget required in terms of seconds spent thinking, and calories spent doing, the higher the likelihood people comply with your requests. If you make it easy enough, some people won’t even question why you are asking.

Principle Six is Reasoning. The single most frequently used tactic in attempts to influence people at work is rational persuasion, that is, providing other people with good reasons why they should do what you are asking of them. While rational persuasion is amongst the more effective of the tactics people commonly use at work, it still has a generally low correlation with achieving the outcome that person is seeking [5]. This is because people are far less influenced by logical reasons than we believe them to be. Major public health campaigns attempting to use rational persuasion to influence people to stop smoking, quit alcohol abuse, or avoid teenage pregnancy have frequently been found to be completely ineffective in changing people’s behaviour in any measurable way [6]. Further, we tend to believe that the more logical reasons we add to our arguments, the more convincing we will be when, in fact, the opposite has been shown to be true [7, 8]. Typically, people’s decisions are driven more by emotion or by the prospect of reward than by logical reasoning. Principle Six involves generating more effective reasons for persuasion by identifying what would make someone feel – rather than think – that your idea is a good choice. 

It’s not a competition

When it comes to influence at work, you don’t have to be the best influencer there ever was. Your goal should be to develop your skill so that your success improves relative to what it was before you started applying scientific approaches such as the nine principles for influence at work.

About the Author

Dr Amanda Nimon-Peters is Professor of Leadership at Hult International Business School. You can reach out to her via LinkedIn. Dr Amanda’s book Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion for Accelerating Your Career is available for pre-order on Amazon. If you are in the UK, order on the Bloomsbury site and receive 25% off using the promo code INFLUENCE25. 

References

[1] Lubow, R. E., Rifkin, B., & Alek, M. (1976). The context effect: The relationship between stimulus preexposure and environmental preexposure determines subsequent learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 2(1), 38-47. doi:10.1037/0097-7403.2.1.38

[2] Wendt, S., Strunk, K. S., Heinze, J., Roider, A., & Czaczkes, T. J. (2019). Positive and negative incentive contrasts lead to relative value perception in ants. ELife Sciences, 8. doi:10.7554/elife.45450.030

[3] Guy, S. J., Curtis, S., Lin, M. C., & Manocha, D. (2012). Least-effort trajectories lead to emergent crowd behaviors. Physical Review E, 85(1). doi:10.1103/physreve.85.016110

[4] Zipf, G. K. (1949). Human behavior and the principle of least effort: An introduction to human ecology. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

[5] Lee, S., Han, S., Cheong, M., Kim, S. L., & Yun, S. (2017). How do I get my way? A meta-analytic review of research on influence tactics. The Leadership Quarterly28(1), 210–228. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2016.11.001

[6] Curtis, V. (2004). The art of persuasion. New Scientist, 184(2478), 21–21.

[7] Schwartz, D., Bruine de Bruin, W., Fischhoff, B., & Lave, L. (2015). Advertising energy saving programs: The potential environmental cost of emphasizing monetary savings. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied21(2), 158–166. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000042

[8] Zukier, H. (1982). The dilution effect: The role of the correlation and the dispersion of predictor variables in the use of nondiagnostic information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology43(6), 1163–1174. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.43.6.1163