The uses (and abuses) of influence: part one


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Robert Cialdini, considered the leading social scientist in the field of influence, was initially drawn to the topic because he saw how easily people could step over an ethical line into manipulation or even abuse. His 2001 book Influence, which laid out six principles of persuasion, was eloquent about the dangers of persuasive techniques in the wrong hands. A best-selling article he wrote for Harvard Business Review the same year, ‘Harnessing the Science of Persuasion’, looked at the positive side of persuasion: how managers could use those principles to run their organisations more effectively.

Cialdini is the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and the president of the consulting firm Influence at Work. In this edited interview with HBR executive editor Sarah Cliffe, he drills deeper into everyday uses of persuasion inside businesses and describes new research on the ethics of influence.

Q: I’m going to run a few scenarios by you to explore how people can influence others more effectively at work. First, imagine that you’re an employee trying to behave entrepreneurially. You need resources to jump-start a great business idea. How do you get people to help?

A: It requires pre-work. People will help if they owe you for something you did in the past to advance their goals. That’s the rule of reciprocity. Get in the habit of helping people out, and – this part’s really important – don’t wave it away when people thank you. Don’t say, “Oh, no big deal.” We’re given serious persuasive power immediately after someone thanks us. So say something like, “Of course, it’s what partners do for each other.” Label what happened an act of partnership. With that pre-work done, a manager who subsequently needs support, who needs staffing, who maybe even needs a budget, will have significantly elevated the probability of success.

Q: Adam Grant’s work on the importance of giving inside organisations echoes that, doesn’t it?

A: It does. Grant provides a brilliant analysis. Another fascinating study was done by Frank Flynn, formerly at Columbia, now at Stanford. He examined giving behaviours at a large telecom and found that two things happened when people helped their colleagues. One, the helpers were perceived by their fellow employees to be extremely valuable. Two, and here’s where it gets complicated, they had lower productivity on their own projects. They were diverting a lot of time and energy to their colleagues’ problems.

Q: How do you manage that discrepancy between generosity and productivity?

A: Flynn found one thing that increased both the social value of the giver and that person’s productivity. It wasn’t the number of favours done. It was the number of favours exchanged.

If the initial giver creates a sense of reciprocity – a sense that there’s a network of partners who are not just willing but eager to help – he will get a lot in return. He can increase the likelihood of a big ROI [return on investment] by characterising his assistance as a two-way partnership.

Q: Second situation: an executive needs to convince a group that a big change in direction is necessary. What would you advise?

A: Moving people under conditions of uncertainty is difficult – the first thing they do is freeze. They’re scared of what they might lose. Therefore, it’s good to tell people what they will lose if they fail to move. Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for showing that if you’re trying to mobilise people under conditions of uncertainty, notions of loss are psychologically more powerful than notions of gain. Managers can take the wind in their faces and make it wind in their sails by speaking not just of what will be gained by moving but also of what will be lost or forgone if people fail to move.

A second thing that happens when people are uncertain is that they don’t look inside themselves for answers – all they see is ambiguity and their own lack of confidence. Instead, they look outside for sources of information that can reduce their uncertainty. The first thing they look to is authority: what do the experts think about this topic?

Q: That’s not necessarily the boss. It could be the person who knows the subject best.

A: That’s an important distinction. We’re not talking about being in authority but about being an authority. The manager needs to marshal evidence from acknowledged experts – they could be outsiders – that aligns with the rationale for the initiative.

The other place people look is to peers. If a couple of people are hanging back in a team meeting, the manager shouldn’t hammer those guys, trying to get them to fall in line. Instead, he or she should identify a respected member of the group who agrees with the plan and ask that person to weigh in. Peers are often more convincing than executives when we’re deciding what we should do.

Q: Here’s another scenario. I was recently at a conference where a group of CEOs were asked to cooperate on a task that was important in a civic sense – important to the world – but was not necessarily something their shareholders would applaud. The organiser was deeply respected but had no formal power. In that kind of situation, how do you get people to make commitments that last beyond the feel-good moment?

A: Two things strike me as important. The first is something I’m thinking about right now for a book I’m writing: the power of we. When people see themselves as part of a larger group that has a shared identity, they are willing to take steps they wouldn’t take for their individual interests. The research on this is very clear. So the organiser needed to build that sense of shared purpose in the moment.

Once people disperse, they go back to their everyday we – in this case, the companies they run. So you need to lock in the change by getting people to make a public commitment while they’re still together. You have to ask them what they will do and, if possible, get a written response.

Q: Why does getting it in writing matter?

A: People live up to what they write down, for some reason; it seems to make the choice more conscious. They should also be asked to make commitments about next steps and to schedule another conversation, by which time they will be ready to describe the progress they’ve made. Bit by bit, the commitment becomes more concrete.

Q: If you want to build up your informal networks, how do you go about it?

A: Here’s where the internet helps us. We can find out a lot about people by checking their Facebook or LinkedIn pages. Look for things you have in common – maybe it’s running, maybe it’s knitting, maybe it’s where you went to school. Finding something in common is powerful, because we like people who are like us; that’s another principle of influence. If you use that similarity as a point of departure, and if you do it honestly, they’ll like you, and you’ll come to like them. Now you have people who are willing to be part of your network because of commonalities that were under the surface.

Q: What advice can you give people who are reluctant to negotiate for themselves and need to get better at it? I’m thinking particularly about the research suggesting that women typically ‘don’t ask’.

A: I’ve done some work with Jeffrey Pfeffer, of Stanford, on whether you need someone to advance your case in a negotiation, and we’ve found that having an agent or advocate can be very helpful.

There are two benefits associated with having an agent when, say, you’re being considered or recruited for a position. One is that you’re perceived as more prestigious if someone is advocating for you. That’s the authority principle in action.

The liking principle also comes into play. If you have to be a broker of information about yourself, you often appear self-aggrandising, and it rubs people the wrong way. In the research we did, we found that if an advocate for a candidate makes demands that are based on the candidate’s merits, it doesn’t harm the candidate. But if the candidate argues the very same case, it does. The people on the receiving end just don’t like that person, who comes off as a braggart.

This is especially relevant for women. We have done research showing that women who are anything less than modest about their accomplishments are harmed interpersonally. Men can also do themselves damage by being boastful, but we expect them to be aggressive. It hurts them far, far less than it hurts women.

Because of this bias, women will do better in organisations where managers are expected to advance the case for their people – where that’s the cultural norm.

Q: Any organisation has minority groups – people who are ‘other’ to some extent. Do they face difficulties when it comes to influencing those around them?

A: Yes, because of the similarity factor we talked about earlier. But there’s a way around that. Those surface characteristics – race, ethnicity, foreign-born status – become irrelevant when there are commonalities in terms of values. We all want to work with people who share our sense of what’s important – our priorities on the job, or even beyond the job. So one thing people can do is establish commonalities that aren’t immediately visible. It usually takes a while for those things to be recognised; you can shorten the process by speaking about values more spontaneously.

Read part two here.

Sarah Cliffe is the executive editor of Harvard Business Review.


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