Master the art of influence at work

Aug 02, 2017
Increase your level of influence with these simple principles of persuasion, explains Joe Carroll.

Nobody likes to be told what to do. Psychology studies show that when a person feels that someone or something is taking away their choices, or limiting the range of alternatives, they tend to resist. To avoid this scenario, we should seek to be the wind in people’s sails and not the helmsman. In other words, we should gently nudge or influence people in the preferred direction.

Indeed, masters of influence employ a variety of techniques to inspire and motivate people. It isn’t luck or magic, it is science and we can learn to be more influential. We can also learn to recognise when we are being influenced by others.

Knowledge is central to this learning process and as one of the leading thinkers on influence, Robert Cialdini, said: “People’s ability to understand the factors that affect their behaviour is surprisingly poor.”


As night fell, the infamous conman Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can fame positioned himself in front of a bank’s night deposit safe and unfurled a sign which read “Night deposit vault out of order. Please make deposits with security officer.” Dressed as a security guard and armed with this sign, he collected deposits of cash and cheques from over 35 people and “not one of them said more than ‘good evening’ or ‘good night’”. How could so many people be duped in this way?

Social scientist Stanley Milgram proposes that people have a “deep-seated sense of duty to authority” and that this was at play when the individuals deposited cash and cheques with the fake security officer. Meanwhile, Cialdini would refer to the concept of blind obedience, pointing out that “we are trained from birth to believe that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong”.

Authority is generally respected and expert advice is followed. Job titles, dress and even perceived car value have all been shown to influence an individual’s credibility. Simply assuming the appearance of authority increases the likelihood that others will comply with requests, even if one’s authority is illegitimate. This impulse can be abused by powerful figures and con-artists, however.

A famous illustration of this is found in the 1973 Stanford prison experiment, set up to investigate how readily people would conform to the roles of guard and prisoner in a role-playing exercise that simulated prison life. In a very short time, both guards and prisoners settled into their new roles, with both groups adopting their roles quickly and easily.

Within hours of beginning the experiment, some guards began to harass prisoners. They behaved in a brutal manner and seemed to enjoy it. The prisoners soon adopted prisoner-like behaviour too. Over the next few days, harassment degenerated into violence and a number of ‘prisoners’ showed signs of emotional disorder. The experiment was intended to run for a fortnight but it was terminated on the sixth day.

The authority principle can, it seems, overrule morality and even our most basic survival instincts. In 1977, two Boeing 747 jumbo jets collided on the holiday island of Tenerife resulting in the deaths of 583 of the 644 passengers on board. It was a watershed moment which transformed how the aviation industry viewed safety. It also underscored the inherent danger of deference to authority.

KLM captain, Jacob Van Zanten, was the airline’s top pilot and an industry celebrity who featured in KLM advertisements. His experience and confident demeanour exuded authority. While the tragic incident was the culmination of coincidences and errors, a critical factor identified in the aftermath was the failure or reticence of the flight crew to challenge Van Zanten. The dynamics of authority were considered by investigators to have been a critical factor in creating the circumstances that led to the collision. The power of this dynamic overrode the survival instinct and critically impacted the willingness of the first officer and flight engineers to openly challenge the charismatic captain’s errors, which ultimately resulted in disaster.

Organisations and business leaders must be aware of this powerful force and can, of course, use authority to advance their goals and influence those around them. They must also be mindful, however, of the pitfalls and dangers that lurk within.

Social norms

We have all seen the signs in hotel bathrooms which encourage guests to re-use towels, but are you aware of the importance of the wording? Signs that draw on our concern for the environment are powerful, but what really drives action is reading about the number of other guests in the hotel who re-used their towels. By localising the message further to say that the majority of people who have stayed in your particular room re-used their towels, even more influence is exerted. In one study, considered wording resulted in almost 50% compliance – a 33% increase in towel re-use compared to the standard environmental appeal. By making the appeal more localised and personalised, it will be more likely to move people in a particular direction.

How does localisation activate this enhanced rate of compliance? The research shows that we all want to feel normal, that we want to fit in and this is especially true when people are uncertain about a course of action. In this situation, they tend to look to those around them for guidance.

In his ground-breaking work on influence, Cialdini identified six principles of persuasion. Principle two is ‘social proof’, which is sometimes referred to as herd behaviour. According to Cialdini, this powerful psychological phenomenon is the reason why comedy shows have laugh tracks. It also has potential applications in the workplace – when pitching a proposal or new product, for example, the more similar the person giving the testimonial is to your audience, the more persuasive the message becomes. So in deciding which testimonials to use, don’t simply choose the most impressive person or indeed your favourite. Instead, lead with someone whose circumstances are most comparable to those of your audience.

Influencing change

Change is constant, but difficult to effect. Inertia and resistance can make even relatively minor change painful while for many, change induces fear of the unknown. Moving people under these conditions is difficult; fearful of what they might lose, they freeze. If you wish to encourage real change, what can you do? Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prizewinning psychologist and author of the bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow suggests a strategy; against a backdrop of uncertainty, leaders should outline what people will lose if they fail to move.

Kahneman’s research demonstrates that notions of loss are more powerful than notions of gain. Leaders should create a ‘push’ factor by speaking not just of what will be gained by moving, but also of what will be lost in a failure to move.


Heuristics are the mental shortcuts we all employ to make decisions. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman explores their utility and their limitations. Heuristics are, according to Kahneman, grounded in our fast, automatic, emotionally-driven and subconscious brain. Heuristics employ simple, efficient rules to assist us in making judgements. For example, how many people are in a room? Is a product good value? Do we like someone? These mental shortcuts usually focus on one aspect of a complex question while ignoring others.

Cialdini suggests that we can effect influence by taking advantage of these automated responses. Cialdini presents an example where salespeople influence purchasing decisions by presenting a more expensive item (such as a business suit) before offering less expensive items (such as a shirt or tie). The reason? After making the commitment to purchase the expensive item, the other items now appear cheap by comparison to our automated decision-making system. This in turn influences our perception and likelihood to ‘spend up’.

Awareness is our first line of defence, but even awareness may not be enough to counter these powerful psychological forces. We may need to, for example, insist on viewing smaller items before moving on to more expensive items. However, this leads us to another principle of influence identified by Cialdini, which is ‘liking’.


We are more influenced by those we like or who are similar to us and in his research, Cialdini identified a number of factors that influence who we like. For example, physical attractiveness – we automatically assign favourable traits such as talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence to those we perceive as attractive. We are also predisposed to like those who are similar to us in personality, interests, opinions or background.

Cialdini also highlights a mechanism that has important implications for leaders seeking to build and enhance teams – contact and cooperation. Increased contact and familiarity between individuals and groups typically breeds friendship, with one important exception. When people are placed in competitive environments where there can be only one or limited winners, we see increased enmity instead of friendship. Where people must “pull together for mutual benefit”, friendship and respect tends to result. The implication for leaders when setting goals is clear.

Interestingly, research shows that ‘liking’ is also impacted by gender. The same traits or behaviours may be perceived as more or less desirable depending on whether the person is male or female. In salary negotiations, for example, when women talk up their achievements, it has been shown to be more harmful to them than when men do. Both are perceived as braggarts but when women are anything other than modest, it can hinder them while it can actually benefit men. Cialdini suggests that women could seek to neutralise this by engaging an agent or broker to conduct salary negotiations and that progressive organisations should require managers to advance the case for their staff, thereby nullifying the discriminatory impact on women.


This principle focuses on the feeling of indebtedness you experience towards someone who does something for you or gives something to you. This is the nagging impulse to repay them, to rebalance the equation. The so-called “rule of reciprocation” states that we are all bound, even driven, to repay debts of all kinds. It is an almost automatic reaction.

This is a powerful force and in his first book, Cialdini highlights some examples where “compliance professionals”, such as marketers or salespeople, use reciprocation to induce the automated response of compliance. Hare Krishnas are masters of this rule – they give little flowers to passing strangers on the street knowing that even this small, unsolicited ‘gift’ can be enough to invoke the ‘rule’ and greatly enhance their chances of receiving a donation in return.

And have you ever wondered why restaurants place mints alongside the bill? Once again these small ‘gifts’ press a button deep in our subconscious and we are statistically likely to tip much more generously than we might have in the absence of the mint. The research shows that we are hardwired to balance the scales again as soon as possible; you instinctively want to give something back. This helps you feel better about yourself and the situation you find yourself in.

What can you do to resist?

You can of course refuse the Hare Krishna’s gift or avoid them on the street, but it is harder to refuse the mints in a restaurant as this again runs straight into Cialdini’s principle of ‘liking’. We are programmed to engage in this reciprocal behaviour or ritual for very good societal and cultural reasons. Much of humanity’s success is down to our ability to cooperate, to share resources and information. Reciprocation is the catalyst for this; it allows someone to start the process, to share something in the expectation that they will receive something in return. Without this backdrop, cooperation would be virtually impossible.

We can use reciprocation in the workplace to positive ends. For example, giving small gifts to staff not only shows appreciation but increases staff loyalty and may, in fact, reduce staff turnover. And if seeking to build a sense of togetherness, reciprocation can be a powerful ally. When we provide help to another person in the team, we should avoid the impulse to be modest and say: “It was nothing”. Instead, trigger the reciprocation button and say: “That’s what team members do”. In doing so, the scene is best set for colleagues to reciprocate, sowing the seeds for a positive spiral of cooperation.

Just one word…

It is well-known that when asking someone for a favour, success is more likely when we provide a reason. However, a 1989 study by Harvard social psychologist, Ellen Langer, demonstrated something remarkable about how we ask. Langer and her team approached people waiting in line to use a library copying machine and asked for a small favour: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” 60% of those asked allowed the researcher jump ahead in the queue.

Langer’s team then used the word “because” but added nothing new, merely restating the original ask: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” This request resulted in a 93% positive response rate from those approached even though no real reason or no new information was provided. So don’t forget to include the word “because” when making a request, as this can nearly double the odds of receiving a positive response.


Another key to influence is to first understand people’s motivations and their world view. To do this effectively, you will need a well-developed sense of empathy. According to Kevin Dutton, author of Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds, a highly developed sense of empathy is a key tool of influence. It allows us to diagnose someone’s motivations, which can then be used to influence them.

If, for example, you are trying to convince someone to invest in your new restaurant, you should go beyond a compelling business plan. To win both hearts and minds, you should think hard about why the potential investor would be interested beyond making money. Are they a foodie who is frustrated with the quality of local cuisine? Then let them know that, by supporting your restaurant, they could become a gourmet superhero and play a part in bringing top-notch ingredients and flavours to the area.


People are constantly seeking to exert influence upon us and awareness of this – and of the techniques commonly employed – is critical if we are to remain master of own destiny. That said, the many forces at play can be difficult to manage. There is, as we have seen, a science behind influence and while some may be naturals, we can learn about the tools and techniques and put them to use. But a word of caution: act with care when seeking to activate automated responses. Otherwise, our successes may be pyrrhic victories that come at the cost of long-term trust.

Joe Carroll is Manager of Operations, Specialist & Executive Education, at Chartered Accountants Ireland.