Working Better Together – 3. Influencing Techniques

Let’s start with what influencing is, and what it is not. Because, I find there’s often an ‘elephant in the room’ when I deliver development sessions on influencing. Some people feel it is bad. Not in the down-with-the-kids way where it is actually good but where it is evil. Bad. Manipulative. Something that they feel uncomfortable with. And that’s understandable. Because what people understand to be influencing is often something else; persuasion, manipulation or worse, coercion.

Influencing is not begging, pleading or throwing a tantrum to get what you want. Influencing is not bribing, monetarily or otherwise and it certainly isn’t forcing anyone to do anything against their will. It is encouraging someone else or a group of people to do something that is in their interests as defined by them. My sense check for this is win-win. If the other party yields a positive outcome from the thing I have influenced and I also have a positive outcome, it’s a win:win. If I get what I want but the other party has a neutral or negative experience, I haven’t influenced, I’ve persuaded, cajoled or manipulated the other party. Win:lose. And if they’ve got what they want and I’ve had a negative experience, I’ve been a victim of manipulation or otherwise. Lose:Win.

There are some brilliant people writing brilliant things about Behavioural Economics, nudge theory and influencing. (See resources below). For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on Cialdinis principles of persuasion.

Dr Robert Cialdini is rather well known in the field of psychology of influencing. Born in Wisconsin in 1945 and now in his 70s, he’s led an academic life. The research he undertook in the late 70s, early 80s culminated in the book that he is most known for – Influence : The Psychology of Persuasion and from it come 6 principles of persuasion that are widely regarded as being relevant today. (The website Influence at is a great starting point to read more about him, the work he has done and the legacy that he will no doubt leave behind).

The 6 principles are reciprocity, consistency, consensus, liking, authority and scarcity. Let’s take each of these in turn.

  1. Reciprocity. The concept of doing something for someone (before asking them to do something for you). Example – if you help a bar tender clear empty glasses from your table and hold the door open for them, later, when you go to the bar to be served, you will likely be favoured in some way (e.g. served more quickly, drinks brought over etc). In the work place, if you know that you are going to need someone to do something for you in the coming days or weeks, do something that will help them out now. The secret of this technique? Often the act of repayment is greater in value than that of the initial gesture.
  2. Consistency. The concept that we like to be consistent with the things that we have previously said or done. Example – if you intend to go for a run later, you are far more likely to commit to your plan if you have told others that this is your intention. We like our actions to be consistent with our commitment. A great principle if you are looking to influence behavioural change. Encourage the other party to make a small but public commitment to the change (e.g. someone struggling with time management changes their calendar settings to be viewed by all). The next step (of scheduling time for planning and catch up, for example) is then much easier to do as the commitment is already underpinning it.
  3. Consensus. The concept that when in doubt, we will go with what we believe others think is right. Example – if you are staying in a hotel and there is a sign in the bathroom saying that xx% of previous guests have used their towel on consecutive days to help protect the planet, you are far more likely to also use your towel on consecutive days than had the sign not been there. In a work setting, stating that ‘the majority of your peer group’ or ‘most other managers at your level’ or whatever the common factor is have also done whatever it is you want them to do will on the most part mean that they too will be more likely to do it.
  4. Liking.  The concept that we like to do business with people we like. We’re human! If we feel an affinity towards someone, if we are paid compliments (even if we don’t believe them) and if we are co-operated with, we are more likely to want to work with them. This is a great principle to use if you are trying to influence someone you find tricky to work with. Notice the things that you have in common whether socially, professionally or even simply that you are working towards the same goal and mention what you have noticed to the other person.
  5. Authority. The concept that we defer to authority (whether perceived or real!) Example – a study of in-patients being discharged from hospital and instructed to undertake rehabilitative exercises were found, 6 weeks later, to have been more likely to undergo these exercises if the doctor advising them of this wore a white coat and stethoscope round their neck rather than civilian clothes. In work, be proud of awards and accolades and display them with pride. Mention your tenure or previous experience and talk about others in the same way, especially when introducing people.
  6. Scarcity. The concept that we’re motivated by potential loss. It’s where FOMO comes from (fear of missing out). If we believe we could have something that the majority of other people don’t have, especially if we obtain that thing as a direct result of our deliberate actions (e.g. waiting for tickets to go on sale and being among the first in the queue to purchase), then we are far more likely to take the necessary steps to get it. In a work context scarcity can be used by sharing information that is not widespread, giving early access to a new product or service, or being the first to hear about xxx.

Not everyone will respond exactly like this in every situation but most will, most of the time. And whilst we like to think that we are smarter than that (“flattery will get you nowhere” – wrong, it’s scientifically proven that it will!), in the moment, at that time, we are most likely to behave in the ways outlined above. Of course we’re all different but we do have one common denominator – our human-ness. And with that, come biases and heuristics. Next time I’ll be covering Cognitive Biases but if you would like to find out more about influencing skills or nudge theory check out the resources below. Working Better Together by Boost HR.


Influence at Work

Nudge : Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness – Richard H Thaler & Cass R Sunstein (Penguin)

Thinking, Fast & Slow – Daniel Kahneman (Penguin)