One of my coaching clients was promoted earlier this year. In her new position, one of her priorities has been developing her ability to influence. A recent blog post from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) concurs that influence is a leadership capability that individuals often need help developing. So what exactly is influence, and why is it an important skill for leaders?

Influence is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the power to change or affect someone or something.” Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: Science and Practice, uses the term nearly interchangeably with the term persuasion. While both terms are frequently associated with negotiation, influence is also an important aspect of organizational change, collaborating with others, and problem solving. As the CCL post points out, leaders must convince others of the validity of their perspectives in order to get traction for courses of action that have a larger organizational impact, beyond their individual contributions. 

Dr. Cialdini has conducted extensive research to understand how people are influenced and has written articles for the Harvard Business Review explaining how to (ethically) apply influence in the workplace. He has identified six principles of influence:

Reciprocity. Give what you want to receive, and treat others how you wish to be treated. The opposite of this is also true – if you give up something, others are more likely to be open to concessions. This is not just applicable to the exchange of tangible things, such as products and services, but also to more intangible offerings such as attention and respect.

Consistency. People are wired to be consistent with their prior statements and actions. Cialdini refers to research that shows that when someone actively makes a commitment, meaning it is spoken or written down, they are considerably more likely to honor that commitment.

Social Proof. We tend to follow the lead of others, especially in situations of uncertainty. Think about the credence many of us (myself included) give to reviews from others on sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. In situations of influence, this means less emphasis on your persuasive abilities than on the influence of the wider social environment.

Liking. Specifically, we like people who are similar to us and who share and support the same goals. Build relationships with others in advance around shared perspectives, interests, and values, before you get into situations where you must persuade them to your point of view.

Authority. This does not refer to authority conferred by a position in a hierarchy but instead is the authority of credible and recognized experts. In this instance, you or someone else may be the authority. Cialdini says that it is important not to assume that the expertise of you or others is obvious. If possible, provide supporting evidence such as a bio or a list of relevant publications.

Scarcity. Research shows that we are more moved to action when we know what we could lose as opposed to what we can gain. When I look up prices for an airline ticket or hotel room, the website frequently lets me know that there are “Only 3 remaining at this price!” Which is a good reminder that these tactics are also being used to influence you, perhaps in ways that are unwelcome.

While the last point may give you pause about practicing influence, you are also using these same principles when you are respectful of colleagues, networking with others around shared interests, and using expert opinions to justify your positions. Dr. Cialdini explores how the principles of influence can be used ethically to increase organizational effectiveness. Consider for yourself how these principles can be used in your own workplace to increase, not reduce, constructive and productive interactions.

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