Leading Through Persuasion
By James Grinnell
“There is only one way under high Heaven to get anybody to do anything. Did you ever stop to think of that? Yes, just one way. And that is by making the other person want to do it. Remember, there is no other way.” – Dale Carnegie
As the world of business migrates toward the coaching/servant-oriented mindset, a new approach to leadership will be called for. No longer will the “demand and command” approach prove effective. Leaders will increasingly have to use their skills of persuasion to influence their direct reports.
The Harvard Business Press publication Persuading People defines persuasion as the “… process that enables you to change or reinforce others’ attitudes, opinions, or behaviors… Persuasion is a matter not only of making a rational case but also presenting information in a way that appeals to fundamental human emotions. It’s about positioning an idea, approach, or solution in a way that appeals to the people affected by it.”
Persuasion is a process that requires those being influenced to reappraise their attitudes, values, and beliefs. As we are painfully aware, such introspection is intensely difficult for individuals. Thus addressing psychological dynamics is an integral part of the persuasion process. Persuasion expert Robert Cialdini discusses the following six individual tendencies that can be harnessed in the influence process:
- People like those that like them. People like those with whom they share common ground. Finding something in common with the person you wish to influence is one of the surest ways of establishing trust. Giving folks praise and admiration likewise signals that there is a bond of mutual liking.
People feel obligated to repay others in-kind. According to the norm of reciprocity, people feel an innate need to return something in kind when they receive something of value. This doesn’t mean that you should lavish gifts upon the person you wish to influence. Instead, treating people with dignity and respect (i.e., adhering to The Golden Rule) will tap into this drive with most people.
People follow the lead of those they consider their peers. The toughest part of influencing a group is getting the early adopters to swing your way. Once you have a few allies, those folks can be co-opted to champion your cause. And as human nature would have it, people are influenced more effectively by peers than by authority figures.
People align with commitments they acknowledge formally or publicly. Once someone commits to something either to another individual or in writing, they are not likely to recant that commitment. Hence, if you want someone’s full-blown commitment, get them to make that commitment either in front of others or in writing.
People defer to experts. Your success at influencing others is highly correlated with your perceived expertise or ability. Generally speaking people are predisposed to obey those they view as authority figures or experts. Your ability to influence others is enhanced to the extent that you are able to convey your experience, knowledge, or education (without coming across as arrogant).
People desire things that are scarce. As the law of supply and demand dictates, items that are scarce are viewed as being more valuable. Organizational resources such as financial rewards, information, praise, advancement opportunities etc. are all viewed as more valuable to the extent that they are not readily obtained. However, this source of influence can create some ethical issues in the workplace. You should not artificially restrain the dispensation of rewards to make them more valuable. Instead, make sure you don’t diminish their value by frivolously handing them out.
One is treading on thin ice if they rely exclusively on changing psychological drives as such change takes substantial time and its consistency and effectiveness cannot be assured. The effectiveness of the influence process is strengthened when coupled with “structural” strategies. Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, and Andrew Shumberg discuss the following structural sources of influence:
- Link desired action to broader mission, vision, or values. People are more apt to comply with request that they view as aligning with the organization’s vision, values, or mission. This is especially the case when there is congruence between their personal values and those of the organization.
Build new behaviors through training and development. People are more open to persuasion when they feel prepared to execute what is being asked of them. Changes that are supported by training and development initiatives will therefore be more readily accepted.
Align new behaviors with rewards and accountability. As the old saying goes, that which gets rewarded gets done. If you want to influence others, you can use rewards to encourage or accountability to guide behaviors in the direction you seek. An important corollary is that you need to make sure that reward systems don’t contradict behaviors you are eliciting.
Change the information to which people are exposed. In many instances people will open up to influence if they are exposed to new information. This is not to suggest that you shade information to manipulate a desired result, but rather that you give people new information so that they can make an informed decision.
Leading through persuasion is most certainly more complicated than barking orders and ruling with an iron fist. However, leaders have numerous tools at their disposal to improve the effectiveness of their persuasive efforts. Persuasion is enhanced significantly when one uses a multi-pronged strategy. As Grenny, Maxfield, and Shimberg suggest “Effective influencers drive change by relying on several different sources of influence strategies at the same time. Those who succeed predictably and repeatedly don’t differ from others by degrees. By combining multiple sources of influence, they are up to 10 times more successful at producing substantial and sustainable change.”
James Grinnell is an Associate Professor of Management at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the University of Massachusetts. His areas of focus include leadership, organizational change & development, high-performance teams, and strategic management. You can read more from James on his blog.
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