Mark Powell on the importance of influence
The secrets of how to command attention, change minds and influence others have always been amongst the most important life skills – especially for those in the business community. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Inﬂuence People, published way back in 1936, was one of the first self-help books ever published and to date has sold over 15 million copies. And in these days of social media it is not just a matter of how many friends and followers you have on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ or Instagram, but how much influence you exercise over those in your personal and professional networks.
But why is it so important for us to be influential? One reason is that in a tough economy, it’s the employees who become the go-to experts for their specialist area; who know how to adapt their persuasion style to win over others; who get spotted for their leadership potential and have the best career prospects.
Though being an adept influencer may mark you out for the top, you need to start ‘moving and shaking’ long before you reach the boardroom. What this means is that, as you climb the corporate ladder, you’ll have to influence not only downwards, but also upwards and sideways – each requiring a different set of tactics.
Inﬂuencing Downwards: In hierarchical corporate cultures (and national cultures as different as those of China and France) there tends to be a command-and-control style of management, which makes subordinates quite willing to carry out directives from above. Nevertheless, as companies become more globalised and workforces more diverse, you will generally find those who report to you would rather be motivated to act than dictated to. And this is always true in more egalitarian and individualistic cultures.
Varying the tasks you delegate is one way of keeping motivation high. So is emphasising the importance of the task itself and the learning opportunity it presents. In organisations where initiative is valued (and that’s most of them these days) allow your team a certain amount of flexibility in the way they follow your instructions and don’t be slow to offer encouragement, support and praise for a job well done. And, except in cultures where people have a large ‘space bubble’, don’t underestimate the persuasive power of brief physical contact. Studies have shown that even a touch on the shoulder lasting just 1/40th of a second significantly increases someone’s willingness to comply with your wishes.
Influencing Sideways: With more and more international projects requiring (virtual) teamwork these days, the ability to influence your peers has become considerably more important too. The world’s leading expert on influence, Robert Cialdini, lists six main factors which promote compliance: liking, reciprocation, consistency, social proof, authority and scarcity. Of these the first three are perhaps most relevant to persuading your peers.
First, liking – naturally a colleague you get on well with is more likely to agree to do what you want. This underlines the importance of relationship-building at work. And, if you’ve done a favour for them in the past (or offer to do one in the future), they are, of course, going to be much more prepared to reciprocate. Interestingly, research has demonstrated that the size of the favour you do is not so important. If you’ve done even a small favour for someone, they are still much more likely to do you a big favour in return. Even more interestingly, if they have done a favour for you before, they are much more likely to do so again – this is Cialdini’s principle of consistency. So remind the people you ask for assistance of the last time they helped you out before you make your request.
Inﬂuencing Upwards: Of course, except in the most individualistic cultures, where team members may strive to compete as much as collaborate (if all else fails, try flattery on the most self-seeking!), persuading peers is a piece of cake compared with persuading the boss. But the ability to influence upwards is essential if you’re going to get that promotion.
So how is it done? The first thing is to put yourself in your boss’s shoes. If you were them, what would most interest you about the request or proposal you’re about to make? Which of their hot-buttons’ should you press? Is your boss very price-conscious or more customer-centric? If they always have one eye on what your competitors are doing (Cialdini’s ‘social proof’), then point out how your company may fall behind if your idea is rejected.
If on the other hand, they require reliable data or supporting evidence (Cialdini’s ‘authority’), then have those figures ready! Finally, you could point out what the company stands to lose if your advice is not taken and that they need to act fast while the opportunity is still there (Cialdini ‘s ‘scarcity’).
Admittedly, persuading superiors is not always possible, especially in cultures where there exists what intercultural guru Geert Hofstede calls a high power-distance index (PDI) and bosses seldom consult their subordinates. But at whatever level you try to be influential, remember that effective persuasion is never about manipulation, but always about having the emotional intelligence to tailor your message to the person you wish to persuade.
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Mark Powell has been involved in business English teaching, teacher training and materials writing for the last 15 years. He has spoken at numerous ELT conferences all over the world and regularly runs the London Chamber of Commerce Certificate in Teaching English for Business in Europe and Latin America. He is author of the intermediate and upper intermediate levels of the In Company 3.0 series.
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