Leadership & Professional Development

How to use influence to enhance your powers of persuasion in the workplace

January 26, 2021 10:43 pm

Jill Geisler

Giving orders may be necessary at times, but leaders are more influential if they establish credibility, reliability and empathy and know how to connect with people individually.

Remember when you were thinking about becoming a manager? You probably imagined that such a role would translate into the ability to get things done. To make change. To deal with the things you know could be better.

You’d have the title and therefore the power to make all of that happen.

Then you became a manager and realized it’s much more complicated. Your title indeed gives you some clout. In fact, classic social-science research calls it “legitimate power,” the ability to make demands of others based on your rank.

But you’re leading human beings. People don’t wake up each morning hoping they’ll be pushed around by bosses who believe their titles have made them commanders. People have needs, interests, goals, personalities and challenges.

Ordering people to do things is a tool in your management kit, but it’s one that should be used sparingly — in times of urgency or as a last resort.

A better option is another tool you may have had long before you had the power of management: influence.

Establishing influence

Influence is the ability to engage, inspire and persuade. It’s built on your track record of:

Credibility. You know what you’re talking about. You do your homework. You see the big picture. You’re a straight shooter who tells the truth and can be trusted.

Reliability. You follow up on your promises. There’s consistency in your actions and beliefs. People can feel safe in predicting how you’ll respond. If you shift your thinking, you share your reasoning to ensure people aren’t whipsawed by your changing perspectives.

Empathy. You see the world through the eyes of others. Whether you are a formal manager or a colleague serving as a project leader, you’re a gifted symphony conductor. You may not play all the instruments, but you know what it takes to get the best out of each one. People believe you get them and what it takes to do their work.

When you have influence, you can persuade people without needing to order them around. You can move people from resistance to acceptance. You can turn Why? into Why not? You can help people see possibilities they may have missed. You can motivate them to step up, lean in and even take the lead.

Think about a time you had a talk with your boss and left having volunteered to take on a responsibility. Minutes after the meeting, you said to yourself, “How did that just happen? I was there for a conversation and left with an assignment. And I volunteered for it!”

Your boss used influence.

It started with one or the other of you talking about a problem or challenge. The boss asked you questions. You talked about your experiences and insights. The boss listened. Asked more questions. You made suggestions. The boss focused on one suggestion and asked you more about how to make it work. Soon, you were sketching out a plan, or offering to. And your boss happily agreed — and offered support.

That’s influence. It’s working on a shared vision of a challenge or opportunity and then finding the other person’s point of entry. Where can they come into this picture in a way that they hadn’t envisioned, but you had?

Understanding the principles of persuasion

Influence requires that you understand and care about what motivates others. Some people are moved by cold, hard data. Others by emotion. Some aren’t persuaded by anything right off the bat. You know them well enough to not be put off by their first reaction to an idea, but to instead let them think about it for a while and get back to you.

How do you know what approach to use and what moves others?

One of the best-known researchers and writers on this topic, Robert Cialdini, says there are six principles of persuasion:

1. Reciprocity. You’ve done something for me, so I’ll do something for you.

2. Scarcity. I want in on something because not everyone gets to be.

3. Authority. I want in because the smartest or most accomplished people are behind it.

4. Consistency. I’ve done something similar before.

5. Liking. Darn it, you’re so nice, I can’t say no.

6. Consensus. I see a bandwagon and jump on.

When you know people well, you know which of these to apply in your persuasion quest. But remember, this isn’t trickery. You won’t persuade a soul if they think you’re trying to manipulate them rather than seeking to inspire, connect or engage with them. They’re persuadable if they think you genuinely have their best interests at heart.

When persuasion falls short

And what if no amount of persuasion works and you still need to get something important done?

That’s when you go back to your toolkit and pull out the seldom-used “legitimate power”: giving an order. You provide clear direction and explain why this request is non-negotiable. You tell the person you regret having to be this direct, but it is for the good of the team and the organization.

Remember, though, that using blunt force too often means you have deeper issues to deal with. Do you have the right people on the team? Do they see you as credible, reliable and empathetic enough that you have influence?

Leaders who regularly invoke their power to get things done risk prompting one of the most dangerous phrases you can hear from your employees: “Just tell us what you want.”

If you hear that repeatedly, it means that your priorities aren’t clear or consistent, that people fear your response if they make a mistake or that they believe no matter what their ideas are, yours will always prevail.

It means you prefer demonstrating your power instead of learning — and earning — the rewards of influence.


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