April 22, 2021

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #64 – Harnessing the Science Of Persuasion

By Rob Andrews

With paraphrased content from Robert B. Cialdini’s article “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion”, Harvard Business Review October 2001, one of HBR’s 50 Best Selling Articles  

No leader or rainmaker can succeed without mastering the art of persuasion. But there’s hard science in that skill too, and a large body of psychological research suggests there are six basic laws of winning friends and influencing people.

A lucky few have it; most of us do not. Gifted “naturals” simply know how to capture an audience, sway the undecided, and convert the opposition. Watching these masters of persuasion is both impressive and frustrating. Impressive in the way they convince others to do as they ask; and how eager others are to do what’s requested, as if the persuasion itself were a favor they couldn’t wait to repay.

Born persuaders are rarely able to  teach or pass their remarkable skills on to others. Their way is an art, and artists are better at doing than at explaining. Most can’t help mere mortals with the fundamental challenge of getting things done through influencing others. This challenge is painfully familiar to executives, who have to figure out how to engage highly individualistic work forces or secure new customers for their company. Robert Cialdini’s research suggests:

Anyone can become a master persuader if you look to the science. Being an introvert or lacking magnetic charisma won’t stop you if you apply a formula. For seven decades, behavioral scientists have shed considerable light on the way certain interactions lead people to concede, comply, or change. This research shows that persuasion works by appealing to a limited set of deeply rooted human drives and needs in remarkably predictable ways. Persuasion, in other words, is governed by principles that can be taught, learned, and applied. By mastering these principles, influencers can bring scientific rigor to securing consensus, securing new business, and engaging workforces. Cialdini describes six fundamental principles of persuasion and specific ways that executives can apply them in their own organizations.

The Principle of Liking means people like those who like them. The application is to uncover similarities and offer genuine praise. Controlled research has identified several factors that reliably increase liking, but two stand out as especially compelling—similarity and praise. Similarity literally draws people together. In one experiment, reported in an article in the Journal of Personality, participants stood physically closer to one another after learning that they shared common backgrounds and social values.

Praise, the other reliable generator of affection, both charms and disarms. Researchers at the University of North Carolina writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that men felt the greatest regard for people who complimented them. And in their book Interpersonal Attraction, Berscheid and Hatfield-Walster presented empirical  data showing that positive remarks about another person’s traits, attitude, or performance reliably generates liking in return, as well as willing compliance with the wishes of the person offering the praise.

The Principle of Reciprocity means people repay in kind. The application is to give what you want to receive. Praise is likely to have a warming and softening effect, as we are all subject to the universal human tendency to treat people the way they treat us. If you have ever caught yourself smiling at a coworker just because he or she smiled first, you know how this principle works. Gift giving, even when extremely modest, can trigger reciprocity, but is one of the cruder applications of reciprocity. In its more sophisticated uses, it confers a genuine first-mover advantage on any influencer who is trying to foster positive attitudes and productive personal relationships. Leaders can elicit the desired behavior from clients, coworkers, and employees by displaying it first. Whether it’s a sense of trust, a spirit of cooperation, a handwritten note, or a pleasant demeanor, leaders should model the behavior they want to see from others.

The same holds true for managers faced with issues of information delivery and resource allocation. If you lend a member of your staff to a colleague who is shorthanded and staring at a fast-approaching deadline, you will significantly increase your chances of getting help when you need it. Your odds will improve even more if you say, when your colleague thanks you for the assistance, something like, “Sure, glad to help. I know how important it is for me to count on your help when I need it.” In other words, give first before you expect to receive. Modern marketers know the way to influence buyers is to provide meaningful and useful content before attempting to close a deal. It is a basic tenant of human psychology that we all tend to want to give something back when something is received, particularly when there is no overt expectation of return.

The Principle of Social Proof means people follow the lead of similar others. The application is to use peer power whenever it’s available. Social creatures that we are, human beings rely heavily on the people around them for cues on how to think, feel, and act. We know this intuitively, but intuition has also been confirmed by experiments, such as the one first described in 1982 in the Journal of Applied Psychology. A group of researchers went door-to-door in Columbia, South Carolina, soliciting donations for a charity campaign and displaying a list of neighborhood residents who had already donated to the cause. The researchers found that the longer the donor list was, the more likely those solicited would be to donate as well.

The lesson for executives from the research, is that persuasion can be extremely effective when it comes from peers. The science supports what most sales professionals already know: Testimonials from satisfied customers work best when the net promoter customer and the prospective customer share similar circumstances. That lesson can also help a manager faced with the task of driving change. Imagine that you’re trying to streamline your department’s work processes. A group of veteran employees is resisting. Rather than try to convince the employees of the move’s merits yourself, ask an old-timer who supports the initiative to speak up for it at a team meeting. The compatriot’s testimony stands a much better chance of convincing the group than yet another speech from the boss. Stated simply, influence is often best exerted horizontally rather than vertically.

The Principle of Consistency means people align with their clear commitments. The application is to make comments active, public, and voluntary. Liking is a powerful force, but the work of persuasion involves more than simply making people feel warmly towards you, your idea, or your product. People need not only to like you but to feel committed to what you want them to do. Good turns are one reliable way to make people feel obligated to you. Another is to win a public commitment from them.

Cialdini’s research has demonstrated that most people, once they take a stand or go on record in favor of a position, stick to it. Other studies reinforce that finding and go on to show how even a small, seemingly trivial commitment can have a powerful effect on future actions. There’s strong empirical evidence to show that a choice made actively—one that’s spoken out loud or written down or otherwise made explicit—is considerably more likely to direct someone’s future conduct than the same choice left unspoken.

Research highlights how much most people wish to appear consistent to others. Consider again the matter of the employee who has been submitting late reports. Recognizing the power of this desire, you should, once you’ve successfully convinced him of the need to be timelier, reinforce the commitment by making sure it gets a public airing. One way to do that would be to send the employee an e-mail that reads, “I think your plan is just what we need. I showed it to Diane in manufacturing and Phil in shipping, and they thought it was right on target, too.”

The Principle of Authority means people naturally defer to experts. The application is to highlight your expertise; don’t assume it’s self-evident. Since there’s good reason to defer to experts, executives should take pains to ensure that they establish their own expertise before they attempt to influence others. Surprisingly, people often mistakenly assume that others recognize and appreciate their expertise. At a hospital where Robert was consulting, the physical therapy staffers were frustrated because so many of their stroke patients abandoned their exercise routines as soon as they left the hospital. No matter how often the staff emphasized the importance of regular home exercise, the message just didn’t sink in. Not until the therapy department clearly articulated they’re qualifications for requesting that patients maintain their exercise routines, did they begin to comply.

The task for leaders who want to establish their claims to expertise is somewhat more difficult. They can’t simply nail their diplomas to the wall and wait for everyone to notice. A little subtlety is called for. Outside the United States, it is customary for people to spend time interacting socially before getting down to business for the first time. Frequently they gather for dinner the night before their meeting or negotiation. These get-togethers can make discussions easier and help blunt disagreements—remember the findings about liking and similarity—and they can also provide an opportunity to establish expertise. Telling stories about successfully solving a problem similar to the one that’s on the agenda at the next day’s meeting. Or perhaps dinner is the time to describe years spent mastering a complex discipline—not in a boastful way but as part of the ordinary give-and-take of conversation. Successful business development executives often establish expertise subtlety by telling stories about work they’ve done for clients with similar challenges and circumstances.

The Principle of Scarcity means people want more of what they can have less of. The application is to highlight unique benefits and exclusive information. Study after study shows that items and opportunities are seen to be more valuable as they become less available. That’s a tremendously useful piece of information for corporate leaders and business development professionals. They can harness the scarcity principle with the organizational equivalents of limited-time, limited-supply, and one-of-a-kind offerings. Honestly informing a coworker of a closing window of opportunity—the chance to get the boss’s ear before she leaves for an extended vacation, perhaps—can mobilize action dramatically.

The persuasive power of exclusivity can be harnessed by any manager who has information that’s not broadly available and that supports an idea he or she would like the organization to adopt. The next time that kind of information crosses your desk, round up your organization’s key players. The information itself may seem dull, but exclusivity will give it a special sheen. Push it across your desk and say, “I just got this report today. It won’t be distributed until next week, but I want to give you an early look at what it shows.” Then watch your listeners lean forward.

Putting It All Together. There’s nothing mysterious or obscure about these six principles of persuasion. Indeed, they neatly codify our intuitive understanding of the ways people evaluate information and form decisions. As a result, the principles are easy for most people to grasp, even those with no formal education in psychology. But in the seminars and workshops Cialdini has conducted, he learned two points that bear repeated emphasis.

First, while the principles can be discussed separately, they should be applied in combination to compound their impact. In discussing the importance of expertise, Cialdini suggests that managers use informal, social conversations to establish credentials. That conversation affords an opportunity to gain information as well as convey it. While you’re showing your colleague, you have the expertise your business problem demands, you can also learn about her background, likes, and dislikes—information that will help you locate genuine similarities and give sincere compliments. By letting your expertise surface and also establishing rapport, you double your persuasive power. If you succeed in bringing your colleague on board, you may encourage other people to sign on, thanks to the persuasive power of social evidence.

Second, deceptive or coercive use of the principles of social influence is ethically wrong and pragmatically foolish. Yet the same principles, if applied in earnest, can steer decisions effectively. Legitimate expertise, genuine obligations, authentic similarities, real social proof, exclusive news, and freely made commitments can produce choices that are likely to benefit both parties. Any approach that works to everyone’s mutual benefit is good business, don’t you think?

The purpose of this blog is to share what we’re learning about building cultures of peak performance. We study organizations that outperform their peers and have observed the following principles at work: Unified Leadership, Disciplined Hiring, Leading with Purpose, Stakeholder Engagement, Cost Leadership, Measuring Everything that Matters, Customer Experience, Clarity in Everything, and Staying Ahead of the Curve. If you’d like to talk about how we can help your organization, or if you’d like a thought partner, please give us a call.

Warmest Regards,

Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory