On Management

Understanding influence and persuasion

Life as a manager is all about who can influence -- or persuade -- whom. Convince someone to buy what you sell or to change to the direction you want to go, and your likelihood of success improves measurably. Millions are spent on training people in negotiation skills. With all of this attention to persuasion and influence, by now we should understand the underlying forces in influencing others -- and how we are influenced. A couple of years ago, quite by accident, I found a remarkable book, Influence -- The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini (1993, Morrow, rev. ed.). Cialdini is an experimental social psychologist who decided to study compliance and why people respond the way they do. His book is based on both experiments and extensive observation, and the findings are very revealing. Only one major influence -- that of "material self-interest," getting the most and paying the least -- is not included in Cialdini's list of influences. That's because, although it is powerful and effective, it is also a more legitimate influence than the others. The influences Cialdini describes create a powerful urge to respond, which the author refers to as a "click-whir" response that is automatic and almost irresistible -- even when we know what is happening. For example:

  • Reciprocation -- the old give-and-take-and-take-and-take. This is the principle behind the Hare Krishna practice of handing out free flowers or books in airports and the basis for the entire advertising-specialty business (free pens, coffee mugs, etc.). I give you something and you feel obliged to reciprocate. Nothing says the exchange must be fair or equitable, and the intent of someone using this to his or her advantage is that it won't be.
  • Commitment and consistency -- false hobgoblins of the mind. We make a carefully considered decision or analysis and then make a commitment, perhaps in writing. Afterward, we have a very strong tendency to defend and reinforce that position consistently -- regardless of how right or wrong it was. Think of the last car or computer you bought and how strongly you became a vocal supporter of that brand or model.
  • Social proof -- truths are us. This is the basis for the use of laugh tracks on TV, the Jonestown mass suicide, and the influence of mass behavior that allows a person to be mugged in full view of a crowd -- and no one helps the victim because no one wants to break out of the crowd.
  • Likability -- the friendly thief. Physical attractiveness and likability increase a person's influence. Thus the use of attractive models in ads and the friendly salutation of telephone solicitors. We also like people who are similar to us in interest, lifestyle, and culture -- and they can have an even greater influence on us if they compliment us and are nice to us.
  • Authority -- directed deference. Uniforms are not a coincidence. They impart an unspoken message of influence based on authority, as do titles, offices, and other trappings. In an actual situation described in Cialdini's book, a total stranger dressed in a doctor's coat was allowed to change the medication of many hospital patients with no questions asked.
  • Scarcity -- the rule of the few. When things such as stamps are misprinted or Beanie Babies are produced in limited quantities, their value goes up. Even the illusion of scarcity is very powerful. Realtors who have other (often imaginary) prospective buyers use this leverage regularly.
Learning to be honestly persuasive is a valuable management skill. Using all the tools at your disposal is often necessary. Defending yourself from wrongful influence is one of those critical skills. Even when you know about these six powerful influence principles, they are difficult to resist. When you're unaware of them, you are easy prey for the unscrupulous. John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is president of The Enterprise Group, a consulting business. He lives in Knoxville. His Web address is www.shape-shifters.com.
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