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Influence at work: how to earn it and use it to your advantage

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If you have a project, and you need someone else to help execute it, or if you need to get someone to agree to something, how does that generally go for you? If it’s a struggle sometimes to make good progress when you’re dependent on others, maybe you need to work on building your influence.

Influence is a useful skill, and it’s becoming more important: given the move towards flatter hierarchies we can’t rely on a powerful job title to get people to play ball. It’s time for other facets of influence to have their day.

Levels of influence

Influence can be defined as the weight our ideas carry beyond the information we offer.

We each have influence and we submit to influence daily in a range of contexts. It plays a part in everything from parenting, management and daily purchasing choices. Understanding it as an exchange can help to leverage its power in the workplace.

When looking to improve our levels of influence, behavioural scientist Robert Cialdini says we have six qualities of influence to work with:

  • Reciprocity – we feel an obligation to give equally to those who have given to us and so giving to others can create currency. Giving feedback earns feedback.
  • Consistency – people like to stick to a claim they have made publicly, so getting stakeholders to commit to a plan overtly can improve outcomes, whether it’s signing off on a plan or volunteering their expertise to a project in front of others.
  • Consensus – when we see others acting a certain way, we feel we should do the same. Lead by example when you want others to buy in to an idea.
  • Authority – we look to respected sources for guidance, so the boss’s support can bring other on board.
  • Scarcity – a shortage of something can make it desirable. A time limited offer can bring results more quickly. Highlight how one task could fit before another.
  • Liking – we like to be joined to people by shared interests. Taking a genuine interest in people for reasons beyond your shared workplace can help increase your worth to them. Humans like to connect.

For example, if a new colleague presents the same idea as a longstanding colleague but the latter receives report for their proposal, it is potentially the longstanding colleague’s track record that won him support. The authority he had built and the consistency he offered added weight to his idea.

However, if a colleague visiting from another office won support with the same idea, it could be that the scarcity of their offer – the fact they would not be around to manage it for long – made it more appealing. If the visiting colleague had also received support from their colleagues in another office this would give their idea consensus. Add to that the idea they had done the boss a favour and shared a non-work-related interest with them, they add reciprocity and liking to their side.

Extra levels of influence

Influence is not all about giving way to the opinions of the highest earner. Rare individuals with great passion and knowledge can overcome hierarchy – Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish environmental activist who has spoken before world leaders, is a great example of this.

Another powerful force in gaining influence is understanding non-verbal cues. Being able to read what people are not saying can make all the difference, from making potential employers feel at ease to giving an air of confidence about all you say. Nick Morgan, author of Power Cues, separates influence into four components: positional power, emotion, expertise and non-verbal signals.

The word persuasion comes up time and time again in the area of influence. Robert Cialdini takes it a step further in his book Pre-suasion, arguing that planting an idea of the outcome you want shows how people can be influenced. For example a furniture shop added pictures of clouds to a website landing page and buyers opted for sofas from the comfort range, while those with pictures of money on their landing page went for those from the budget range.

Cialdini also talks about environmental priming and describes how meetings in high ceilinged rooms with glass walls make for less confined ideas, while an experiment with a man asking a woman for her phone number showed more success outside a florist, because she was more in mind of romance.

To scrutinise influence from another angle, consider why a parent gives in to a particular childish request or why some leaders end up ineffectual. It goes to support the idea that power positions can be overruled by other factors. Dan Norris specialises in the science of ethical influence and notes that highlighting a negative behaviour can increase that behaviour as it is alerting people to a new norm. For example, a sign going up in woodland to show visitors left litter can inadvertently let people believe that if others are doing it, so can they.

This fits with Cialdini’s ideas of consensus. Fortunately, Norris and Cialdini conclude that pointing out what others are doing favourably, particularly if they are close by, can be persuasive, for example with recycling or donating to charity.

Building your influence

Maxim Sytch, an associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan, suggests auditing connections to see where you can provide more value and can extend your influence. He says: “By creating value for diverse stakeholders and making yourself irreplaceable, you open possibilities for yourself within the organization and beyond. And, by doing so, you add value to your company.”

The famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie was published in 1936 and is still relevant today. In a modern take on the old favourite subject, TED talks include magician Vinh Giang describing how sight, sound and synchronization play a part in getting an audience to believe what they see. “When your words don’t match your actions,” he says, “People don’t trust you.”

Teresa de Grosbois, author of Mass Influence says similarly that authenticity must be a key habit, bringing the inside and outside voice into alignment. She adds that in the act of giving influence to another person you become more influential and you should invest the influence you have.

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