We’re Not Very Good at Influencing Others at Work—Here’s What You Can Do
Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters is Professor of Leadership at Hult International Business School. You can reach out to her via LinkedIn. Dr. Amanda’s book Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion for Accelerating Your Career is available for pre-order on Amazon. If you’re in the UK, order on the Bloomsbury site and receive 25% off using the promo code INFLUENCE25. Coming up, Dr Amanda gives a taste of what to expect in the book…
In my Executive MBA class, I run a simple experiment. I put students into pairs and give them each a secret role. In a typical scenario, one member of the pair is waiting in a queue. The other must obtain his or her permission to skip ahead. I give them around five minutes to see if they can reach an agreement.
Five minutes of persuasion
The next five minutes are a lot of fun. Influencers invent all manner of outlandish ways in which to convince their partners. The most common approaches involve explaining they’re under significant pressure to get ahead because their job is on the line. Or someone’s health is at risk. Or other similarly disastrous outcomes that might occur should the speaker be prevented from overtaking others. The second most common response involves negotiating with the person in the queue by offering an incentive. Or even attempting to take the person’s details to reciprocate with a valuable favor or gift at a later date.
This exercise serves to illustrate two important aspects of our default attempts to influence others. Firstly, when asked to perform influence, people resort to techniques that are not really suited to daily use. Creating a fictional emergency or offering to pay someone to get ahead are not the sort of approaches that will build your long-term social capital in your workplace. Secondly, and most importantly, we do not have a very good understanding of what influences us or other people. The students in this example pledge to go to enormous lengths to get ahead, or they ply their target with many reasons underlining their enormous need. Yet when professor Ellen Langer and associates set out to test what a person needed to do to get ahead in a queue, they found that the most successful strategy was to simply ask politely.
Of course, this approach has its limits. Langer’s confederates were able to obtain 60% compliance to their request to move ahead in a queue under one important condition: that the inconvenience to the influence target would be momentary. In the specific circumstance of the original experiment, people queued at a photocopier. When the requester said, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the copy machine?”, they were met with approval more than half the time. When that statement changed to, “Excuse me, I have twenty pages. May I use the copy machine?”, compliance dropped significantly.
These results underline the critical point that people process your influencing message from the perspective of what matters to them. If your request does not require very much from them, the likelihood they will comply when asked increases. If your request requires a noticeable amount of inconvenience, it is going to be harder to reach agreement.
Even when very clever people take the time to compose messages that they expect to be highly persuasive, they are often wrong in their expectations of what will work. Public health campaigns attempting to use rational persuasion to influence people to stop smoking, quit alcohol abuse, or avoid teenage pregnancy have frequently been found to be completely ineffective in changing people’s behavior in any measurable way. Similarly, research on energy consumption in the UK found that more than two-thirds of consumers could not be persuaded to adopt efficiency measures because of logical reasons such as reducing usage or saving money. Instead, they were more likely to be influenced if they knew the efficiency measures could be installed without causing them any inconvenience.
The Principle of Effort
Inconvenience is just one example of the effort involved in complying with your request. In my research, reviewing more than 200 academic articles about influence across different fields of behavioral science (psychology, sociology, neuroscience, organizational behavior), I identified nine underlying principles of persuasion that are particularly well-suited to regular use in a global, twenty-first-century workplace. The Principle of Effort is number five. It is based on the well-documented tendency of humans everywhere to prefer paths of action that require the absolute minimum expenditure of time or energy whenever possible.
According to the Principle of Effort, would-be influencers should start with an evaluation of the request they’re making in terms of how much effort or inconvenience it will cause the influence target. Whether the effort involved is physical or mental, the more difficult it is to do something, the less likely it becomes that people will do it. In contrast, drop the effort your request entails to the absolute minimum needed from other people, and your rate of compliance will increase. If you make your request easy enough, some people won’t even question why you are asking.
One of the main lessons to learn about influence from behavioral science is that our most common approaches to influencing others are default approaches—whatever occurs to us in the moment. Those things that occur to us are typically far less successful than you might think. If you seek to increase your skill in influencing people and outcomes at work: first, suspend your usual, logical approach. Then consider how an application of research insights can help you reach your goals.