The Art and Science of Influence and Leadership (Part I: The Science)

Bookmark and Share

Office of War Information, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Influence, the last of the three leader traits to be researched, stands out as the most practical measure of successful leadership. Be warned, though. Just as obedience to authority contains a dark side, so, too, do the methods of influence.

Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert and renowned persuasion expert, calls behavioral psychologist Robert Cialdini the “Godzilla” of persuasion. Cialdini’s research, compiled in various books, lays out in simple language six different ways to influence people.

In his website, Cialdini states, “It is through the influence process that we lead, generate, and manage change. Like most things, the process can be handled poorly or well. It can be employed to foster growth and to move people away from negative choices and in more positive directions, thereby creating the conditions for new opportunities. Or, it can be used clumsily, reducing the chance for genuine movement and, in the worst of cases, boomeranging into conflict and resentment. As such, it is important for those wishing to lead effectively to understand fully the workings of the influence process. Fortunately, a vast body of scientific evidence now exists on how, when, and why people say yes to influence attempts.”

In his 2001 book Influence—Science and Practice, Cialdini outlines six “weapons of influence.” He likens these to a form of behavioral jujitsu, as the user requires only minimal mental effort to achieve the intended results. These tools take advantage of what Cialdini calls “judgment heuristics.”

Employing these psychological tactics induces a “virtually automatic” response. The source of these triggers comes from a collection of lifetime experiences, both as an individual and as a society. For example, we often associate higher priced products with high quality (a good thing) and lower priced products with inferior quality (a bad thing). Why is this so? Think of your own typical experience when paying more versus paying less.

In his books, Cialdini explains these six principles both in theory and in practice. Here’s a quick overview of what they are:

Reciprocation: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Think of the opening scene of The Godfather when Bonasera, a mortician, asks Vito Corleone for a favor. In granting the favor, the Don makes the reciprocation clear when he says, “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me.”

In the experiments cited by Cialdini, and in his expectation of how this works in the real world, you do not ask for reciprocity. Instead, it’s a “click-whirr” mechanical reaction on the part of the recipient.

Oddly, it is the mere offer, and not the acceptance of that offer, that generates an obligation to reciprocate. (Dennis Reagan, 1971). There is, therefore, an inherent value in kindness. Cialdini says, “People are significantly more willing to comply with requests (for favors, services, information, concessions, etc.) from a leader who has provided such things first.

Commitment and Consistency: This is the “self-justification” rule. People have a fundamental need to act consistently, including when making a promise. Society values this trait, and practicing it earns you greater trust. It also makes you feel good, too.

Cialdini cites research compiled by Pallak, Cook, and Sullivan (1980) that showed that people who only acted when provided an incentive, retained that habit when the incentive was removed. Indeed, old habits die hard.

Cialdini says, “People are more willing to be moved by a leader if they see the change as consistent with commitment they have previously and publicly made.”

Social Proof: This is the “Law of the Lemmings” rule. It’s the one where, if all your friends jump in the lake, you do, too.

The classic case study here is the Catherine Genovese example. Someone fatally stabbed Genovese one evening and, despite hearing her pleas for help, no one came to help because they didn’t see anyone else coming to help her. This suggests the old “safety in numbers” adage may not work out for you.

Cialdini says, “People are more willing to perform a recommended action if a leader provides evidence that many similar others are performing it.”

Scarcity: This is the “If I can’t have it, I want it” rule. Of Cialdini’s principles, this one probably strikes people as most familiar. There are several psychology experiments that show if you take something away from people, they’ll want it more.

Cialdini says, “People find recommended opportunities more attractive to the degree that a leader can honestly position them scarce, rare, or dwindling in availability.”

Authority: Here’s where Cialdini ties directly into Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments. Beyond that, he notes experiments where people perceive someone as taller if they have a more commanding title (P.R. Wilson, 1968) or if they’ve won a political election (Higham & Carment, 1992).

More ominously, other research shows style trumps substance regarding perceived authority when it comes to titles (or recognizable names), clothing, and the car being driven.

This instructs the leader to surround himself with the trappings of his office. Cialdini says, “The particular combination of expertise and trustworthiness renders a leader the most persuasive communicator science has ever uncovered.”

Liking: This is the celebrity endorsement rule. If you see a favorite movie star pitching your product, you’re more likely to purchase that product.

What makes you like someone? Studies show: physical attractiveness, similarity, praise, familiarity, and association. Cialdini says, “People say yes to the leaders they like.”

In his book Yes!—50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, Cialdini collaborated with co-authors Noah J. Goldstein and Steve J. Martin. It may not surprise you to discover this quote on leadership and influence from its pages:

“In fact, behavioral scientist Patrick Laughlin and his colleagues have shown that the approaches and outcomes of groups who cooperate in seeking a solution are not just better than the average member working alone, but are even better than the group’s best problem solver. Far too often, leaders—who, by virtue of greater experience, skill, and wisdom, deem themselves the ablest problem solver in the group—fail to ask for input from team members.”

Thus, Cialdini et al. provide a major hint as to what makes a good leader a better leader. There’s one more step to take, though. Having reviewed the science of influence, it’s now time to turn to the art of influence.

…continued next week…

Speak Your Mind


Skip to content