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You Cannot Not Influence! How to achieve desirable outcomes through others

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Influence: An invisible or insensible (unconscious or incapable of being perceived) action exerted by one thing or person on another; the power of producing effects by invisible means; to modify, affect, sway; to move or impel to (do) something.

The Macquarie Dictionary gives us this definition of one of the most important aspects of interpersonal relationships. Whether or not we are aware of it, every day in countless ways, we are influencing those around us. Clients, employees, prospects, peers – all are impacted in some way by what we say and do. In is in our interest, then, to become aware of the influence we are having on others and to ensure it matches out intentions.

Some 13 years ago, I worked as the Training Manager for a national accounting firm. The time of year had rolled around when all managers within the company were required to submit their budget requests for the coming twelve months. Dutifully, I had spent many hours compiling figures, projecting income streams and cost-justifying my requests with realistic return-on-investment estimates.

The day came for my appointed meeting with my manager (the head of the Victorian operations). Having submitted my research and report to him some four days earlier, I was primed and ready to go – as I assumed he was as well. As clearly as if it was yesterday, I remember walking into his office, placing my papers in front of me on his desk and taking a seat in the official supplicant chair. As I did so, my manager reached across his desk, and with an extended arm in one simple sweep pushed my papers to the side. Then, looking directly into my eyes, he said “Now tell me, Sandi – when are you going off to have babies?”

Now please know, this article is not in any way a treatise on harassment, or an expose of male chauvinistic business practices! My point in sharing this story is to highlight how we can unwittingly influence others in ways we perhaps did not intend. I doubt my manager really intended that I arrive at work the next day with my resignation in hand (which is, in fact, what I did). I believe it was simply his way of ‘jovially’ starting our meeting – yet for me it was an insult that I was not prepared to tolerate.

Fundamentally, people are only influenced (or motivated by) two things: the desire to move away from pain or the desire to move towards pleasure. In this story, my actions were my way of avoiding ‘pain’ – no longer working in an organisation where I felt my contributions were not valued and my opinions were left unheard. It was most certainly not a move towards pleasure, as I had no other immediate employment arranged, and I was single with a mortgage, car lease and a cat that depended on me to keep her fed!

Consider in our business world today – which is more commonly used to ‘motivate’ employees: ‘do this job or you’ll be fired’ or ‘do this job and you will learn new skills to advance in your career’? We assume (perhaps) that this second statement would have no value to someone, and we fall into the habit of using the former type of statement with everyone much of the time.

We also need to be honest in our influencing habits. Telling someone they will be looked upon favourably when next an opportunity for promotion becomes available is lying (not influence) if this is, in fact, not true. Yet there are so many types of ‘pleasure’ that will motivate people. Let’s brainstorm some: a late start, early departure or longer lunch; recognition in a company publication or meeting; a cappuccino and their favourite danish pastry delivered to their desk at morning tea; the opportunity to learn something new; the chance to take on extra responsibility; an opening to work in a new team; a simple ‘thank you’ for a job well done – this list can be endless if we just put our minds to it!

The next step is to consider which of these ‘pleasures’ will appeal to an individual. Whereas as some people will delight in the idea of being publicly recognised for an achievement, others will cringe at the mere thought of being singled out in front of a group. Your knowledge of your staff, colleagues and clients will guide you to the appropriate choice. And if you’re still feeling unsure as to what type of pleasure would interest them – you can always ask!

Often when I speak about influence, I am asked, “Isn’t what you’re talking about manipulation?” Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.

Back to my trusty resource, the Macquarie Dictionary. Manipulate: to handle, manage or use (especially with skill) in some process of treatment or performance; to manage or influence by artful skill, or deviousness; to adapt or change (accounts, figures, etc.) to suit one’s purpose or advantage.

Taking the first part of this definition, I would agree that influence and manipulation are closely aligned. Yet it is the second and third definitions that are more commonly thought of in our society when speaking of manipulation. Most people, when I ask them to clarify the distinction between these two words, tell me there is something sneaky or underhanded about manipulation.

Here’s the distinction I have come to use: Manipulation benefits the manipulator; Influence benefits all parties. In other words, when you are conscious of your desire and intent to influence someone, you can honestly and clearly see there is some usefulness (or advantage) for them in following what you say. You are not merely looking for compliance because of what this will provide you.

There are many factors that influence people’s behaviour. In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini states that the psychology of compliance can be explained by six fundamental categories. Each of these is governed by a psychological principle that directs human behaviour. Briefly summarised, they are:

  1. Reciprocation: The law of mutual exchange. A person will sense a need to reciprocate (to give something in return) when they feel you have given them something. The value of the exchanged “goods” is usually comparable but not necessarily equal.
  2. Liking: As a rule, we are most likely to comply with the requests of someone we know and like (not surprisingly).
  3. Authority: Studies have shown that there is a deep-seated sense of duty to authority in all humans. Obedience to authority is an intrinsic human behaviour.
  4. Social Proof: A person will feel less foolish, threatened, self-conscious or concerned about complying with a request when they can see, hear or experience the evidence that other people are doing (or have done) whatever it is that is being asked of them.
  5. Scarcity: A person may tend to want something more if he or she feels the thing in question is in insufficient or short supply. The rarity, infrequency and/or uniqueness of something can often make it more desirable. A person who fears they may miss out on something may tend to then want it even more.
  6. Commitment and Consistency: Human beings have a strong inner desire to be consistent (or in line) with what they have done in the past. They need to have a sense that things are not radically different to what they already know and have experienced. Moreover, once a person has made a commitment to a goal, person or task, they will then tend to be even more strongly bound (or loyal) to it.

Naturally, we can use this information in either a manipulative or influential way. We can seek to simply gain compliance to our directives or move people to take actions that will be in the best interests of all concerned. Cialdini’s book makes for fascinating reading as you seek to discover your own personal style of influence.

“Influence is like a savings account. The less you use it, the more you’ve got.” Source Unknown

© Sandi Givens, 2011

Permission to reprint this article is welcomed provided the following:

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