In 1984, Professor Robert Cialdini PhD wrote one of the best books on the principles of influence ever written. It was called, quite simply, Influence.
The professor researched his book by going under cover and posing as a job applicant, fundraiser, used car salesman and many other roles to test his theories and delve behind the obvious to discover the deep, underlying psychology of influence.
He distilled all this work into Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence. Here they are:
This can be described as ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’. Or, if you like, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.
It’s a simple idea and one you’ve used dozens of times in your life. When you do someone a favour, they are likely to think they owe you one back. Someone returns a book they borrowed from you and they might bring a small gift of thanks or one of their own books for you to read.
We’ve been doing this since we were children and it was a powerful way to build trust and influence. It still is.
Who is really committed, the supplier who says, “I’ll try my best to get those to you on Friday but I can’t promise.” Or the one who says, “You’ll have those on Friday for sure.”
It’s the second one, of course. Someone who sees themselves as consistent and reliable will have no problem putting their reputation on the line again and again because being a committed person is part of their self-image.
#3 Social proof
This is another principle you’ve been following since you were a child. Your friends get a yo-yo, so you want one. Your neighbour, who’s a cool person, gets a bike and suddenly you can’t live without one.
As social animals, we feel comfortable doing things other people are doing and enjoying. As much as we don’t want to be classed as victims of fads and fashions and groupthink, they influence us whether we like it or not.
We’ve all been taught to respect authority figures. Firstly, our parents, then our school teachers, college professors and, as soon as we begin our careers, our bosses. As if that wasn’t enough authority in our lives, we also learned to respect police officers, religious leaders, politicians, judges and the media. (Some of them anyway.)
Having authority and using it wisely is one of the most powerful tools you can have to influence the way people think and behave.
Does liking lead to trust or is it the other way around? Experts differ. Even though you don’t particularly like your dentist, if they’re a highly competent professional and always do a good job, you’ll trust them, right?
If, however, your dentist is witty, always in a great mood and sometimes doesn’t charge you for minor procedures, you’re going to like them a lot. But if their treatment doesn’t always work, you won’t end up trusting them.
There’s no doubt the two principles are closely bound. That’s why companies spend billions of dollars doing customer research into what people do and don’t like about their brands.
We all want to do business with people we like. If you don’t like, say, the environmental policies of a certain energy company, you’re not likely to buy their products, are you?
Being liked by your colleagues and clients is one of the secrets of successful management. What are the qualities that encourage people to like you?
Can you always be trusted to say it like it is? If you don’t know the answer to a question, do you have the courage to admit it and say, “I don’t know but I’ll find out and get right back to you.”?
If a customer asked, “I’ve wanted one of these for ages but people tell me they’ve been giving trouble. What’s the story?” would you risk sacrificing a possible deal in order to preserve your reputation for honesty?
You will if you want to be liked and, ultimately, trusted.
Are you available to discuss the concerns and needs of other people? Influential leaders spend much of their time dealing with the feelings of people around them. They understand that feelings drive a great deal of our behaviour at work. If we feel unrecognized or that the bosses don’t have our best interests at heart, we perform poorly.
It often happens that someone may wish to discuss a concern with you at the very moment you’re struggling with one of your own. Looking after others first is the cornerstone of good leadership. “Leaders eat last,” in the words of well-known leadership expert Simon Sinek.
This goes hand in hand with your approachability. You may make time for someone to confide in you but, if you’re playing with your phone or scanning papers on your desk, you’ll begin to lose the advantage of having an open door.
Make not only time but also the right space to deal with people’s problems. Find an empty office or meeting room if you have to. Switch off your phone and put aside any files that might distract you. Five minutes of your close attention may be all that’s required to fix a potentially serious problem.
Now here’s a word that gets tossed around a lot, especially when describing relationships at work, with colleagues and customers. “Oh, I won’t tell him my problems, he has no empathy,” is a complaint frequently heard in the workplace and, unfortunately, men are the most frequent offenders.
What is empathy actually? The magazine Psychology Today explains it neatly and simply as the experience of understanding another’s condition from their perspective. Or, if you like, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. It’s different from the usual meaning of sympathy which contains elements of pity.
Many men have difficulty with expressing empathy because they have always been driven by solutions and destinations. It’s not uncommon to hear a wife say about her husband or an employee about her boss: “He’s always coming up with plans to fix things. Sometimes all I need is to talk about them and have him listen quietly.”
This is usually a negative ruse to exert influence. If your favourite fashion store advertises a pair of shoes you simply must have under the banner: 20% off. Only six pairs left, the knowledge that you have to act immediately or miss out, pushes you into a decision to buy. Or at least check them out.
If this tactic is used as a regular part of a store’s sales strategy and it’s legitimate, it has a positive outcome: they shift the last of their stock and you get a bargain.
However, the temptation is for marketers, especially online, to continuously claim stock shortages as a regular way to pull in business. Eventually, this becomes widely known and soon the idea spreads that if they’re dishonest about dwindling stocks, what else do they have to hide.
#7 Trust: our addition to Professor Cialdini’s six principles
As an academic, Professor Cialdini was interested in all aspects of influence, not just the positive ones. Allow us to introduce a seventh principle that sits closely beside honesty and liking. While most of the principles have a positive application, scarcity, as we’ve seen, can be used as a manipulating tool.
So too can liking.
A supplier who falsely claims to enjoy the things you do just to get you to like them is a phoney who quite likely lacks any genuine feelings. Fortunately, they’re quickly unmasked. All it takes is a chat around the water cooler:
“Hey, I had a beer with Jack, the guy from XYZ Inc.”
“Oh yeah? What did he say about last night’s game?”
“He never watches football. He’s a tennis guy man.”
“That’s not what he told me.”
Bang. The trust is gone, so is the liking and the honesty. This type of behaviour will often be tolerated if the supplier’s products and prices are good and their deliveries are on time but, sooner or later, somebody genuine will come along.
Using your influence for good or bad is a matter of personal choice. Some, like crooked politicians, lack even the basics of responsible human behaviour and spend their entire lives pretending to serve the people but actually serving only themselves.
Put Professor Cialdini’s principles to work in your company. You’ll be surprised how quickly the positive waves will radiate to all those around you.