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In Practice

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the 21st Century

An interview with
Two women in suits sit on a large window ledge, talking and smiling at each other.

According to the latest behavioral science, the usual methods we use to influence people — such as reasoning — are often ineffective and even counterproductive. Understanding how people actually behave, even subconsciously, and the emotional triggers that they use can help people be more influential in the workplace.

Amanda Nimon-Peters is the author of the forthcoming book, Working with Influence: Nine Scientific Principles for Improving and Accelerating Your Career. She talked to BRINK about the latest science of influence.

NIMON-PETERS: Ironically, people are most at risk of missing out on excellence precisely when they are achieving mild to moderate success, rather than outright failure. This is because failure is noticeable, it’s obvious, and that gives us a chance to learn how to improve. 

In contrast, when we experience moderate success, when we’re doing OK, there is little opportunity to recognize that it could have been possible to achieve a much better result. And that is where developing your ability to influence people can be most helpful — not when you are terrible at something but when you are mildly or moderately good at it!

Effort Pays Off

One of the key things we are learning from behavioral science about influence is that our most common approaches to influencing others are default approaches. They tend to be whatever occurs to us to use in the moment. Even when people do try to plan in advance, the plans they come up with are typically far less successful than you might think. 

For example, rational persuasion — using logical reasoning to attempt to persuade another — is one of the most frequently used approaches. Rational persuasion has a generally low correlation with achieving the outcome that people seek. In one meta-analysis of 49 studies of people’s behavior in the workplace, involving close to 9,000 people, rational persuasion influencers were found to be successful only about 12% of the time. Default approaches are less successful than expected because we actually aren’t really very good at knowing what influences us. 

This is what we get from behavioral science that is so cool. We can examine people’s actual patterns of behavior, which often turn out to be quite different from their conscious belief about what influences them. 

What science has shown many times over is that when people work really hard at developing a complex skill, they dramatically improve. And the significant difference between individuals in the long term is not what level they started at, it’s the degree of effort they put into improving. 

I am not talking about simple positive thinking or the notion that if you believe you’ll be really good at something, hey, presto, you will be. No, it means you have to work hard at it and be prepared to do things that are different from what you’ve done in the past. The science of performance improvement in any complex skill is a journey of ongoing hard-work. But we do know that anyone willing to put in that hard work will eventually improve substantially. 

When it comes to influence in the workplace, you don’t have to be the best influencer there ever was. Your goal should be to develop your skill so that your success improves relative to what it was before you started applying approaches such as the nine principles I cover in the book. 

A Better Way to Introduce Yourself

BRINK: Has the type of person who we perceive to have influence changed at all? 

NIMON-PETERS: Humans everywhere show a tendency to be more heavily persuaded by the statements of people perceived to be high status. At work, a position of formal authority (like being the boss), endows high status and a significantly greater opportunity to be acknowledged, addressed and heard compared with other members of the group. 

Behavioral science demonstrates that it’s not reason that drives people, it’s emotion or an expectation of reward.

However, status in the workplace — or any goal-oriented team activity — is not only determined by formal authority but also by physical and contextual factors. There is little you can do about physical factors that sadly still impact us at a subconscious level (such as height, pitch of voice, attractiveness, etc.), but it is within your power to increase your contextual status so that your argument receives increased attention in a critical decision. 

For example, when most people introduce themselves, they just introduce themselves according to their job title. However, your job title rarely has inherent meaning within a company, let alone outside it. People in the workplace often fail to mention crucial factors, such as their expertise or the past successes that they’ve had. 

A better way to introduce yourself would be to mention that you have some kind of experience or capability in the topic being discussed at that meeting. Rather than to simply say, I’m the head salesperson for Central Africa, say instead, “I helped Client X in Rwanda to develop a significantly better service for their customers.” That is something that is status-enhancing. It means that people have a reason to listen to you, and your opinion will be more influential.

A Sense of Affiliation Goes a Long Way

BRINK: How much does likability matter in the ability to influence people?

NIMON-PETERS: The way I describe it in the book is affiliation (Principle Three), which is the sense people have that you are part of the same group — that you are similar and they have things in common with you. And I want to emphasize this is about feelings, because just telling people you’re on the same team is not enough. 

We often think that logical explanations and logical reasons are going to influence people’s behavior. However, again, behavioral science demonstrates that it’s not reason that drives people, it’s emotion or an expectation of reward. The emotion comes first. The logic comes later as a justification. If you can create that sense of affiliation first, you are significantly more likely to influence their decisions in a variety of ways, including what they’re going to do.

Amanda Nimon-Peters

Professor of Leadership at Hult International Business School

Amanda Nimon-Peters is currently Professor of Leadership at Hult International Business School. She is a global expert on how behavioral science can help us understand why we do what we do at work. Reach out to her with your questions via LinkedIn.

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