9 Principles of Persuasion for the 21st Century

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Tuesday, July 19, 2022
By Amanda Nimon-Peters
Photo by iStock/PeopleImages
When students learn these universal principles, they will be prepared to exert more influence on others, whether in their lives or at work.
  • Robert Cialdini’s “six principles of persuasion” are no longer a complete guide when it comes to having more influence in 21st-century workplaces.
  • The most successful people influence others not by falling back on intuitive approaches, but by employing scientifically backed strategies.
  • People most skilled at persuading others are those who adopt proven behaviors such as using terms that have inherent value to the audience or reducing the degree of effort required to comply with a request.

The ability to influence people and decisions in the workplace is a highly desirable leadership skill sought by employees, managers, and senior leaders throughout their careers. Just as they can with many complex skills, students and executives at any level can learn influence and persuasion. But in any successful development program, people must learn how to use the right methods in the right contexts. The simpler and more appropriate the model they learn, the easier it will be for them to improve their ability to influence and persuade those around them.

For the last few decades, the predominant approach that instructors have used to teach influence and persuasion has been based on Robert Cialdini’s research, which is highlighted in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini identified six principles of persuasion. These include, for example, the principle of scarcity, which is the notion that we are more likely to buy an item that has limited availability; and the principle of consensus, which holds that we often imitate the actions of those around us.

Cialdini identified his principles while working in used car yards and at telemarketing firms. As a result, his approach to influence is grounded in selling. However, in the nearly 40 years since Cialdini’s book was first published, the world has changed enormously. For most professionals in today’s business world, influence is less about winning a one-time sale and much more about building productive relationships with a wide variety of people.

A Science-Based Model of Persuasion

In May 2020, I began to search for an alternative approach to Cialdini’s principles of persuasion. I wanted a model that was based on communication, collaboration, and building (rather than borrowing from) one’s social capital.

To identify principles most suited to a 21st-century workplace, I drew on more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles written by researchers from universities and institutions in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. These studies, which had not been available to Cialdini last century, came from all the fields of behavioral science, including emerging fields such as neuroscience.

The result of this work is the book Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion for Accelerating Your Career, which details the universal principles I share below. To make these principles easy to learn and remember, I have organized them into three categories: people, perception, and behavior.

People-Related Principles

Principle One—Status. As a social species, we evaluate other humans at both a conscious and subconscious level. Humans everywhere tend to be more heavily persuaded by statements from people they perceive to be high status.

Status in the workplace is determined by not only formal authority, but also contextual factors. Although people cannot quickly change the formal authority they possess, they can increase their contextual status by making others aware of any experience, qualifications, or past successes they have had that are related to the decision at hand. If you can bring this status to others’ attention in ways that are not perceived as bragging, you can increase the attention your arguments receive for critical decisions.

Principle Two—Social Imitation. We believe we are fully in control of our own choices. But we underestimate the extent to which our choices are heavily influenced by those of the people who are around us or like us.

For example, in one study, hungry college students were asked to rate how much they wanted to eat various healthy and unhealthy foods. Afterward, they received (fake) feedback about the extent to which their choices matched those of members of their peer group. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers studied the brains of participants. When the students were told that their choices matched those of their peer group, the fMRI showed activity in the region of the brain associated with reward.

After being exposed to this fake data, participants were asked to assess a new variety of healthy and unhealthy foods. Regardless of whether they had expressed preferences for healthy or unhealthy options, their ratings moved in the (perceived) direction of their peers. As this study revealed, our decisions are influenced by information we receive about the decisions other people like us have made. 

If you can create a sense of affiliation between yourself and others, you can tip decisions in your favor during interviews, client meetings, and performance reviews.

Principle Three—Affiliation. It might seem obvious that we are influenced more by people we like than by people we dislike. But people might be surprised to discover how much their sense of affiliation with others can influence their subconscious decision making.

Research shows that decision makers can feel affiliation with someone who graduated from the same school, who shares the same opinion, who looks like them, who knows the same people, or who even has the same first name. If you can create a sense of affiliation between yourself and others, you can tip decisions in your favor during interviews, client meetings, and performance reviews, or when you approach someone to seek help, advice, and resources.

Perception-Related Principles

Principle Four—Value Framing. Value framing is based on the cognitive heuristic whereby humans everywhere judge the value of items in relative, rather than absolute, terms. For example, we say “this is a valuable project” instead of “the value of this project exceeds the combined value of everything else we have looked at this year.” We often leave out terms that would add significant power to our projects and our contributions.

There are three techniques people can use for value framing: choice of context, use of a comparison set, and value conversion. I’ll give an example of just one here: comparison set. If you must wait in a queue, you might feel lucky to wait for four hours if the minimum wait was ten hours yesterday; however, if you discover that, by comparison, a friend found a VIP queue where the wait was only 30 minutes, you might curse your bad luck! By comparing your suggestions to less favorable options, you can gain more support for your ideas.

Principle Five—Effort. In any discussion about influence or persuasion, people tend to focus on how to get others to do what they want them to do. They rarely take the opposite approach to ask instead what people are most likely to do, and then use anticipation of others’ actions as an advantage.

From a scientist’s point of view, this tendency is surprising, because what people are most likely to do in any given situation often is easy to predict. Across cultures, ages, and contexts, behavioral science demonstrates that, in most situations, people will choose whatever option requires the least amount of mental or physical effort. With that in mind, the more that you can minimize the time or effort required for someone to fulfill your request, the higher your likelihood of success.

Principle Six—Reasoning. The single most frequently used tactic in attempts to influence people at work is rational persuasion—that is, the act of providing others with good reasons why they should do what you are asking of them. While rational persuasion is a tactic that people naturally employ at work, this approach rarely achieves the desired outcome.

In one meta-analysis of 49 studies in the workplace involving close to 9,000 people, influencers who used rational persuasion were found to be successful only about 12 percent of the time. The reason for such a low success rate is that people are far less influenced by logical reasons than by positive emotions or the prospect of reward. To be more successful using the sixth principle, you should present reasons that make someone feel, rather than think, that your idea is a good choice.

Behavior-Related Principles

Principle Seven—Inertia. In many situations, human behavior occurs in a predictable sequence, almost as if people’s actions are being driven by an invisible force such as inertia. For example, when you enter your front door, you might follow a specific sequence of actions: Place keys on rack, get drink from fridge, put feet on coffee table, turn TV on! The same thing happens at presentations when the speaker invites the audience to ask questions. Almost invariably, no one will volunteer a question for 30 seconds, and then everyone will compete for the microphone to have the chance to speak.

With knowledge and practice, you can learn to identify the chain of behaviors most likely to occur in a particular situation. Then, instead of fighting that inertia, you can use that flow of activity to your advantage. Given what is most likely to happen, what is your best move?

To gain more influence over people and decisions at work, you need to focus your energy and efforts on achieving that outcome—do not try to achieve too many things at once.

Principle Eight—End-Goal Focus. Imagine you are on a small motorboat attempting to reach a faraway shore with a dwindling source of fuel. The more you steer your boat from side to side, the more likely you are to run out fuel and fail to reach your goal.

This fuel analogy is highly relevant in any discussion about influence and persuasion because people have limited focus and energy with which to make decisions. Further, behavioral science demonstrates that our brains are programmed to be very easily distracted, which can pull us away from the task at hand.

To gain more influence over people and decisions at work, you need to start by clearly defining the outcome you want to achieve. Then, focus your energy and efforts on achieving that outcome—do not try to win every argument at the meeting or to achieve too many things at once. As a 16th-century proverb stresses, “If you try to run after two hares, you will catch neither.”

Principle Nine—Execution. Planning and executing a plan are not the same thing. The key to applying the ninth principle is to practice executing your plan by assuming behaviors that are most strongly linked to persuasion, such as standing upright, using familiar words, and speaking in a voice that matches the emotion of the message.

Although science has identified these actions as effective ways to influence others, they are significantly different from the more passive and less deliberate default posture, words, and voice people normally use. Because it can be too difficult to focus simultaneously on what you are saying and how you are saying it, it’s critical that you practice making microadjustments in your execution in advance of any real-life interactions.

How to Get Started

Whether you are a student, faculty member, or business leader, when you master these nine principles, you will be prepared to wield influence throughout your career. But the true first step to improving your skill in influencing people and decisions is to suspend your usual, logical approach to achieving this goal, which is not as effective as you might believe.

And remember: Wielding influence at work is not a competition. Your goal should not be to overshadow others or “win” at their expense. Instead, your goal should be to improve your ability to influence and persuade others compared to your efforts before your use of scientific approaches.

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Amanda Nimon-Peters
Professor of Leadership, Hult International Business School
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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