Updated: Apr 21, 2020
There are lots of popular ideas about what makes someone influential. It could be someone’s charisma or style for example.
But surely it’s more than just personal qualities?
For a psychologist like me, that’s a cue to go to the research.
One of my favourite studies on influencing was undertaken in the early 1990’s by Gary Yukl and Bruce Tracey. Together they pioneered our understanding of what they called influencing tactics - the approaches that people choose to take when attempting to influence others. (Consequences of Influence Tactics Used With Subordinates, Peers, and the Boss. Journal of Applied Psychology, 1992, Vol 77, No 4, 525-535).
Yukl & Tracey determined how influential someone was in a very interesting way. They said influence effectiveness wasn’t just about whether people committed to an action or approach, it was also about how they rated the effectiveness of the person doing the influencing. In that way, influence was not just about short-term compliance, but also about longer-term appraisals of the individual doing the influencing.
Least effective influencing tactics
The three tactics that they found were least effective were:
Pressure is about using demands, threats or persistent reminders in an attempt to influence someone. Perhaps not surprisingly, this approach was among the worst, actually leading to reduced commitment to the task, and negative ratings of the individual. It turns out that people don’t like being forced to do something. Now, we know this intellectually, but it’s amazing how frequently people use pressure as an influencing approach. By way of example, I have three children at home, and I can assure you, pressure is an influencing tactic I default to with them far more often than I’d like to admit.
Coalition tactics, where I gather up others to try to influence you, was also found, by the researchers, to be a negative influencing approach. The old ‘lots of people agree with me’ argument might make someone feel more powerful, but it doesn’t help them to influence others - at best, it’s neutral.
Legitimating - sounds on the surface like a good influencing tactic. It’s where I point out the rules and policies that support a particular course of action, or why my role means you should listen to me. However this tactic also failed to influence others towards action, and also led to lower ratings of effectiveness.
Why are these three approaches so ineffective? The study indicates it’s because they all focus on behavioural compliance without changing attitudes. Sure - I’ll do what you’re asking of me while you’re standing there, but as soon as you walk away I’ll go back to my original position.
Leaders who rely on pressure, position and rules better be prepared to micromanage every task, because their approach to influencing requires them to micromanage every task.
So what approaches are the most effective?
Yukl and Tracey found that inspirational appeal was a particularly positive influencing tactic. This is where my request is tied to your values, ideals and aspirations, or where it builds your confidence that you can make a contribution. Making an inspirational appeal helps create meaning and purpose for those you lead. Rather than trying to build behavioural compliance, inspirational appeal acts on someone’s attitudes, and that means it works while you’re not there - the person is self-motivated to take action.
But effective influencing isn’t just about a compelling speech. Yukl and Tracey found rational persuasion was also very effective as an influencing tactic. As the name suggests, rational persuasion uses logical arguments and facts to persuade others. It provides the evidence many people need to be comfortable with a particular approach.
They also found that consultation was an effective tactic when influencing others. Consultation involves others in the initial decision making and implementation. By gathering and responding to ideas, people have far more of a vested interest in the change and implementation.
These three influencing tactics all involved the internalisation of favourable attitudes and were ranked by Yukl and Tracey as the most effective tactics. Whether it’s inspirational appeal, rational persuasion or consultation, something is passed from the leader to the other person which means they want to make a change, rather than the leader having to stand around all day telling people what to do.
Of the three most effective influencing tactics, which do you tend to default to? Is it inspirational appeal, rational persuasion or consultation?
In my experience, many people default to rational persuasion - a reliance on the facts and data to persuade others - and that’s fine.
But it’s worth practicing the other approaches to increase your influence. Perhaps you might include a story, or some additional data, or involve others more in idea generation - these can all help to increase your influence.
You can also combine these three approaches. Let’s use an example of a company where a number of people have recently had injuries while lifting. It turns out that these injuries all involved the person lifting something that wasn’t directly in front of them - they were twisting their body while lifting.
A legitimating tactic would be to make yet another new rule - no twisting while you lift. But the research on influencing would suggest most people won’t follow this rule because it isn’t internalised. People may not understand the reason for the rule, or why it matters to them.
A better approach would be to use all three effective influencing tactics. As the leader, you could start by sharing the importance of having a workplace where everyone can go home at the end of each day safe, and perhaps even healthier than when they arrived. You could also share the data about the type of injuries that are occurring. Then you could involve people in identifying the kinds of activities where the injuries are most likely to occur, and in brainstorming ways of reducing these risks.
Yukl and Tracey’s research indicates this combination approach will have a much greater chance of success.
During the week, notice the way you influence people in your workplace. Watch the way others in the workplace influence. And if there’s someone who is particularly influential, spend some time observing how they influence others.