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How Does Influence Work?

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On social media, an influencer is someone who has built expertise in a given area and generates enthusiastic followers—that same definition works in business except that you want those followers to show leadership of their own, rather than merely following. Influence is independent of title, whether team leader or CEO or Chair of the Board.

If you want to gain influence, then you need to know how influence works

The Characteristics of Influence

A survey of 700 business leaders (69% at the director level or above), entrepreneurs, and marketing professionals led to the conclusion that influence (as opposed to mere popularity) is characterized by its:

  • Audience: Gathers together a quality network of people
  • Action: Inspires people to act, with measurable outcomes
  • Content: Provides interesting and relevant content/information
  • Cost/Benefit: Is worth paying for in time, money, or effort.

Jonah Berger, a researcher into influence, has stated, “In American culture, influence is a bad word…. Even in cases where influence is a good thing, we still don’t think that we’re prone to it…. Because we’re unaware that influence occurred, we can’t correct for it or recognize it in our world.”

In practical terms, that means that if you gather your team, urge them to act together, provide an interesting project, and reward them for their effort, you will be exerting influence whether or not anyone recognizes what you are doing.

Tip: Your own influence grows as you develop your team and give them opportunities to influence each other.

Where Does Influence Come From?

In many ways, influence is not won but given. Three styles of influence have been identified:

  • Convincing
  • Negotiating
  • Bridging (building relationships)

The ability of each style to carry your viewpoint varies with the audience, the situation, and the goal. But each of these approaches can be learned and practiced.

Dr. Robert Cialdini, a leading expert in influence, has identified six principles for obtaining influence. As discussed in methods for getting others to change, the principles are reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus. In 2016, Dr. Cialdini added a seventh principle—unity, which the influence carried by someone close to us, such as family. This principle is at work every time a nonprofit offers to recognize a gift in someone else’s honor or a healthcare provider uses the words, “here is what I would advise my child (or spouse or parents)” or an sales person asks current customers for their advice or help in reaching out to other customers.

Influence verges into control when you refuse reciprocity (withhold information), make yourself essential and your cooperation scarce, use your expertise to daunt others, exert pressure from a position of power, suppress any need to be liked, and ridicule the contribution of others.

Tip: An influencer wants other people to grow into influencers; a controller hope to never relinquish control.

When Does Influence Become “Unreasonable”?

When you communicate face-to-face with someone else, even with a complete stranger, research shows that they are very reluctant to say “no” even if the request is unreasonable or at odds with their sense of right and wrong. Oddly enough, the person granting the request shows no sign of resentment afterwards but instead justifies their own agreement.

If you yourself view the request you are making as unreasonable, you are less likely to make it. Yet, as this and other research has shown, “unreasonable” requests are no more likely to be rejected than “reasonable” ones. If you ask, you get.

In practical terms, this means that a team leader could ask an individual to work late or take on new responsibilities without additional pay and the individual would most likely agree—without resentment. However, the request has to be face-to-face.

Key Takeaways

Influence is comprised of four elements; Audience, Action, Content, and Cost/Benefit. We can use our influence to overcome unreasonable requests.

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