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The How and Why of Influence

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The nonprofit board had been debating for months over whether to ask for payment from clients for the first time in its history. Finally, the newest member of the board said, “We all want to continue to give free services. I want that, too. But if we continue to lose money, we can’t give any services at all. We are running out of funds, and if we need to charge so we can qualify for the grants that other nonprofits win. How about if we try out a sliding scale and start so low that the people who can’t afford to pay give us a bare token amount?” The board voted to start a sliding scale.

Why did the newest member of the board have the influence to effect a change that no one else could agree upon?

A leadership title—whether team leader or CEO or Chair of the Board—doesn’t automatically bestow influence. A leader can always compel people; for example, by withholding or granting approval, resources,  promotions, or information. At the same time, those without the leadership title may have influence over a team that is greater even than the leader’s. 


How Influence Works

When you an individual request by communicating 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 uncomfortable 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. 

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.

In the world of social media, more attention is being paid to how influence works when communicating in writing and at a distance online. A survey of 700 business leaders (69% at the director level or above), entrepreneurs, and marketing professionals led to the conclusion that online 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
  • Cost/Benefit: Is worth paying for; for example, through advertising or support of an online “influencer.” 


How to Develop Influence

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 sales person uses the words, “here is what I would advise my child (or spouse or parents)” or a company asks customers for their advice or help as equals in reaching out to other customers.


How to Wield Influence

In many ways, influence is not won but given—the principles identified by Dr. Cialdini are methods for winning influence. However, they work just as well in compelling influence by refusing reciprocity (withholding information), making yourself essential and your cooperation scarce, using your expertise to daunt others, exerting pressure from higher up to get everything you want, suppressing any need to be liked, and ridiculing the contribution of others. 

Four styles of influence have been identified: 

  • Convincing
  • Negotiating
  • Bridging (building relationships) 
  • Inspiring. 

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.

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