How to influence people at work and improve your status

One way to 'influence up' is to bring ideas to a brainstorming session because human inertia means most of the other attendees won’t bother. Photograph: iStock

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So, you think you’ve got influencing nailed. Your powers of persuasion have worked well in the past and there is no reason to think they won’t do so again. Not so fast. The number one thing that prevents people becoming better influencers is the assumption that they’re good at it.

As Dale Carnegie and his successors have been telling us since 1912, the ability to win friends and influence people never dates and influencing skills are as relevant to the world of work today as they were then. However, easy success – as in setting out to exert influence and succeeding quickly – can actually impede further improvement because success rarely causes us to stop and reflect in the way that failure does.

“If you attend a meeting or a networking event, have a generally agreeable time and chat to a few important people, then nothing went wrong, so what is there to learn? What we do not see is how much more successful we might have been had we had done something differently,” says Dr Amanda Nimon-Peters, a behavioural scientist who specialises in applying its principles to leadership and management practice.

Nimon-Peters is head of leadership postgraduate programmes at Hult International Business School in Boston. In Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion to Accelerate Your Career (published last year by Bloomsbury), she looks at how to become a successful influencer at work in order to get what you want without having to become everyone’s best friend in the process.

“Like all complex skills, influence can be learned [and] your performance will improve the more you practise,” she says. Recognising that self-help books can be heavy going and never get finished, Nimon-Peters has broken her book into manageable parts that can be acted on individually or as a whole. Playing a good game of tennis requires proficiency across a number of different components, she says, and the ability to influence people and outcomes at work is similar and also made up of mastering smaller individual skills.

When we interact in a professional group such as a team, department or committee, that evaluation includes ranking other members in terms of their relative status. The status we attribute to others determines the extent to which we are influenced by them

She is not aiming to turn her readers into mind readers because, as she points out, people are notoriously bad at explaining why they do what they do. An example she gives that will strike a chord with a lot of people is going to a dinner party with the intention of eating and drinking lightly only to end up doing the opposite.

“You may believe that if only you had stronger willpower, greater restraint or more discipline, you would not have behaved this way,” she says. “So how would your perspective change if you learned from behavioural science that, in fact, when you sit down to eat with people you like, at a table surrounded by tasty food, at the end of the week when you feel like celebrating, there is a 75 per cent chance you will consume twice as much as you would have eaten had you simply stayed at home? What if science also told you that this is true even for those who have high willpower?

“Armed with this perspective, you might stop seeing yourself as a weak-willed loser and instead recognise that this overeating was simply normal behaviour for the situation, because our choices are strongly affected by social and contextual triggers that influence us without our conscious permission – or even our awareness.”

Nimon-Peters groups the factors that influence behaviour and decisions into three main categories – people-related, perception-related and behaviour-related – with three subheadings within each. She chose nine because “nine is the maximum number of meaningful units of information that our brains can hold in short-term memory”.

Principle one concerns itself with status – something anyone keen to exert more influence in the workplace needs to build and flex to their advantage.

“When we interact in a professional group such as a team, department or committee, that evaluation includes ranking other members in terms of their relative status. The status we attribute to others determines the extent to which we are influenced by them,” she says.

Some ranking characteristics are purely physical, such as height, perceived attractiveness and age. Others are influenced by strengths that indicate intelligence such as a high level of education, expertise in the topic under discussion, making authoritative data-driven statements and fluency in the language of a gathering.

Poor fluency is sometimes turned to advantage by those keen to reinforce their own status and limit participation.

So, if you’re at the bottom of the pile, is it possible to influence “up”? Yes, says Nimon-Peters, if someone positions themselves correctly, understands how human brains conduct status rankings and uses this knowledge to increase their status relative to other members of their group.

Preparation is essential to successful self-positioning. For example, Nimon-Peters suggests putting together a question for a meeting or seminar that clearly communicates a good knowledge of the relevant topic and makes people sit up and take notice.

Another example is bringing ideas to a brainstorming session because human inertia means that most of the other attendees won’t bother. This creates a hiatus while the leader decides how to proceed and “this pause in group inertia can give you the opportunity to make your input if you are the one who has prepared a simple, non-controversial three-step process for tackling the issue”, says Nimon-Peters.

“This will likely influence what the group does next – and add to your status as a key contributor.”


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