Secrets To Influencing At Work, According To A Social Psychologist

By Melody Wilding, LMSW, Contributor
Author of "You Have More Influence Than You Think" Vanessa Bohns

How do you become seen as a thought leader in your industry or workplace?

What’s the best way to get your colleagues and boss to value your opinions?

The answer to these questions is influence.

Influencing at work often gets a bad rap. It’s sometimes perceived to be manipulative, or something that’s only achievable by C-Suite leaders or the most gregarious and confident professionals.

Vanessa Bohns is on a mission to change that perception. Bohns is a social psychologist and professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University. She is the author of the new book, You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion and Why it Matters.

In this interview, Bohns discusses how to redefine and achieve influence in the modern workplace–even if you’re not naturally outspoken.

Melody Wilding: What inspired you to write this book? Is there a personal story behind it?

Vanessa Bohns: When I was a graduate student at Columbia, I was working on a research project with a management professor, Frank Flynn. As part of that project, I had to collect survey data. Since we wanted data from a diverse, non-student population, I did this by going down to New York Penn Station, walking up to strangers there, and asking them to fill out a survey.

It feels a bit dramatic to say that it was a torturous exercise to go up to strangers and ask them to fill out my survey—but it was. Each time I went up to someone, I would steel myself for annoyance, rejection, or some other terrible reaction that I couldn’t even imagine. But overwhelmingly, my fears did not come to fruition, and in fact, many more people agreed to help me out with my survey than I had anticipated.

So that’s how I started to study the disconnect between how we imagine our attempts at influence will go, and how they actually tend to go. I’ve now put hundreds of participants in essentially the same situation I was in at Penn Station, and they overwhelmingly make the same error. They expect more rejection and pushback than they ultimately experience when they ask people for things—be it surveys, to borrow a stranger’s cell phone, or for a charitable donation. 

Since then, I’ve uncovered all sorts of other ways in which we similarly underestimate the influence we have over others. It turns out that people pay more attention to us than we realize, and like us and find us more convincing than we expect, as well agreeing to things for us more often than we anticipate. 

Ultimately, my experience in Penn Station and the studies I and other researchers have conducted tell a very reassuring story. I wrote the book because I wanted to share that story and provide others with some of that reassurance. But also, I wanted to communicate the flipside that comes hand in hand with having more influence than we realize, which is that if we have all this influence we are unaware of, it comes with a certain amount of responsibility.

Wilding: How do you define influence? Why is influence important in the workplace?

Bohns: The way I define influence is any time one person changes another person’s attitude or behavior. Note that “change” doesn’t have to mean reverse or alter, it can also mean “make someone even more confident in what they already believed or we’re doing.”

We can change another person’s attitude or behavior by making an impassioned argument, e.g., that they vote to hire our favorite job candidate. But often, the influence we have on other people is subtler than that. Instead of responding to a formal argument we’ve made, it may be an offhand comment we said about a job candidate in a hiring meeting that sticks in someone’s head and subsequently impacts how they feel about that candidate. 

Both these things—both formal attempts at persuasion and casual offhand comments—are examples of influence. However, we tend to think of influence as the former, while overlooking the latter. Yet it is just as important to be aware of these other, less formal forms of influence because they also impact other people’s beliefs and decisions. If we officially argue for one thing (e.g., that employees shouldn’t be penalized for taking sick days), but then turn around and undermine our position in our casual comments (e.g., making a dig about a colleague who has taken a number of sick days), it doesn’t matter how persuasively we articulated our initial argument about staying home when you feel sick—people ultimately aren’t going to feel like they can do so without being judged.

Wilding: How do you start developing greater influence at work? Can you share some tips and strategies for persuading people in an authentic way?

Bohns: One thing that is quite well-established in the research is that people listen to people they like. So, one of the best things to do is to develop relationships with people when you aren’t actively trying to influence them. Make an effort to grab a coffee with your coworkers, or to check in with them about how things are going in other ways. There are benefits to doing those kinds of things regardless, but a downstream consequence of developing closer work relationships is that people you’ve gotten to know better will be more likely to listen to what you have to say when you do want to impact a discussion or a decision.  

If you’re introverted (like me), nervous about reaching out to people to chat, or hate small talk, the research is reassuring along these lines as well: First, as we saw earlier, people are more likely to agree to a request than we think—so your request to grab a coffee is likely to be met with a “sure.” 

Second, people like you more than you realize. Researcher Erica Boothby and her colleagues have asked people after an interaction how much they think the other person liked them and enjoyed the conversation, and then asked the other person how much they actually liked that person and enjoyed the conversation. In this domain as well, people appear to be underconfident—imagining that the other person liked them less than they actually did and enjoyed the conversation less than they actually did. 

And, lastly, if you’re worried that you are the only one who isn’t already doing this kind of thing, research by Sebastian Deri and his colleagues shows that we also tend to be underconfident in our impressions of how social we are compared to everybody else. The average person thinks other people have more friends and are going out and meeting up with people more than them, which is simply not true in reality. 

All of this means that making more of an effort to connect with our colleagues is both easier and more impactful than we imagine it will be and is one way of cultivating influence in the workplace.

Wilding: What major mistakes do people make when it comes to influence?

Bohns: When making a formal influence attempt—e.g., trying to convince someone of something, or asking someone for something—people often struggle to strike the right tone. They either push too hard, which puts the other person on the defensive right from the start. Or, they are so worried about being too assertive that their point or request gets lost in a lot of hedging and indirect language. 

I think both of these mistakes are borne of underconfidence. We either overcompensate because we think people won’t listen to us otherwise, or will be quick to debate us; or, we try to protect ourselves from a presumed rejection by avoiding asking for something too directly. 

One tip for getting the tone right is instead of assuming the other person is going to be primed to argue with or reject you, start instead from the assumption that they very well may be interested in hearing what you have to say and that your positions may not be as far apart as you imagine.

The other major mistake people make is assuming that crafting the perfect email is better than stopping by their office to ask for something face-to-face—or calling them up if that’s not a possibility. In my research with Mahdi Roghanizad, we find that asking for things in person is far more effective than asking over email. Yet, when we ask people what their intuitions are about how effective it would be to ask through each of these avenues, they don’t expect in-person requests to be that much more effective.  

Not only is asking face-to-face more effective, but it can also help you get the tone right. Research shows that the tone we imagine we are conveying over email is often interpreted differently by the recipient—something that is less likely to happen and can be immediately corrected if it does, in a face-to-face context.

Wilding: How is influencing virtually different from in-person?

Bohns: There are a number of subtle nonverbal cues that get lost in virtual communication—even over media with both audio and video. The loss of those cues means it can be harder to get and maintain someone’s attention through virtual communication. It also means you lose a lot of the social connection and trust that we confer on others when they are in the same room with us. 

Some of the things we talked about earlier can help combat this problem. Establishing a relationship with your coworkers, or other people on a call, outside of a meeting you are hoping to have influence in means that you’ve already established those social connections, and people’s ears are more likely to perk up when they hear your voice or see your face on the screen.

Since you do lose nonverbal cues that can be useful when making a persuasive case, you also want to be more prepared when trying to make your case virtually. People are going to be more focused on what you are saying, rather than whether people around a table are nodding along to what you are saying. It’s also harder to have a smooth back-and-forth where you can quickly address questions that arise. So, you want to use the time you have when you are “on” in a virtual environment to make the strongest case you can—even more so than you would if you were in person.

Wilding: How do you influence when you don’t have formal authority?

Bohns: This is another place where the tips above can help. Influence comes from formal authority, yes, but it also comes from other places. It can come from being liked and respected. It can come from having unique knowledge.

Interestingly, it seems that the influence that comes from hierarchy looms much larger in our minds than these other places that influence is drawn from. For example, research shows that we tend to assume people who are older than us won’t be receptive to our advice. But, in fact, people are much more receptive to the advice offered by younger colleagues than we tend to think—and younger people often have expertise that their older colleagues lack.

So, in lieu of positional power, we can draw from these sorts of relational and informational sources of influence.


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