How to Use Your Influence for Simple Changes

professional development Associations Now July/August 2015 By: Kristin Clarke, CAE

Most people see CEOs as the main influence-wielders, but persuasion guru Robert Cialdini shows how simple "small-big" shifts in language or approach can help anyone positively change others' behaviors—and their own.

When Clarke Price, FASAE, CAE, was president and CEO of the Ohio Society of CPAs, he faced a serious challenge. A task force had generated a highly controversial reorganization idea.

"While there was unanimity that it was the right step, the collective sense very quickly became, 'We won't be able to get the approvals we need to go forward,' " Price says. "My response was, 'Let me see if I can sell it to a chapter board of directors. If we can get that support, we can sell it wider.' "

The resolution passed the chapter. "At that moment, I was conscious that the chapter's support was due as much to my influence and the respect I'd been able to build up over time as it was to the validity of the idea," Price says.

That was big-time use of influence to attain a big-time goal. Professionals spend years trying to build and maintain that level of persuasiveness. (See sidebar, "Keep Your Influence Intact," below).

But what many associations also need are influence tactics their employees can use now, at any organizational level, to address day-to-day dilemmas like boosting early-bird conference registrations, collecting overdue membership dues, or reviving team performance.

The solutions to these problems may reside in the expanding field of behavioral science, according to Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., who first introduced six universal principles of influence in his seminal work, Influence: Science and Practice.

Now, in his latest book, The Small Big: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence, the "Godfather of Influence" joins coauthors Steve Martin and Noah Goldstein to showcase the power and practical applicability of those principles through quick, easy tactics that can profoundly alter the outcomes of myriad situations, from work to home.

"When it comes to influencing the behaviors of others, it's often the smallest changes in approach that make the biggest differences," writes Cialdini. "Managers, for instance, just have to say or write something a little differently or change the sequence in what they say to be more persuasive."

Influence of the Crowd

Let's say a finance director needs to collect overdue advertising revenue. She should try using an influence principle known as social proof, since "people's behavior is largely shaped by behaviors of others around them, especially those with whom they strongly identify," says Cialdini.

Keep Your Influence Intact

Smart association leaders know they can't take their influence for granted, even when they've built an excellent reputation. Maintaining sway requires attention, too. Keep these tips from peers in mind:

It's not just about you. "Be consistent and make time to nurture relationships; show a genuine interest in others and get to know what is important to them."—Shawn Boynes, CAE, executive director, American Association of Anatomists

Be accessible."It's easy to get to the end of the day having prioritized meetings, to-dos, and deliverables, but not people. It's essential to carve out time to step away from our desks, phones, and conference rooms to grab coffee with a colleague, enjoy lunch with a professional friend, or just pop into someone's office to say, 'Hi.'"—Natasha Rankin, CAE, COO, American Counseling Association

Be honest. "Trust is paramount when you're looking at influence. When your colleagues realize your actions and decisions are made based on what's best for the organization versus what's in your own best interest, you maintain influence."—Kara Freeman, CAE, vice president of administration and chief information officer, American Council on Education

Express your opinions. "Don't be afraid to be provocative (but don't consistently be the one with the 'crazy Ivan' opinions), and always listen to and consider the opinions of those around you."—Clarke Price, FASAE, CAE, former president and CEO, Ohio Society of CPAs

Stay in touch with folks—and not just when you need them. "Sometimes small talk does make a difference. Be a resource to others when you can. People like to help those who help them."—Kristine Metter, CAE, vice president for member services, America's Essential Hospitals

How does social proof work? Consider how Cialdini and teammates helped Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs Department in Britain convince late-paying citizens to pony up their taxes. They found that by adding a single sentence to the letter, the agency went from a 57 percent success rate for collection to 86 percent, a difference of millions of pounds.

The sentence that did it? A statement noting the high percentage of people who do pay their taxes on time. A similar tactic can be used to collect from delinquent advertisers, since most people do not want to be "out of the group" of their peers.

Using a different example—raising money at a conference for a local charity—a social-proof tactic might be to recruit a few leaders to visibly drop money into a collection container. Data show that people are eight times more likely to contribute if they see others doing it.

Social proof is just one of many "small-Big" influence tactics. Here are a few more to counter common association annoyances:

  1. Increase early-bird event registration. Give short deadlines. "It goes against everything you think to do," says Cialdini, but the principle of scarcity works in your favor. "If something is dwindling in availability, it becomes more valuable psychologically, so people are much more likely to sign up more quickly."
  2. Reduce appointment or meeting no-shows. Train staff to hand people a blank card on which they write their next meeting date and time. This leverages the influence principle that finds people generally strive to honor their commitments and behave consistently. The note becomes a pledge in their mind, and data shows they are 18 percent more likely to show up. Many healthcare facilities that lose millions annually to no-shows have already started switching to this approach.
  3. Thank members or donors so they volunteer and donate money again. "The best way is to link gratitude to the trait of the person who was so gracious, not just saying, 'Thanks for doing this,' " says Cialdini. "Instead, use, 'Your willingness or helpfulness really assisted me.' That allows the person to genuinely feel good about the action in a way that reinforces their self-concepts as helpful individuals, which research shows makes them much more likely to continue that helpfulness or generosity."
  4. Reduce counter-offers on pricing. Make the first offer with a precise—not rounded-up—number. "People are more likely to be impressed by that and much less likely to push back than if you give a number they think you pulled out of the air," Cialdini says. "It's a way of conveying your knowledge of the matter and that you've done your homework."
  5. Keep teams goal-oriented. If your team is halfway to its target achievement, avoid a common mistake: congratulating workers on their progress to date. "You're asking them to look back, so they relax and slow down," Cialdini says. "One word will make a small-Big here. Instead of congratulating them on progress, say, 'Congratulations on the commitment you've shown to the goal.' Now you get them looking forward instead of backward, and the research shows you take them from losing steam to gaining steam."

Persuasion Science

While persuasion science can be used to handle many day-to-day issues, it also continues to gain attention from business leaders as research shows that it results in greater customer engagement and more efficient team operations.

The latter is of special concern because of the trend toward highly collaborative working cultures. In a 2014 survey of 500 companies by global management firm Vantage Partners, only 31 percent of respondents said they accomplished their work primarily on their own, while 22 percent did so via their direct reports. Forty-four percent said they got work done primarily by "influencing and collaborating with those whom I do not have direct solid-line authority over."

The survey also found that the most common approach taken by colleagues who wanted to influence others was to engage in joint problem-solving (23 percent) and selling (54 percent). Sadly, peers also influenced respondents through manipulation (17 percent) and coercion (7 percent).

Does this mean associations should start training staff on how to build, maintain, and ethically use influence tactics?

Perhaps. Cialdini says it's a growing trend, because, while many businesses traditionally have focused on influencing external behaviors, such as customer purchasing choices, they are increasingly realizing that persuasion science can also boost internal goals, such as helping employees adapt to change initiatives.

Ironically, studies also have found that people are terrible at recognizing what influences their own behavior—and they're almost equally awful at predicting someone else's behavior the longer they know the person.

Those conclusions lead back to CEOs and their role in helping employees increase and apply their influence using data-driven, ethical persuasion strategies to benefit the organization.

"You can't expect the most effective influence messages and tactics to naturally evolve as best practices within your organization or industry," Cialdini says. "They require a partnership of social and behavioral scientists to get those messages optimized."

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "The Influence of Everyone."]

Kristin Clarke, CAE

Kristin Clarke, CAE, is a contributor and books editor for Associations Now.