I am currently preparing for a workshop that I am presenting at the Women in Tech 2016 conference. http://www.questevents.com.au/women-tech-2016
The workshop is called "The Key to Lateral Leadership" - how to have an impact and build your career through influence. Lateral leadership is a phrase coined by Harvard Law Professor Roger Fisher which he describes as achieving goals through others without authority which is really all about persuasion and influence.
So I thought it might be useful to look at the science behind persuasion and influence for some new ideas. It is something some of us are better at naturally or is it something that can be cultivated?
The body of academic research called Social Neuroscience has enabled us to have a much better understanding of how our social connectedness has a deep impact on how our brains functions and vice a versa. We have two key organizing principles of the brain: to avoid danger and to approach reward.
Another important discovery is that our social relatedness is key driver of our behavior. We are highly sensitive and attuned to our connection with others. If we experience any form of rejection or loss of status we experience pain in the same regions of the brain as we would physical pain. Studies have shown that by taking a painkiller you can relieve the pain of social rejection in the same way as a headache.
So what does this have to do with influence?
From my research I think it is fair to say it means we have more persuasive ability that we realize. Each human is deeply driven by the need to belong and accepted. To not comply with what others are saying is very uncomfortable. To be ostracized or left out socially is perceived by our reptilian brain as a life threatening (just ask a local teenager). Very dangerous indeed!
The hierarchical nature of most organizations means that our social brain gets very activated at work. Our status, fairness and sense of connectedness is constantly being monitored by our social brain. Because many companies emphasize the structure and conformity of these hierarchies, employees tend to assume that their influence is dependent upon their roles or titles — that if they lack seniority or power, they can’t really ask for anything.
But the thing is that senior leaders also have those same organizing principles in their own brains; The same need for connection, cooperation and being part of the group. Senior leaders want to be respected, liked and they have a strong aversion to having to say no or disappointing others. Their own social brains are strongly driven to comply with the needs of others. It is often very much harder for someone to say no than to say yes.
Even if they say no they will feel very bad about it. People are very motivated to comply with requests because to say no usually triggers activity in the amygdala – a fear response. As well to say yes to a request will trigger a reward response kicking off production of feel good hormones such as dopamine.
Also our brains really like to conserve energy. A simple direct request can be processed quickly by the brain while convoluted (indirect) request are likely to ignored or avoided as they take up more processing power.
So to become more influential the first step is just to ask for what we want. If we put ourselves into the shoes of the person we are trying to influence and understand that their own unconsciousness social needs and drivers are very compelling it will be easier.
In Josh Davis’s (Lead Professor for the NeuroLeadership Institute) lecture on social influence, he talks about two personal traits that can impact on our persuasiveness. The first is likability, which includes attractiveness and our capacity to show empathy, the second trait is credibility encompassing expertise and sincerity. The research seems to indicate that how much impact these traits will have is in part dependent on how important the topic is to the person being persuaded.
Another great resource on the topic is The Six Principles of Influence that were developed by Robert Cialdini. and published in his book, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion." He is widely considered the foremost authority on the topic of influence and persuasion.
The principles Cialdini presents are: reciprocity, commitment, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. When you look at each of these principles they can be related back to the needs of our social brain - move way from danger and move toward reward.
My few simple tips to be more persuasive:
1) Ask for what you want and be direct. (so many people just do not ask in the first place ).
2) Think about the person you are asking and put yourself in their shoes (build empathy) and know they are strongly driven to cooperate. So they are already on your side.
3) Ask with conviction (sincerity and certainty). This is something most successful salespeople already know.
4) Do not be afraid to ask again. If someone has gone against the grain of their social brain and said ‘No” –most likely they will feel very bad and will want to make amends (this is something most kids seem to know instinctively –It is called pester power).
The idea of trying to persuade or influence others can make us uncomfortable—Fortunately our universal human need for social connectedness and belonging means it is much easier than we think.