How To Be More Powerful And Influential

I recently had an interesting conversation with a former colleague who took a top executive job at a smaller company. As we talked he made an interesting statement, “I may have a bigger formal power but in reality I have less chance to influence the team than I had before.” As it happened, I heard similar things from couple of other people who are in management of smaller start-ups within a short period of time and it made me think. What can you do to increase your influence at workplace regardless of the formal power you have?

Social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven developed a framework that described different bases of power. It was later expanded by couple of others into seven distinct types of power in the workplace:

  • Legitimate power – power that comes with title and position. If you have this power you can influence others because they are required to follow you regardless whether they agree with you or not. The team can chose to follow you or to leave.
  • Coercive power – is something that shouldn’t be used in the modern workplace at all. People wielding this power use force and threats to get what they want. If you don’t comply with the request you get punished.
  • Expert power – at the other hand expert power is one of those most frequently seen in knowledge based economy. If you have a medical degree I will follow your health advice more readily than if you are a taxi driver who happens to share what his grandma would do to solve my medical problem. The funny thing is that it is not about the actual expertise. It is about the perceived expertise. As long as I believe that you know what you are talking about I will follow you.
  • Informational power – it may sound like a cliché but “information is power”. Literally. When you have information that others don’t have it gives you an opportunity to influence. This power is often abused in the workplace when people are afraid to share information since they would lose the advantage they have over others.
  • Reward power – one of the easiest powers to use by managers, even though not particularly effective in the long run. People respond positively to rewards, being it salary increases or promotions. Unfortunately, this power tends to have a short life span as when the desire for a promotion is satisfied it the power disappears unless there is a chance of another promotion.
  • Referent power – this is a power of true leaders. It is based on personal characteristics like integrity and honesty. If you admire someone it is easy for them to influence you and you will follow.
  • Connection power – this is the type of power relies on who you know and you invoke their name to make others comply. It can be used by junior members of the team who don’t have enough clout to use some of the other types, but they can still forge relationships with others and build coalitions. This in turn gives them the type of influence they wouldn’t have if they stood alone.

It is not only the types of power you need to consider when you want to influence others. It is also the way how you go about it and the message you use. For example, even you are an expert on a topic and wield the Expert power you can still increase your chances of persuading others by putting the message the right way. Robert Cialdini defines what he calls six weapons of influence that can increase your ability to persuade others:

  • Reciprocity – based on the notion that people hate the feeling of being in debt to others and tend to return favors. This is a rather powerful weapon especially considering that it is easy to get others be indebted to you. In fact, this happened to me some time ago without me even realizing it. When travelling in a foreign country I was stopped by a street seller offering some trinkets for three dollars. I politely refused and she came back and said something around the lines “so what about this one for only one dollar?” Since she made a concession (not selling me the three dollar item as she intended) I felt a sense of obligation to buy the cheaper one to return the “favor”. This is a very obvious example, but if you would think hard you probably find situations like this happening all the time.
  • Commitment and consistency – people like consistency. If you commit to an idea it is difficult to abandon it since you don’t want to look stupid. This is also a reason why, if you want people to move in a certain direction, it is important to quickly make the first small step. Once people committed to the path, even though it is only in a small way, it becomes more difficult for them to change their mind. In fact, people will often internally justify that this is exactly the thing they wanted to do in the first place. The commitment and consistency rule also helps to understand why some of the external rewards can be counterproductive. People are more likely to find the intrinsic motivation if they feel that what they do is consistent with who they are, that they made the decision, and it wasn’t by some external pressure. Keep in mind that “reward” is a form of an external pressure.
  • Social proof – people are essentially a herd. They are more willing to do what they see others doing. This is such an important rule in the workplace. If leaders tolerate unacceptable behavior of one person, the others see it, conclude that it is actually acceptable, and start behaving the same way. Social proof may have even some interesting consequences when you need someone from the team to do some work that is not directly part of their job. What happens when you ask for volunteers or even something more generic like, “we need to get this done?” Chances are that no one picks it up since everyone will look at everyone else and say to themselves, “when no one is volunteering so why should I?” If you want to get the stuff done you need to pick “a volunteer”. There is also another facet of the social proof. Something you can call a rule of association. Not only you tend to behave the way as the others in your group, but people outside of that group will automatically associate with you the behaviors consistent with the rest of the group. If you hang out with bunch of people who have a reputation as being lazy you will quickly get the same image regardless of how hard you work. This can of course have also the opposite, positive effect, when you keep the company of people who have the traits you admire.
  • Scarcity – people are more interested in rare things. If you want to create a demand a good way to do that is to build a feeling that what you offer is scarce. Curiously enough, it is more powerful notion if people believe that they will lose something rare, than when they believe they will gain the same rare thing. If you can create a feeling that by not complying people lose something chances are they will jump on board. You shouldn’t threaten, just showing the natural consequences does the trick.
  • Authority – people tend to follow figures they consider experts in a given field. This is consistent with the Expert power mentioned above. If you can include in your message quotes from authorities in the field you increase your chances of influencing others. Again, it is not necessarily question of being the biggest expert, it is about perception. You or the experts you quote need to have the image of being knowledgeable about the domain. Things like self-confidence, willingness to voice opinions, and charisma often play role in positive reception of the message.
  • Liking – people tend to believe more readily to those they like. It should come as no surprise as you associate positive behavior, positive intentions, and even bigger intelligence with people you like as human beings or you admire for some superficial reasons. This might be why you would buy a lawn mower recommended by your favorite Hollywood star even though it is clear that this actor knows nothing about cutting grass.

As Cialdini notes, language is a powerful tool and use of certain words can greatly improve your chances of influencing others. For example, people are more likely to comply if you provide a reason. “Can you lend me five dollars,” is less likely to succeed than, “can you lend me five dollars because I left my purse at home and need to pay a taxi?” Curiously enough, the reason is not that important. It is the word “because” that triggers the favorable response.

There are also other tricks how you can improve your message. The contrast principle states that when people compare two things they tend to find bigger difference between them than is relevant. For example, if you are looking for a new phone you want something light. When testing two phones in the shop one weighting 150 grams and the other 180 grams you immediately go for the lighter one saying the other is too heavy. If I gave you, only the 180g one to test you would be completely comfortable with it. It is the comparison that changed your mind. This is being frequently used in shops when you want to sell an expensive item you put right next to it even a more expensive item. In comparison, the first one now looks cheap.

As you can see, there are many things you can do to increase your chances of getting your message across and influence those around you. What I talked about only scratches the surface. What you should take out of this is that to be truly influential others need to buy into not only the message you are delivering but also into you as a person.


What are your tips and tricks on influencing the world around you? Do you rely on a specific type of power or do you combine them? What works the best for you?

Photo: Foundry /

Categories: Communication, Leadership

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