My lessons in influencing change

The art of influencing is one of the single most important skills required to be successful in business.

Whether it’s sharing a vision through a team, encouraging a client to pivot their direction, driving consensus among a group who seemingly all have conflicting opinions and agendas. I am required to drive influence on a daily basis. Frankly, it is difficult to get anything done unless you hone the art of influencing others.

Some incredible books have been written on this topic. Most famously, Robert Caldini’s Influence, New and Expanded: The Psychology of Persuasion. This piece though isn’t recapping the the theories expressed by others. It is instead, sharing what I’ve known to be true for me, based on my experience in business to date.

Setting the foundation of influence: The fundamental irrationalities present in us all

Before we get into the tactics, it’s first important to level set on some of the foundational psychological principles of how humans can respond to key stimuli. As noted, I am fond of Robert Caldini’s six principles of influence. Additionally and perhaps even more powerfully though, I’ve found the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Nobel Prize Winners in Behavioural Economics) to be far more powerful in many aspects of my life. 

Ultimately, marketing as a discipline is rooted in the art of finding markets and influencing behaviour change, is it not?

One of the biggest mistakes I see young and naive people make (of which, I was absolutely one of them in my early career) is failing to understand the fundamental truth that all humans are irrational. It’s Daniel and Amos who blew the lid on this understanding, concluding some founding principles that help us to understand “why” people often act the way they do.

There are more than what I’ve mentioned here. Please do read the book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman wrote on behalf of himself and Amos to make the findings so accessible to all. For those yet to read this fantastic book, I’ve listed below provide the level-set.

Thinking in two systems:

Kahneman coins his “dual-process model of thinking” where he suggests humans operate with two types of thought: System 1 (fast, intuitive, automatic) and System 2 (slow, deliberate, analytical).

This understanding has changed the way I personally operate in business and the way I receive information from others. I now preface responses with “My shoot from the hip answer is the following however I’d like to ponder it a bit more”. 

Equally, I understand when others are quick to offer a response, it will be their intuitive response based on their exposures to date.

This is important as when it comes to influencing change, I have learned that people update their data and often change their mind. I say this all to say – give people time to digest what you are sharing with them. If you need a decision made at a key point in time, offer a pre-read and set a clear agenda where you can ask for their contributions and deep thinking. This is key when considering the influence we have on others and the influence others have on us.

If you feel pressured to answer on the spot, you are free to reset the expectation. Equally if someone gives you a speedy reply, it will do you well to consider whether they’re sharing their opinion from their vast domain experience (more trustworthy) or if they’re reaching a little. If the latter, ask them again at a later date and see if they “system 2 it”.

Loss Aversion

People strongly prefer avoiding losses over acquiring gains. This can be used to ones advantage when crafting a pitch or sharing ideas since often, highlighting the “cost of not” or even the potential downside at varying levels of confidence can provide a compelling case for change.

Anchoring and Adjustment

Also a well-known marketing phenomenon, particularly in setting pricing strategies. People tend to make judgements from an initial anchor or reference point. Highlighting how historically, something has performed can offer this anchor. If you don’t have history to draw from, assessing competitor movements and industry data can offer the same. All of these methods can create a compelling anchor for why one should consider listening to a case for change while also offering context for what to expect i.e. what “good” or “bad” looks like for the suggestion.

Availability Heuristic

People will be most likely to recall that which occurred most recently. This speaks to why momentum can be effective when driving influence as our most recent experiences feel the most poignant, even if experiences we had long ago were objectively better suited to the problem at hand. Based on this finding, events that are more easily recalled in our minds are seen to be more likely to occur (even if they aren’t)!

If you’ve heard me talk about John Kotter’s framework for Leading Change you’ll understand why this can be leveraged for influence and driving change in an organisation. Building momentum once people start making decisions helps to ensure consistency in the narrative. All of a sudden, every corner of an organisation is singing from the same song sheet and you can move mountains and fast – all when you have a decisive leader who understands how to leverage this for influence.

Endowment Effect 

People are most likely to assign higher value to things they own compared to even the equivalent value offering shared by someone else. This is absolutely key to influencing change as in my experience, this has been practiced as ensuring people can see themselves and their contribution within your ideas

If you learn nothing else from this article, know this. It is always better to ask questions that encourage others to “fill” in answers you already know, so that they see themselves in the output of the decision. When they see themselves in the output of the decision, they will see themselves as part-owners and take part in your coalition to drive change.

Of all of the helpful findings that contribute to moves that can be made, there is also one finding I would argue should not be used. This is attempting to point out “Overconfidence Bias”. Like it sounds, overconfidence bias indicates how people tend to be overly confident in their judgements and predictions, underestimating uncertainty and potential error. As you might intuit, pointing this out does not leave you being perceived as very likeable (even if you are right). Influencing change often means allowing people to save face, even if you feel the decisions they stand behind make little sense. Use the other tactics (of which, there are plenty). It’s probably too, not a bad idea to consider whether you have fallen prey to this one yourself.

*The book Thinking Fast and Slow is by far, worth reading. If you’re short on time however this podcast by Gartner provides a fantastic snapshot view of some of the most poignant findings from Daniel and Amos’ findings.

Okay, now that we’ve level-set, on the foundational psychological principles, it’s time to chat tactics…These are a few that work for me pretty consistently.

From personal experience

Play the player and know

In my experience, most folk will have an agenda they are pursuing based in the impact they believe they can make. As humans, we want to feel as though we are contributing to something. We crave that sense of worthiness, belonging to something, even at times, adoration and love.

As a result, we often have our own strategies ideated for what we think makes good sense, an agenda to drive that vision forward and a desire to have part or all of that credit attributed to our brilliant selves. Even if the idea isn’t one we’ve formulated on our own, we often still desire the closed loop on our contribution, no matter how small, so we can quantify our impact on the effort we’ve made and gain that sense of fulfilment we crave.

Tapping into what this nugget of gold is for others is often the first step for me in understanding how to influence change. While motivations will always vary, I’ve always known this truth. Needing to see one’s contribution is universal.

Beyond simply seeing how one individual is driving their own impact, their agenda might too, extend to others. For managers, this might look like looking after their team. For individuals chasing a promotion, it might manifest as a fear of engaging in high risk initiatives.

By first taking the time to gather context for the people you are hoping to influence, you can better understand how they may or may not be receptive to the change you are trying to drive.

Gather an abundance of data

There’s a reason I moved into marketing analytics.

For the reasons Daniel and Amos concluded, an abundance of data doesn’t always work when it is framed the logical choice (because humans are fundamentally, irrational and emotional beings). However often, I have found there is emotion wrapped around a person’s self concept that they wish to be seen as logical and pragmatic (no matter how deep the sunk cost).

In other words “What does it say about me if I were to ignore this”.

Equally, some people will not go back on an assertion they have previously made. Reminding them of this is called “leveraging consistency”. It looks something like:

“I remember when you mentioned…”

“That report you shared also aligned with…”

There are some people who have what I like to call, selective amnesia though where consistency cannot be leveraged. After all, it only works on those who want to appear to be reasonable. When faced with this kind of person, any amount of shock and frustration you share can fall on deaf ears.

“Are you kidding!? We talked about this three weeks ago!?”

In my experience they will double down and assert “That conversation never happened” or “I don’t remember discussing that”.

This can be one of the most frustrating experiences. I have found in these instances, those who make such stubborn assertions often hold a deep sense of pride. In addition, filled with pride or not, Daniel and Amos teach us there is a sunk cost of any investment previously made. Regardless of the cause, the outcome is resistance to change.

It’s not so surprising that it can be difficult to revisit decisions we’ve made. It can be difficult to say “Hm, with this new information, I think you’re right” as the way it makes people feel is that they were “wrong”. Reminding your target that these things are not mutually exclusive is the first step for letting their psyche off the hook and allowing them to save a little face (no matter how frustrating that may feel to you on principle).

This is where gathering an abundance of data can help. Framing findings as “new information now to be considered” in my experience is a great tactic for “face saving”. It removes emotion from the equation while re-levelling the playing field and encouraging all parties to wipe the slate clean and consider the problem again, from scratch, informed by the information provided.

In addition to providing new information, framing up data to focus on both the potential as well as the impact or “cost of not” provides the most compelling case. That is because, like Daniel and Amos teach us, we prefer to avoid losses than acquire gains. Use data to your advantage.

(Just make sure everything you frame up when you share your data uses neutral language “it” would be crazy not to consider this, not “you” would be…”)

Actual footage of me being too passionate about the need for multiple attribution models to solve different questions.

Give a passionate shit about the change you wish to drive

I’m yet to pen a post about one of my most profound life lessons; passion will get you everywhere but in my bones, I believe this to be true.

The trite old idiom “follow your passion” is one I am not particularly fond of but my suggestion isn’t this. I believe one can choose to engage passionately in any pursuit and in doing so, enjoy the greatest potential the activity has to offer. As an added bonus in taking this approach in life, I’ve found too that executing your message with passion and enthuasium is a great advantage in influencing others.

As we’ve covered, humans are emotional. Regardless of whether you believe concepts like the “law of attraction” is “a bit woo”, I know personally how much I have experienced, first hand, how bringing my passionate, hype girl energy is contagious.

When we see people believing in something we seek to understand why. We are also driven to connect with others so when our values feel aligned, it’s natural to want to share in some of that beautiful energy with another person.

Give it a try. Deliver your message with passion. It certainly can’t hurt anyway.

Deliver candidly (and radically)

Sometimes you’re unsure of one’s agenda, there’s no time to gather an abundance of data, you’re just not that passionate about what you need to see change – but something does, need to change. This tactic is for those times when you just need to “get real” (and usually, pretty fast).

Kim Scott’s now famous model for Radical Candour underpins this tactic. The more that you show you care personally for someone, the more direct you can share feedback that resonates.

When we believe someone has good intentions, has considered our views (or is open to learning about them) and then delivers a pointed and direct message, it can knock us into our truth.

In my experience, this absolutely works. Maybe not all of the time, but for me, the success rate is fairly high. It’s important to note though that humans are clever beings. We can pick up if that “care” doesn’t feel genuine or if one is masking as “radical candour” but truly just, being a bit of an asshole and looking for an excuse to act tactlessly.

I’m absolutely certain I’ll be adding more to my toolkit as I continue my journey as a leader in business, though for now, these tactics are my tried and true. I’d love to hear from you if there is something in your toolkit you have as a “go to” for driving change. Hit ‘reply’ and let me know.

Bonus:The writing of this piece reminded me of one of my favourite articles that spoke to the beautiful and intellectually challenging friendship that these two men shared. Read up on that here.

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Hi I'm Kate! I'm relentlessly curious about the attribution and origin of things. Especially as it relates to being a corporate girly balancing ambition and a life filled with joy.

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