Influencing Skills at work

May 18, 2016


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Influence at work
Managing Up, Across, & Down

A Harvard Business Review Webinar featuring Steve Martin




The ability to influence and persuade at work in ethical, effective ways is a crucial skill for both business and personal success. Influence and persuasion is as much as a science as an art. Research has uncovered key principles and skills that anyone can use to improve their ability to influence and persuade. These principles are: 1) reciprocity; 2) scarcity; 3) authority; 4) consistency; 5) liking; and 6) social proof. At least one of these principles can be deployed in almost any situation you face as you try to influence and persuade others.


Influence researcher and author Steve Martin shared the research around influence, set up a framework for understanding relationships and situations, and outlined the right actions to take to improve the chances of influencing outcomes.


Reciprocity: People are most likely to give back when what’s given is unexpected and personalised.

Throughout the world, people are raised with the understanding of a basic rule around give and take: one does not take without feeling the need to give back something in return. This can be stated as “You, then me, then you, then me.”

The principle of reciprocity means that people are more likely to say “yes” when they feel that they owe something. Reciprocity builds social interactions, networks, and relationships, and can be used to gain favor and approval.

When attempting to influence and persuade others, people often make the mistake of looking for someone who can help them and whom they can owe a favour. Research has shown that the power resides with those who give first. Giving first creates the context of obligation; when people feel obligated they are more likely to respond favourably to requests, propositions, and proposals.

A key to effective reciprocity is not necessarily what is given, but how it is given that impacts the return. As seen in figure 1, researchers found that wait staff who gave one or two mints per diner with the bill saw increases in their tips compared to giving no mints. But those who gave a single mint per diner with the bill and then surprised diners and personalised the gift by returning with extra mints received a 23% increase in tips.


Steve Martin Author and Influence Researcher

Angelia Herrin (Moderator) Editor, Special Projects and Research,
Harvard Business Review

“A mistake that we make is we ask ourselves, ‘Who can help me?’ when the question to ask instead is, ‘Whom can I help first?”– Steve Martin

Reciprocity and Influencing study

Figure 1
How unexpected reciprocity
boosted tips for wait staff.

In today’s information-overloaded world, things done unexpectedly that are highly personalis ed are the things that people pay attention to the most. These are also the things that are likely to positively influence a subsequent request or proposal.

Scarcity: People want more of those things that are rare and
difficult to obtain.

In 2003, British Airways announced it would end its twice-daily Concorde passenger jet service between London and New York. The service was no longer popular, there were often more flight attendants on some flights than passengers, and it was increasingly costly to run. Yet immediately after this announcement of discontinuation, all remaining flights sold out. No changes were made to the speed of the flight, the service, or the price. But now with dwindling availability—scarcity—more people wanted to buy more of this scarce service. As this example shows, anything that can be done to genuinely frame a proposal as unique, distinct, or rare increases its appeal and persuasiveness.

Scarcity also plays into the idea that losses typically loom much larger in peoples’ minds than gains. Messages that point out what may be lost in a situation are more likely to be heard than those that just offer what people stand to gain. In a series of studies in California, two groups of homeowners were given energy audits and tips on how to save energy and money. One group was shown how much money they could save in a year if they implemented the tips, while the other group was shown how much money they could lose if they did not follow the recommendations. The study found that those audit recipients who were told what they could lose were 150% more likely to take action than those who were told what they stood to gain.

Authority: Expertise and credibility are key factors in influencing others.

In a world full of so many propositions, proposals, information, and stimulus, people are more likely to be persuaded by those they see as credible, knowledgeable experts. Presenting expertise and building credibility before making a persuasive appeal—through experience, diplomas, and/or training— provides authority that can convince others to follow.

“The messenger is often the persuasive element; not the message itself. 
– Steve Martin

Hanging diplomas on a wall is one simple way to convey authority. In many situations—including phone calls, meetings, and presentations—it can be difficult to provide this information without sounding like a braggart. In this case, it is smart, persuasive, and costless to arrange for someone else to introduce the expertise, experience, and credentials to the audience first.

Expertise is only one component of authority. It is also important to convey credibility and trustworthiness. Building trust often takes time; however, in many cases time isn’t available. When trust needs to be built instantly, the science behind influence shows that those who present a small drawback or weakness about the case create a favorable context for the very next message they present.

“In the context of expert introductions, people listen differently to what you have to say. 
– Steve Martin

Consistency: People want to live up to the commitments they make.

Commitments are most likely to stand the test of time when they are voluntary, active and effortful, and public. Martin encouraged asking others to make small commitments, which can be a step on the road to a bigger change, rather than one big commitment.

A series of studies Martin led looked at the pervasive and costly problem of missed medical appointments. His study found that simply making appointments was passive; the patient waited while the appointment was made, and if the appointment was made in person, was handed a card with the appropriate appointment information.

When patients were asked to actively repeat back the date and time of their next appointment, there was a 3.5% reduction in no-shows. Additionally, instead of being handed a card with the appointment information on it, if patients were handed a blank card and asked to write down the information themselves, missed appointments decreased 18%.

Influencers need to think about small commitments they can ask others to make, and how to arrange for those commitments to be voluntary, effortful, and public, as with medical appointments. When encouraging others to attend meetings or presentations, this can be as simple as asking ahead of time what questions the invitees would be most interested in having answered during the meeting.

Commitments—especially those involving a time delay—face another problem: people don’t always follow through. Studies have shown that asking someone how they plan to follow through on a commitment can lead to an increase in the likelihood of the person following through.

Liking: People are more likely to say “yes” to people that they like.

Leveraging similarities can be an important factor in influencing and persuading others. Martin suggested taking time early on in interactions to exchange information and find similarities that are shared with others. He also advocated using social networking programs like LinkedIn to find out about others in advance. These shared similarities make it more likely that people will say “yes.”

“We like people that we see as similar to us, and we tend to agree more with those people that we share similarities with. 
– Steve Martin

Negotiation and Influencing studyFigure 2
The advantages of being
liked when negotiating.

Martin also shared findings from a study involving a team of executives who orchestrated mergers and acquisitions. One successful executive had a reputation of coming into a meeting only seconds before the start time and immediately getting down to business. The researcher suggested that this executive arrive at meetings 10 minutes in advance to chat with other attendees and look for similarities. The impact was enormous: not only did the average M&A time decrease from more than nine months to six months, but the resulting savings was between $10 and $30 million per deal.

Social proof: People want to align behaviors with what comparable others
are doing.

When people are not sure of the right course of action, they look to others they consider to be like them to decide what to do. This concept of social proof is often misused by influencers and persuaders, because it doesn’t discriminate between desirable and undesirable behaviors; when an undesirable behavior is publicized, it often becomes the behavior that is increased.

Because so many Americans had filed their taxes late in 2006, in 2007, to try to combat late payment, the IRS doubled the fine for late tax submissions. The following year, late submissions actually rose by 22%. The reason: even with the increased fine, it became permissible to submit later because taxpayers learned that others were filing late.

Conversely, in the UK in 2009, Martin worked with HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) to send out a tax letter that, in one sentence across the top, asked people to submit their taxes on time, pointing out that the majority of people in the UK were already doing so. The project didn’t stop there: as the graphic below shows, letters were sent out further localising the data from the whole country to the postal code to the name of the town. These simple changes brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in additional tax revenue.

Social proof and influencing studyFigure 3
Using social proof
to influence action.






Steve Martin Author, Influence ReseacherSteve Martin Author, Influence Researcher

A Royal Society nominated author and expert in the field of influence and persuasion, Steve is author of two books including the New York Times International bestseller, Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, co-authored with world-renowned persuasion researchers Dr. Robert Cialdini and Dr. Noah Goldstein.

His business columns on Persuasion are read by over 2 million people every month and he is author of the October 2012 Harvard Business Review article, “98% of HBR Readers Love this Article.” His latest book, The Small Big—Small Changes that Spark Big Influence, was listed by The Times of London as their 2014 non-fiction book of the year.

Angelia Herrin Moderator

Angelia Herrin Moderator

Editor, Special Projects and Research, Harvard Business Review

Angelia Herrin is the editor for special projects and research at HBR. Her journalism experience spans 25 years, primarily with Knight-Ridder newspapers and USA TODAY, where she was the Washington editor. She won the Knight Fellowship in Professional Journalism at Stanford University in 1990. She has taught journalism at the University of Maryland and Harvard University.

Prior to coming to HBR, Angelia was the vice president for content at, a website focused on women business owners and executives.





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