Human Resources and the Science of Persuasion

Hugh MacDonald

The art of persuasion is very important in the workplace. A great book, one that belongs in the toolkit of every human resources professional is Robert Cialdini’s The Science of Persuasion, (2001). Cialdini has summarized what researchers have learned about the "science" of persuasion. He notes that it all boils down to a few key principles:

Reciprocity: The most common, and most effective, way to persuade or influence people is to make them obligated to us in some way. This is often done by giving something or providing a service. When someone does this, we feel obliged to respond in kind. When I get a new client, I look for a way I can do them a service or a favor. Whether it’s helping them hire a new secretary, deal with the first 90 days on the job, understand the politics or climate of their new workplace or just provide information about the best local places to eat—I find some way to start building my relationship with him or her based on the notion of reciprocity.

Consistency: There is congruence between what we say and what we do. Workplace relationships are based on trust, which in turn is based on predictable behavior. In other words—consistency. It may be counterintuitive but true that, when building trust, it is more important to be consistent in our actions than to always be correct in all the details. Clients—and senior management—do not like surprises.

Social Validation: I once worked for a company that had songs, chants and slogans—especially directed at its sales team. One of them was, "People Buy on the Approval of Others." That’s what social validation means. We tend to want and do what everyone else wants and does. It helps if you know what your client, boss or the CEO thinks about a given initiative. It will help you make your case.

Likeability: That same company also had a sign in the sales training facility that reminded everyone, "People buy from those they like." It’s no secret babies come programmed to respond to their mothers’ smiles and "the world loves an optimist." As much as late night comedians make fun of overly perky and cheery people, the social reality is that we are more likely to be influenced by someone we like than by someone we don’t. In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote about this in his seminal book How to Win Friends and Influence People. His suggestions for winning hearts and minds are as true today as they were then: don’t embarrass anyone, let people save face, provide encouragement and use positive feedback. It’s OK to be tough and honest as long as it’s done with respect and in a manner that allows others to maintain their dignity. These are essential skills to pass on to your clients when they prepare for performance or termination interviews.

Authority: Further down on the list is authority. We remain impressed by rank, status and power. There is no reason for it, but sadly we are much more likely to buy or do whatever our favorite role model or celebrity is doing. In business, that celebrity or role model may be a respected consultant, expert or colleague.

Scarcity: Finally, and we fall for it every time—we rush to embrace things where there is a "limited supply," or a "last chance," or if there are "only a few remaining." We know better, but many of us just can’t resist being influenced to act when we think it might be our last opportunity so to do. Giving clients deadlines for making decisions turns time into a scarce commodity.

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