The art of persuasion: How leaders convince others to follow

Leadership Behavioural Psychology December 2010 The Art of Persuasion

How do leaders convince others to follow? Forget about being liked, say behaviourists. Persuasion is about understanding conditioned social triggers

Shortly after Gordon Brown called the 2010 election, David Cameron took a trip to the Variety bakery in Bolton. With his shirtsleeves rolled up, the prime minister-in-waiting stood on a plastic crate to address a group of around 100 Warburtons employees. It was a clear clash of cultures: Cameron with his upper-class vowels addressing a group of no-nonsense bakers in blue boiler suits. A couple of TV news crews were on standby to record any awkwardness.

You could call it a high-risk strategy. Already well ahead in the polls, Cameron had much to lose and little to gain from such stark exposure to the electorate. Yet the Conservative leader’s campaign was full of similarly risky appointments. After Warburtons he visited a west London brewery, a branch of B&Q and a Bestway Cash and Carry. It was a schedule designed to evoke the more prosaic qualities of life. Beer, white bread, DIY—the message was delivered straight to our subconscious: I’m more like you than you think.

We tend to be influenced by people who are similar to us, says Stuart Duff, partner at Pearn Kandola, a business psychology consultancy. Cameron, with his Etonian background, is arguably quite different from most voters. But his campaign strategy was to break down the perception of disparity. “If I can convince you that you are more like me, you will start to forgive me more for the things that I do wrong, you will start to tolerate me more and start to notice the positive things I do rather than the negative things,” says Duff.

Cameron’s plan was to remove the negative stereotypes that surround a person who is part of the elite, explains Duff. He thinks about barriers that separate him, and the details that bring him closer to the public. For example, “the impact of him being called Dave rather than David. He is absolutely conscious of it. But I don’t think it washes with everybody.”

Cameron received a mixed reception in Bolton. His approach was solid enough, but he managed to muddle his tactics. Starting with a cringing joke about breadmakers, Cameron’s self-deprecation felt forced. Here was a politician desperate to be liked.

It’s a common mistake, says Steve Martin, co-author of Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion. Leaders frequently think that the best way to gain influence is to make themselves likeable. But as a method of persuasion it isn’t all that effective. “We are conditioned to be more likely to say yes to those people who like us,” says Martin, “and who tell us they like us, because we’ve been taught that they have our best interests at heart.”

Leaders seeking to build networks of followers should therefore spend less time trying to be liked and put more effort into highlighting characteristics of followers that they genuinely admire, says Martin. “Most training programmes say that the first thing you need to do is get your customer to like you. That’s not true. The first thing you should do is learn to like your customer.”

Thanks to counter-intuitive nuggets such as this, the science of behaviourism is becoming increasingly popular with both political and business leaders looking to enhance their powers of persuasion. As Procter & Gamble’s Lisa Dowding told the IoD Women as Leaders conference last month: “What lessons have I learnt? Understand male and female behaviours, plan your journey and know who you need to influence.”

Behaviourism and the art of persuasion

Behaviourism is a cash cow for the publishing industry. But not all the advice on offer stands up to scrutiny. Business coaches and pop-psychology authors, armed with neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and other cognitive therapies claim an ability to turn pupils into confident, charismatic leaders simply by mastering a few choice techniques. NLP’s scientific credibility owes less to its validity and rather more to its neurological connotations.

But it’s a dubious link, says Linda Doe, founder of Apana Business Psychology. “The roots of NLP come from behavioural psychology. But a lot of what they say has no foundation in neuroscience and the psychology of behaviour. It’s a package—a very persuasive package, because that’s what they do.”

Behaviourism’s popularity is in part related to the frailties of economic theory. Economics relies on the assumption that consumers behave rationally. As Dan Ariely writes in his book, Predictably Irrational, economists are attracted to “…the simple and compelling idea that we are capable of making the right decisions for ourselves”. But human rationality is a myth. We are, writes Ariely, “some distance from perfection”. The average citizen is well aware, for example, of the harm to the environment caused by excessive carbon, but our addiction to cars and aeroplanes remains undiminished. And most of us are aware of the damage caused by poor diet, yet obesity continues to rise.

Behaviourists believe the ability to understand and predict irrational behaviour is the first step towards changing it. This has huge implications for governments seeking softer ways to influence citizen behaviour. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Cameron and chancellor George Osborne are keen advocates of behaviourism. In 2008, Cameron met Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. It’s Thaler’s view, and now also Cameron’s, that if we can begin to understand why certain people behave seemingly against their best interests we can persuade, or nudge them to alter that behaviour.

Martin and his colleague Robert Cialdini, president of organisational performance group Influence at Work, believe that most of our predictable behaviour is conditioned. We are, they say, primed to respond in a particular way to social triggers, based on six principles: reciprocation (we feel indebted to those who give us something); consistency (once a decision is made, we strive to be consistent with it); social proof (we are more likely to deem a certain behaviour correct if others behave in that way); liking (we are persuaded by those people who like us and are most like us); authority (we are trained from birth to be obedient); and scarcity (the things we can’t have appear the most attractive).

Knowledge of these triggers provides an effective toolkit for persuasion not only because the behaviours are conditioned, explains Martin, but also because they appear inherently logical. “Generally, these principles guide us in the right way. If someone at work helps us out, it makes sense that we return the favour. We are more likely to marry, recruit and befriend those people who have similarities to us. We follow the crowd. And that’s a good thing. We are conditioned from birth to follow these rules.”

One of Osborne’s favourite behavioural case studies is said to be the US state of Minnesota, which abandoned fining citizens for the late filing of tax returns and replaced it with a more straightforward system: tax collectors simply told late payers that most of their fellow citizens had already returned their forms. The number of people submitting tax returns increased significantly. Such a dramatic result can be explained by a phenomenon known as the “magnetic middle”, a derivation of the principle of social proof. When people become aware that their behaviour deviates from the norm, they gravitate towards it.

Some of our conditioned behaviours are more applicable to leadership than others. The liking principle, says Martin, is useful not only for one-to-one persuasion, but also in solving boardroom conflict. A skilful leader is able to bring the most likeable characteristics of each member to the attention of the group. “Reorientating the group to look for these likeable factors allows people to begin communicating,” says Martin. It allows warring boards “to recognise that each person has a value.”

Doe agrees that valuing multiple contributions is a necessary quality at board level, but she doesn’t believe “tools and techniques” are the right way to gain influence. “People who don’t feel very persuasive like to believe there’s help out there. At a particular level, that will work. But board level is different. The game is harder. It’s a different level of interaction.”

A more powerful way to boost your influence is to “look inwards”, says Doe. If you can show that you like and respect yourself, “that you are worthwhile and valuable”, then influence will follow. “A person who values what they have to offer, they are the most influential person you will meet. They have a credibility, confidence and passion.”

At times, the psychology of decision-making veers uncomfortably into self-help territory. Martin differentiates between “the science of persuasion”, which he says is based on evidence, and scientifically unproven techniques such as NLP. Doe says that any method runs the risk of being spotted, especially when used on an experienced executive. But Martin isn’t so sure. Bernie Madoff relied heavily on the principles of scarcity and social proof to dupe experienced investors. “This wasn’t the fox outwitting the chicken. This was the fox outwitting other foxes,” he says.

Madoff made it “difficult and mysterious” for investors to sign up to his funds, employing established principles of scarcity. He publicised these funds in Jewish golf clubs—”his social proof”—using his connection to the financial system in New York as a “stamp of credibility”, the authority principle, says Martin. But exposure to these standards isn’t enough to desensitise us to their influence. “The people Madoff duped are unlikely to go to a doctor and say ‘show me your medical diplomas’. Once you’ve been tricked you become very attuned to that particular tactic. But it’s the tactic we become attuned to—the underlying principle always remains true,” adds Martin.

These conventions are actually quite powerful, says Duff. We are, for instance, hardwired to be averse to loss. In effect, we are six or seven times more sensitive to losses than gains. Research by Influence at Work suggests leaders should exploit loss aversion to make more persuasive pitches, for example by reframing the decision to purchase a money-saving piece of new software as the amount of cash your business will lose if you don’t adopt it.

Although these tools can be effective, says leadership expert Jo Owen, their usefulness shouldn’t disrupt the ability to listen. “Persuasion is more about listening than talking,” he says. Many leaders think it’s their job to force an idea into the other person’s head. “Not surprisingly, most people are resistant to that because they don’t want their brain infected with somebody else’s thinking. If you instead work out how the world looks from their point of view, you can slip your idea in as a way of reinforcing what that person already wants.”

Duff agrees. Persuasive leadership is centred on how your own style fits with the culture of the group you are trying to influence. “Organisations have a collective personality,” he says. Misunderstanding that personality is the biggest barrier to being persuasive. “A slow, hard-working, cautious organisation is going to be scared by a visionary, imaginative, risk-taking leader,” no matter what tools of persuasion they adopt.

by David Woodward

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