Harnessing the Science of Persuasion
leadership’s fundamental challenge: getting things done though others
persuasion skills exert far greater influence over others behavior than formal power structures do.
research shows that persuasion works by appealing to a limited set of deeply rooted human drives
and needs, and it does so in predictable ways.
persuasion is governed by basic principles that can be taught, learned and applied.
there are 6 fundamental principles of persuasion:
1. The Principle of LIKING: people like those who like them
The Application: Uncover real similarities and offer genuine praise
The demonstration party for Tupperware products is hosted by an individual, almost always a
woman, who invites to her home an array of friends, neighbors, and relatives. The guests’ affection
for their hostess predisposes them to buy from her, a dynamic that was confirmed by
a 1990 study of purchase decisions made at demonstration parties. The researchers, found that the
guests’ fondness for their hostess weighed twice as heavily in their purchase decisions as their regard
for the products they bought. So when guests at a Tupperware party buy something, they aren’t just
buying to please themselves. They’re buying to please their hostess as well.
If you want to influence people, win friends. How? Controlled research has identified several
factors that reliably increase liking, but two stand out as especially compelling – similarity and
Similarity literally draws people together.
Managers can use similarities to create bonds with a recent hire, the head of another department, or
even a new boss. Informal conversations during the workday create
an ideal opportunity to discover at least one common area of enjoyment, be it a hobby, a college
basketball team, or reruns of Seinfeld. The important thing is to establish the bond early because it
creates a presumption of goodwill and trustworthiness in every subsequent
encounter. It’s much easier to build support for a new project when the people you’re trying to
persuade are already inclined in your favor.
Praise, the other reliable generator of affection, both charms and disarms. Sometimes the praise
doesn’t even have to be merited
experimental data shows that positive remarks about another person’s traits, attitude, or
performance reliably generates liking in return, as well as willing compliance with the wishes of the
person offering the praise.
Along with cultivating a fruitful relationship, adroit managers can also use praise to repair one
that’s damaged or unproductive. Imagine you’re the manager of a good sized unit within your
Your work frequently brings you into contact with another manager – call him Dan – whom you
have come to dislike. No matter how much you do for him, it’s not enough. Worse, he never
seems to believe that you’re doing the best you can for him. Resenting his attitude and his obvious
lack of trust in your abilities and in your good faith, you don’t spend as much time with him as you
know you should; in consequence, the performance of both his unit and yours is
The research on praise points toward a strategy for fixing the relationship. It may be hard to find,
but there has to be something about Dan you can sincerely admire, whether it’s his concern for the
people in his department, his devotion to his family, or simply his work ethic. In
your next encounter with him, make an appreciative comment about that trait. Make it clear that in
this case at least, you value what he values. I predict that Dan will relax his relentless negativity and give you an opening to convince him of your competence and good intentions.
2. The Principle of RECIPROCITY : people repay in kind
The Application: Give what you want to receive
Charities rely on reciprocity to help them raise funds. For years, for instance, the Disabled
American Veterans organization, using only a wellcrafted fundraising letter, garnered a very
respectable 18% rate of response to its appeals. But when the group started enclosing a small gift in
the envelope, the response rate nearly doubled to 35%. The gift – personalized address labels – was
extremely modest, but it wasn’t what prospective donors received that made the difference. It was
that they had gotten anything at all.
Ultimately, though, gift giving is one of the cruder applications of the rule of reciprocity. In its
more sophisticated uses, it confers a genuine firstmover advantage on any manager who is trying to
foster positive attitudes and productive personal relationships in the office:
Managers can elicit the desired behavior from coworkers and employees by displaying it first.
Whether it’s a sense of trust, a spirit of cooperation, or a pleasant demeanor, leaders should model
the behavior they want to see from others.
The same holds true for managers faced with issues of information delivery and resource allocation.
If you lend a member of your staff to a colleague who is shorthanded and staring at a fast
approaching deadline, you will significantly increase your chances of getting help when you need it.
Your odds will improve even more if you say, when your colleague thanks you for the assistance,
something like, “Sure, glad to help. I know how important it is for me to count on your help when I
3. The Principle of SOCIAL PROOF: people follow the lead of similar others
The Application: use peer power whenever it’s available
Social creatures that they are, human beings rely heavily on the people around them for cues on
how to think, feel, and act. A group of researchers went doortodoor in Columbia, South Carolina,
soliciting donations for a charity campaign and displaying a list of neighborhood residents who had
already donated to the cause. The researchers found that the longer the donor list was, the more likely
those solicited would be to donate as well. To the people being solicited, the friends’ and neighbors’
names on the list were a form of social evidence about how they should respond. But the evidence
would not have been nearly as compelling had the names been those of random strangers
The lesson for executives from these experiments is that persuasion can be extremely effective
when it comes from peers. The science supports what most sales professionals already know:
Testimonials from satisfied customers work best when the satisfied customer and the prospective
customer share similar circumstances.
That lesson can help a manager faced with the task of selling a new corporate initiative. Imagine
that you’re trying to streamline your department’s work processes. A group of veteran employees is
resisting. Rather than try to convince the employees of the move’s merits yourself, ask an oldtimer
who supports the initiative to speak up for it at a team meeting. The compatriot’s testimony stands a
much better chance of convincing the group than yet another speech from the boss. Stated simply,
influence is often best exerted horizontally rather
4. The Principle of CONSISTENCY: people align with their clear commitments
The Application: make their commitments active, public and voluntary
Liking is a powerful force, but the work of persuasion involves more than simply making people
feel warmly toward you, your idea, or your product. People need not only to like you but to feel
committed to what you want them to do. Good turns are one reliable way to make people feel obligated to you. Another is to win a public commitment from them.
My own research has demonstrated that most people, once they take a stand or go on record in
favor of a position, prefer to stick to it. Other studies reinforce that finding and go on to show how
even a small, seemingly trivial commitment can have a powerful effect on future actions.
Israeli researchers writing in 1983 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin recounted how
they asked half the residents of a large apartment complex to sign a petition favoring the
establishment of a recreation center for the handicapped. The cause was good and the request was
small, so almost everyone who was asked agreed to sign. Two weeks later, on National Collection
Day for the Handicapped, all residents of the complex were approached at home and asked to give to
the cause. A little more than half of those who were not asked to
sign the petition made a contribution. But an astounding 92% of those who did sign donated money.
The residents of the apartment complex felt obligated to live up to their commitments because those
commitments were active, public, and voluntary. These three features are worth considering
There’s strong empirical evidence to show that a choice made actively – one that’s spoken out loud