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By Theodore Kinni

Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.

Long before writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Pink started picking through scientific studies for business tips, there was Robert Cialdini and his classic book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.  The first edition of the book, which was based in part on Cialdini’s own research, was published in 1984. Since then, it has racked up sales of more than 2 million copies.

“I can admit it freely now. All my life I’ve been a patsy,” the Arizona State psychology professor writes in the book’s introduction. “For as long as I can recall, I’ve been an easy mark for the pitches of peddlers, fund-raisers, and operators of one sort or another.” Influence was written as a defensive weapon for the patsy in all of us, but it quickly became a bible for sales and marketing types, too. And from there it spread to business leaders.

Good leaders don’t play their followers for patsies—if they did, they wouldn’t be leaders for long. Nevertheless, they must be able convince people to follow them and to do the things that they ask. In Influence, Cialdini offers up six basic psychological principles—reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity—that any leader can use to obtain compliance. They work because they contain triggers that set off fixed-action patterns within us.“Click and the appropriate tape is activated; whirr and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviors,” Cialdini explains.

The principle of reciprocity says that we feel obligated to give something back to people who have given something to us—whether we ask for it or not. And often, we willingly give more than we get to even the score. So give someone a couple of hours off on a slow Friday afternoon or hand out a couple of movie tickets now and then. When you need to ask for an extra effort, you’ll get it.

The principle of consistency states that we strive to act in accordance with how we see ourselves and what we believe, and that we try to keep our commitments. If you tell your people that they give great customer service or that they are creative, they will try to give great service or come up with good ideas. If you ask them to commit to a certain goal and give them a chance to agree, they will work harder to reach it than if you simply impose it on them.

The principle of social proof says that we tend to behave in ways that we see the people around us behaving. This is particularly powerful when we are unsure about how to act. If you want your people to act in a certain way, point out others who are already acting that way. When a new employee joins your team, make sure that he or she spends time with people who are acting in those ways, too.

The principle of liking says that we tend to comply with requests from people we find attractive, whom we see as similar to us, who praise us, with whom we are familiar, and/or whom we associate with positive things. This doesn’t mean that you have to be beautiful to get compliance, but if you aren’t, you’ll want to make sure you spend time getting to know your people and making sure that they get to know you. And don’t forget the positive feedback.

The principle of authority states that we tend to comply with requests when they come from an authority figure—like a leader. This suggests that you should think twice before you delegate authority by, say, asking another employee to pass along a request or order. If you want something done, ask for it yourself. Also beware of acting in ways that dilute your authority—trying to be one of the guys might comprise your ability to generate compliance.

Finally, the principle of scarcity says that we find opportunities more valuable — and are more willing to act in support of them — when their availability is limited. This principle includes the proverbial burning platform: If you want your people to work hard toward something, point out what they will lose if they don’t act. The more compelling the cost of inaction, the more likely people are to act.

The interesting thing about Cialdini’s principles is that they work independently of each other. You can learn how to use all six of them and then pick and choose among them to find the best way to get compliance when you need it.

Queue it up:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini


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