Research and observation tell us that the hard skills (quantitative, data-analytical, technical, specialized knowledge) are important early in a career but that the soft skills (influence, relationship building, political savvy) are crucial for later success, especially in leadership. This is clearly the case in technology companies which are heavily populated with smart people who have typically been rewarded for being the cleverest individual problem solvers and tend to think their work will speak for them.
From follow-up analyses of the psychological assessments of successful people (top executives and people chosen for participation in various “high potential” developmental programs), we have found that there are consistent themes in the opportunities for improvement and development in this population. Within these highly successful groups, the most frequently mentioned suggestions for development fall into two categories.
Influence and persuasion. The recommendations under this category typically focus on such things as developing better communication skills; being more confident and effective presenting one’s thoughts and ideas, behaving in a more outgoing manner and asserting oneself more directly and effectively.
Interpersonal insensitivity. The developmental suggestions here have to do with such ideas as toning down one’s intensity or impatience, not pushing people too hard, monitoring one’s competitiveness and aggressiveness, and developing greater insight and political savvy.
If this is the case with among exceptionally successful people and with those seen as having strong leadership potential, the situation is even more acute with people in the ranks, with technologists and with people early in their career trajectories.
Success in leadership and influence depends on the innate characteristics of the persuader, as well as on the person’s use of the laws of influence.
Characteristics of Effective Persuaders
Common sense and scientific research show that there are two fundamental qualities of people who consistently persuade and influence others successfully – credibility and likability.
Credibility has two components: trust and expertise. If you can be counted upon to meet your commitments, and if people feel you have their interests at heart, they will trust you. If they can count on your having the knowledge and ability to come up with good solutions, they will see you as a person of expertise. In other words, people need to be comfortable that you know your stuff, and that you have their backs. That’s credibility in a nutshell.
All things being equal, people buy from people they like. We like people who we perceive as similar to us, who make us feel good about ourselves, who seem to like us and who are consistently upbeat and optimistic. Many books have been written on how to make others like us, but Dale Carnegie’s original How to Win Friends and Influence People is still one of the best resources for suggestions on how to act to be more likable.
The qualities that help people to achieve credibility and likability can be seen in the framework of the four I-Competencies (often thought of as Head, Heart, Guts and Will).
The Intellectual Competency allows us to develop the detailed knowledge and the problem-solving skills to develop expertise, one of the necessary factors in establishing credibility.
The Interpersonal Competency enables us to develop effective relationships and to communicate our expertise in a way which will increase our impact.
The Integrity Competency enables us to build trust. This allows us to meet our commitments, follow through and work in a disciplined, conscientious manner.
The Intensity Competency provides the drive, energy and stamina necessary to achieve results, to meet our responsibilities and to deal with the demands of the business environment.
The General Laws of Influence
In addition to the qualities of the effective persuader, we should consider the established principles of influence to fully appreciate and understand the nature of persuasion.
The Law of Authority. We have a strong drive to seek out higher sources of opinion, direction and advice. People have an inclination to follow authority. All other things being equal, people in positions of authority are seen as credible. Credentials are important, but there is no substitute for being a good source of information and help for others. Over time, this is what establishes a reputation for expertise. If you work continuously to expand your knowledge and skill, this will give you a sound base of confidence and will communicate your authority. We’re strongly influenced by people who project optimism, competence, confidence and a positive attitude.
The law of Trust. This is the other component of credibility. The best way to establish trust is to make sure you’re strong on the Integrity Competency. Once you lose trust it can never fully be regained. Every time you make a deposit to your trust asset base, it grows. But, once you make even a small withdrawal, the entire asset base may be wiped out. The keys to making sure you establish and maintain trust are simple and obvious, but too often overlooked. Among the simple things you can do to establish trust include: always follow through; don’t take credit where credit’s not due; never, ever, betray a confidence; never oversell or exaggerate; communicate as fully as possible when you have information that will affect others; take the first step by trusting that others will perform as expected.
The Law of Liking. Think of the most credible and persuasive people you know. If you make a list of their traits and characteristics, close to the top will be something to the effect that they are likable. We’re strongly influenced by people we like. This means that you need to develop and nurture a work/social network. People who are upbeat, optimistic, positive and cooperative will be more persuasive over time.
The Law of Reciprocity. We strive to keep things in balance. If someone does a favor, no matter how small, we feel obliged to them and are likely to help them out in some way. This is a fundamental law that is at the core of our society and all free market transactions. This is why charities include holiday stamps, small coins or other “gifts” with their solicitations. Such tokens dramatically increase donations. We operate by implicit rules of balance and fair play.
The Law of Consistency. We are driven to maintain a positive image of ourselves. To do that, we need to appear consistent to ourselves. This is the basis for the foot-in-the-door technique and the reason sales people try to get us to commit publicly that we’ll buy a certain item “if they can only find one” before miraculously discovering just the model we previously thought was unavailable. Once we commit to a small action or agree with some part of a position, we’re much more likely to agree with larger requests or stronger positions in the same direction. We will go to great lengths to maintain our self-image of consistency and to reduce the dissonance we feel when we act inconsistently. This is the basis for rationalization. We make decisions based on emotion, then work hard to find “good’ reasons for those decisions.
The Law of Scarcity. We want that which is rare. Less is more. If we perceive something will become unavailable or may be in limited supply, its value goes up for us. This is the basis for bidding frenzies at auctions, popular toy shortages at Christmas, speculative investment bubbles, snob appeal and many other examples of seemingly strange human behavior. We are more strongly motivated to avoid losing something than we are by the chance to gain something.
The Law of Social Comparison. We’re strongly influenced by the groups to which we belong and by those to which we’d like to belong. We look to others to figure out how we should interpret and respond to new or ambiguous information. We care what the Joneses think and what they do. We stop to look up when we see people in the street doing that. We’re more likely to tip the bartender if she’s salted the tip jar.
A word of caution is in order here. These principles work, but they can be misused. If you use them to manipulate or exploit, people will quickly figure it out. If people sense you’re trying to manipulate them, you will immediately lose their trust. And, as you now know, trust is an absolute cornerstone of credibility…which is a prime component of influence.
Hodges L. Golson, Ph.D.
Author of Influence for Impact: Increasing Your Effectiveness in Your Organization and Active Leadership: A Blueprint for Succeeding and Making a Difference.
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