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The Psychology of Influence

Interview with Rotman Professor Brian Golden by Karen Christensen

Having influence demands that you put yourself in other people's shoes.


Change is one of the few constants for every organization today. What are some of the key challenges it presents?

One of the challenges — especially for organizations that have been successful — is just that: they have been successful. They’ve learned certain routines and they continue to go back to them. As a result, they engage only in incremental change. That works well when the world itself is changing incrementally, but in many industries today, that is not the case. As a result, we’ve got to un-learn what has worked for us in the past, and that requires developing new mental models and an understanding of how the world works — how all the pieces fit together.

The core of the challenge is getting away from a mindset of inertia and recognizing that, while tomorrow might look similar to today, 10 days from now, 100 days from now and 1,000 days from now will certainly not look the same in most sectors. We have to be prepared to work differently, think differently and develop new models.

For many years you have used the film Twelve Angry Men as a case study in your classes. What are some of its key lessons?

This is a wonderful film from 1957 that was written by a starving playwright who had sat on a jury for a few days and this cemented his incredible insights into how people influence each other. I use the film in my classrooms because it teaches us a lot about how groups interact with each other — and to face the fact that many groups are dysfunctional. I’ve also used it with boards, including one that I chaired.

The film provides wonderful examples of ‘small p’ politics in groups — from coalition building to framing ideas to showing respect for others, even when you disagree with them. The main character, played by Henry Fonda, is an architect, which is a beautiful metaphor because he becomes the architect of that team. He builds it from a group of 12 individuals who seemingly have very little in common into a cohesive group that comes together to do the right thing.

Talk a bit about the Fonda character’s approach to dealing with opposition from the other jurors.

Throughout the film, Fonda is extremely thoughtful and calm. He is not a charismatic leader in any way. Instead, he takes his time to size up the different decision makers in the group, one by one. Because this is a jury, he knows nothing about them. In order to understand them, he has to sit back and observe what they care about, what they respond to, when they engage, and how they respond to the framing of issues.

For instance, one character is incredibly emotional. He’s dealing with personal issues unrelated to the trial, and we see Fonda helping him understand his past. He also notes that one of the jurors cares a lot about justice, so he frames the challenge before them as one of justice and equity to appeal to that individual. Another character happens to be a banker, and he understands that for him, it’s all about numbers and probabilities; so, he frames his argument for that character in terms of ‘expected value’. He does this for every single juror, and it’s amazing to watch.

Four magic words that I love are, ‘Is it possible that…?’Tweet this

Research indicates that across cultures, genders and levels of intelligence, about 30 per cent of us are highly influenced by those around us—to the point where we will agree with things that we know to be wrong. What are the implications in an organization?

This is one scenario where leadership is especially important. One of my collaborators, Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson has done a lot of work on ‘psychological safety’ [Editor’s Note: read our interview with Prof. Edmondson on page 74.] One of the key elements of psychological safety is providing an environment where the less powerful and more junior members of a team feel safe and protected to stand up and say, ‘The emperor has no clothes on’ — that the data are arguing for something very different from what the group is saying. Particularly when there is a ‘numerical minority’ in a group situation — i.e., when there is one person or very few with a different position from the majority — creating a structure where everyone has a voice is critical.

In one case, I was working with a CEO who was a bit of a bully. His team was afraid to tell him he was wrong, and they were very rational in that fear: He had punished people who had taken contrary positions to him. In one case, he misspoke during a key corporate presentation, telling the audience, ‘This is the time to introduce our products in the East’ — when he meant to say, ‘This is not the time to introduce our products in the East’. For the first 14 minutes of his presentation, everything he said had argued against this. He ended his presentation without recognizing his error. When he asked his people, ‘What did you think?’, they all said, ‘Bob, (I’m making up his name), I agree with you. This is the year to bring our products to the East’.

Later, when he realized his error, it was a truly eye-opening experience for him. He recognized that he had created a culture where the less influential and more junior were afraid to say ‘This is wrong’. I spent a good deal of time coaching him after that experience, and I’m happy to say that he changed, because he was so disturbed by the culture he had created.

Tell us more about the dynamics between the minority and the majority in a group interaction.

If you are in the minority, my advice is to take it slowly. Get a foot in the door. Ask your questions and make your arguments in a very particular way. Four magic words that I love are, ‘Is it possible that…?’ This is not an assertion, it’s an inquiry, and I have found that it opens up the group to considering alternatives.

You also have to recognize that coalitions are critical and you’ve got to build support. I tell people to always look for the easy wins first, because numbers matter. Returning to the jury example, it’s very difficult for any person to join me if I’m one person and they’re part of a group of 11; but it’s a lot easier for a third person to join two of us, and for a fourth person to join three of us.

Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has developed six principles of persuasion. In your experience, which is the most important principle and which is the most difficult to embrace?

It’s hard to say which is most important, but in my experience, the principle of liking is absolutely critical. The idea behind it is that the others in the group have to recognize that you have something in common with them. This can be achieved in a couple of different ways. You can show appreciation for them and use praise, but beware: There are some interesting gender differences around using praise. Research suggests that praise has to be considered sincere in order for it to be effective — but that this is more true for women. It turns out that men, on average, are much more needy of praise. Even when we know it’s not sincere or genuine, it still has a positive effect. The key is to find a connection to someone so that you’re not just a business colleague, but you have something in common.

Spring 2019 - Golden Cialdini chartAnother important principle is reciprocity. Personally, I always try to make ‘deposits’ in the ‘favour bank’ in advance of ever having to call on them. Say a student tells me she is looking for a job, and I know a former graduate who is looking to hire someone with her skills. Without her asking, I will go ahead and bring them together. I’ve just done a favour for both of them that was easy for me to do and valuable for both of them, and it’s going to make it a lot easier for me to call on either one of them for a favour someday. I don’t do the deed with the intention of calling in that favour — because I don’t know if I’ll ever need to.

One of the challenges with using any of Cialdini’s principles of persuasion is that, whether you’re using praise or making deposits in the favour bank, you can be viewed as a bit Machiavellian. We have this view that acting in a political way is a bad thing; but the reality is, if you’re going to be an effective leader, you have to use your influence. I would characterize that as the political reality of organizations.

The first course I ever taught, 30 years ago, was called “Power and Politics”. At the time, I was interviewed by BusinessWeek, because it was an unusual course in a business school. The interviewer said to me, “Teaching ‘Power and Politics’ to MBA students seems a lot like sharpening the teeth of sharks. How do you feel about that?” My response was, “Politics is a reality in every organization. If you aren’t effective at it, you can’t be an effective leader.” One of the challenges of using these principles is making sure that you never cross your own ethical line. You must be comfortable in your purpose and ensure you are not hurting others through your persuasive tactics.

Having influence demands that you put yourself in other people's shoes.Tweet this

As we strive to observe people more closely, what should we be looking out for?

Many readers of this magazine are likely very action-oriented — and that’s a bit of a problem if you’re trying to read a group. One of the most important skills you can work on is listening — just shutting up and listening in the early stages of a group interaction, so you know who you’re dealing with, what is important to them, and how to frame the issue at hand. Influence is all about the interpersonal. It is about putting yourself in other people's shoes.

If you watch the film, you see that the jury was there that day to convict someone — not to determine the truth. Fonda reframes their task as ‘understanding all the information we have, making sense of it, and then determining the truth’ — as opposed to selectively picking information that confirms peoples’ prior beliefs. One thing we know about mental models is that we give far more attention to information that confirms our beliefs, and we often discount other information. We need to be aware of this bias and innoculate ourselves so we can open our minds to information that contradicts our beliefs.

Stage Three of your model for change (see Figure One) involves organizational redesign. Could you talk a bit about the role of the leader as architect and how to bring that to life?

Too often, when organizations or groups are not performing at the level we expect, the default is to think there is something wrong with the people — that they’re not motivated, or they’re not sufficiently skilled. But that is often an easy, but wrong attribution. In my experience — and this is supported by decades of research — people respond in large part to their social setting. If you start out with that assumption, the question becomes, ‘What levers are available to me as a leader to create an environment that is conducive to high performance?’
Spring 2019 - Golden Figure One

For example, there is a classic article by Steve Kerr called “The Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B.” The idea is that our incentive systems often encourage behaviour contrary to what we would like. Then we get upset with people — when we really ought to be looking at ourselves and asking, ‘Have we designed a reward system that encourages people to do what we want them to do?’ A classic example is rewarding for individual performance and wondering why some people act like mercenaries and are unwilling to help others.

As another example of poor design, we may inadvertently create an environment where people lack sufficient information about why they are doing what they are doing and how it impacts others. If people don’t understand the purpose of their work, they are very likely to underperform and act in ways that frustrate their colleagues. But they shouldn’t be blamed for that, because leaders haven’t properly designed the environment. In my view, the leader’s job is to very clearly articulate the strategy and the goals of the organization; and then, to design an environment that makes it easy for people to know what the right thing to do is, to have the skills and tools to do it, and to benefit in some way — whether it be intrinsically or extrinsically.

I always tell my students, when someone isn’t performing in the way you want them to, it usually comes down to three things: One, they don’t know what you want from them; two, there is nothing in it for them; or three, they’re unable to do it, either because of a skill deficit or organizational impediments. If you address these three things, you will create an environment where you get what you need from people.   

Brian Golden is the Sandra Rotman Chair in Health Sector Strategy at the University of Toronto and the University Health Network; Academic Director of the Sandra Rotman Centre for Health Sector Strategy; Professor of Strategic Management; Co-Academic Director of the Global Executive MBA for Healthcare and the Life Sciences program; and Vice Dean of MBA Programs at the Rotman School of Management.

Rotman faculty research is ranked #16 worldwide by the Financial Times.

This article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

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