Harnessing Peer Power: The Art of Influence and Persuasion

People follow the lead of others they respect. They rely heavily on others around them for cues on how to think, feel and act. Experiments have confirmed this intuitive characteristic.Professor Robert Cialdini has been a leader in advocating this form of influence and persuasion in his best-selling book, Influence: Science and Practice and on his firm’s website, Influence at Work.

Use peer power whenever you can

People follow the lead of others they respect. The lesson from this is that persuasion can be extremely effective when it comes from peers. For instance, if people become aware that friends and neighbors have given to charity (through having a list of names displayed to them), they are more likely to give as well. The longer the donor list, the more likely they are to donate. This is a form of social evidence about how they should respond. If the list comprised the names of strangers, they would not respond as readily.

The science supports what most sales professionals already know: testimonials or case studies involving satisfied customers work best when the satisfied customer and the prospective customer share similar circumstances.

The important principle to keep in mind with all this is to preserve an ethical approach. Cialdini advocates this in a Harvard Business Review interview, “The uses and abuses of influence.”

Use peer psychology in the workplace

The same psychology applies in the workplace. If you need to sell the benefits of a corporate initiative to your staff, and you find a group of cynical employees is resisting, rather than trying to convince them yourself, ask a veteran who supports the initiative to speak up for it at a team meeting. That person is more likely to sway the recalcitrant group than more words from you. Another way of looking at this: influence is often best exerted horizontally rather than vertically.

Professional communicators are familiar with this powerful principle under another name: third party endorsement. This principle demonstrates that it is more effective to have someone respected by your target audience say good things about you or your product than from you saying the same things yourself. This is a good example of the way people follow the lead of others they respect.

You can tap into powerful, yet background words of influence

Background words can be a simple, but convincing means of influence. Robert Cialdini discusses some fascinating examples in his new book, Pre-suasion. One of Cialdini’s discussion points is the way an outstanding US health service even goes to the extent of aligning terms used in internal communication with its corporate healthful values and medical ethics. This approach has been effective in changing attitudes. Read my article about using background words of influence.

Here’s how you can seek an endorsement or testimonial

What can you say to people to get them to provide you with a powerful testimonial? Here’s how: be specific about what you want them to do. Ask them to answer these three questions and you will get golden responses:

  1. What were your perceptions of our organization/service/product before you knew more about us/used our product, and were you reluctant in any way to become involved or use our product?
  2. How did you feel as a result of your involvement with us/purchasing our product?
  3. What specific benefits did you get from this?

Confirm with them that they are happy for relevant comments to be quoted from their feedback to use in testimonials.

Think of ways you could use this principle for yourself in internal or external communication. Unleash people power by showing the responses of others and their successes through contact with your organization or by using your product.

Get expert support for your case when persuading

You can enlist third party endorsement in the form of expert support for the case you are making to decision makers. If you have an issue looming, or even a crisis, you can approach an expert such as a university professor or medical researcher to explain the situation and seek their support. If that person is willing, you can nominate them to media and stakeholders (including adversaries) as an independent person who can offer their considered view, which coincides with yours.

This observation stems from Prof. Robert Cialdini’s 5th principle of influence – the rule of authority. Cialdini says in his famous book, Influence – the psychology of persuasion, that “there is a deep-seated sense of duty to authority within us all.” We comply with authority figures, including experts: “Their positions speak of superior access to information and power…”

You may not even need to ask for their support. You may already know their view in principle or as previously expressed, and therefore you can safely suggest to others that the endorser is worth talking with or their view is worth accepting as a guide for you. Cialdini made the point that this should be done ethically: that “you should establish your position on a topic or issue through you professionalism, industry knowledge, your credentials and by first admitting weaknesses” [in your argument or case].

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