Influence - Principles of Management

Power gives a person, team, or unit the opportunity to exert influence over organizational outcomes. Influence is power in action. Exerting influence means using power to shape the attitudes, behavior, and decisions of others within and outside the organization. Here we look at the various steps managers take to accumulate power and influence others to get things done in organizations. We start with a review of influence tactics, and then we discuss the consequences of applying different influence tactics, looking at preferred tactics.


Influence tactics are the steps that people can take to exert influence over others in an organization, thereby achieving their goals. If successfully applied, influence tactics can enable even junior managers who lack substantial sources of power to have an impact on the behavior and decisions of others within their organization, including the CEO. They can shape organizational outcomes.

For example, consider the actions of a young software engineer, William Pearson, who was working in the marketing department of discount broker Charles Schwab in the mid-1990s. At the time the World Wide Web was just emerging as a communication platform for the Internet. Pearson quickly saw the transformational power of the Web and realized that it would make obsolete the clunky proprietary software that Schwab’s customers were using to access their accounts online.

Using the Web as their platform, discount brokers such as E*Trade were growing rapidly and offering their clients the ability to execute trades online—something Schwab’s customers could not do. Pearson thought such companies would soon take market share from Schwab unless Schwab also moved its online business to the Web. Try as he might, however, Pearson could not get his supervisor at Schwab interested.

Frustrated, he mentioned his ideas to other managers, but they too took no action. The basic problem was that Pearson had no power within the organization. Even though his vision of the future was correct, he could not influence Schwab’s strategy.

Then Pearson contacted a former Schwab manager, Anne Hennegar, who now worked as a consultant to the company. He asked Hennegar for help. She suggested meeting with an executive vice president, Tom Seip, who was known for his aversion to Schwab’s bureaucracy. Hennegar contacted Seip, who quickly agreed to the meeting and asked if he could include a couple of “friends.” When Hennegar and Pearson turned up for the meeting, they were surprised to find that in addition to Seip, CEO Charles Schwab and COO David Pottruck were there.

Pearson demonstrated a Web-based interface for what he called E-Schwab to the assembled senior executives. Within an hour Charles Schwab decided to establish a Web-based platform for Schwab that would let customers trade stocks online. Pearson had succeeded in shifting the strategy of Schwab. He had done this by resorting to a classic influence tactic: appeal to a higher authority. He went outside the normal chain of command and appealed to a senior manager with power and influence who was known for his maverick views, Tom Seip.

Appealing to a higher authority is one of several influence tactics. Others include silent authority, assertiveness, network building, exchange, coalition formation, ingratiation, impression management, persuasion, and information control. These influence tactics are both a way of accumulating more power within an organization, and a way of using the power that a person has to shape organizational outcomes. Moreover, with the right influence tactics, even people with limited power can have an impact, as William Pearson did at Schwab.

Silent Authority The silent application of authority (what we call silent authority ) occurs when someone complies with a request because of the requester’s legitimate hierarchical power as well as the target person’s role expectations. We often refer to this condition as deference to authority. This deference occurs when you comply with your boss’s request to complete a particular task. If the task is within your job scope and your boss has the right to make this request, then this influence strategy operates without negotiation, threats, persuasion, or other tactics.

Silent authority is often overlooked as an influence strategy. However, it is a common form of influence in many cultures. Japanese culture, for example, teaches that those lower down in a hierarchy should accept the authority of their superiors. Employees comply with supervisor requests without question because they respect the supervisor’s higher authority in the organization.

Silent authority can also work through role modeling when a manager tries to influence the action of a subordinate by modeling desired behaviors. One study reported that Japanese managers typically influence subordinates by engaging in the behaviors they want employees to mimic.

Assertiveness In contrast to silent authority, assertiveness might be called “vocal authority” because it involves actively applying hierarchical power to influence others. Assertiveness includes persistently reminding subordinates of their obligations, frequently checking their work, confronting them, and using threats of sanctions to force compliance. A manager using assertiveness typically applies or threatens to apply punishment if a subordinate does not comply with requests.

Explicit or implicit threats range from job loss to losing face by letting down the team. Extreme forms of assertiveness include blackmailing colleagues, such as by threatening to reveal previously unknown failures unless a person complies with your request. As you might imagine, assertiveness is a rather blunt and unappealing influence tactic, and it can backfire, producing resistance from subordinates.

Network Building We have already discussed how networks of allies can be a source of power and help managers get things done within an organization. As an influence tactic, network building involves actively seeking out and establishing relationships with people who may prove useful in the future. We have seen how the young Lyndon Johnson went out of his way to build a network that included powerful people, such as Sam Rayburn, who could help him in the future. Active network builders understand the importance of social relationships.

They spend time cultivating people who may be useful, such as by going to events where they are likely to encounter others whom they can incorporate into their network. Good network builders recognize and accept that networking is a two-way street and that norms of reciprocity are important in building and maintaining networks. If you want people to help you, you must be prepared to help them in return—you must engage in exchanges. If you do not, you will be seen as selfish, your reputation will suffer, and the network you have built will dissolve.

Exchange As an influence tactic, exchange involves the promise of benefits or resources in exchange for another party’s compliance with your request. Exchange is often embedded within networks, and this is how people maintain and use the networks they have built to exert influence. Exchange can involve proactively helping someone in the expectation that the favor will be returned or reminding people of past benefits or favors with the expectation that they will now make up for that debt. Clearly the norm of reciprocity is a central and explicit theme in exchange strategies.

Negotiation is also an integral part of exchange influence tactics. For instance, you might negotiate with your boss for a day off in return for working a less desirable shift at a future date. Here you are using negotiation to agree on the terms of an exchange. Thus you might propose, “If you give me Friday off, I will work the graveyard shift next week.”

Coalition Formation A coalition is a group of people that comes together to cooperate in attaining a certain goal. Coalition formation is closely related to network building and exchange. When people lack sufficient power on their own to influence others in the organization, they might form a coalition of allies who support a proposed change. Often that coalition is drawn from a manager’s network, and it may be held together by prior exchanges or the expectation of future exchanges (that is, by norms of reciprocity).

A coalition is influential in three ways. First, it pools the power and resources of many people to gain influence. Second, if large enough, the coalition’s mere existence can be a source of power by symbolizing the legitimacy of an issue. In other words, a coalition creates a sense that an issue deserves attention because it has broad support. Third, coalitions can create social cohesion among participants who emotionally identify with it. As such, conditions can become potent forces for changes in norms and behaviors. If a coalition has a broad-based membership drawn from various parts of an organization, it can be particularly effective.

Other employees are more likely to identify with a broad-based group and consequently accept the coalition’s ideas.

Appeal to a Higher Authority Appeal to a higher authority involves trying to exert influence by passing over your immediate superior and appealing to someone higher in the organization.
This is a risky but potentially effective influence tactic. As we saw, a frustrated William Pearson adopted this tactic at Schwab. It is risky because your boss may not appreciate being circumvented and could punish you for this. Before you pursue the strategy, therefore, you should be sure you have a strong case and that attempts to influence outcomes through regular hierarchical channels are not working.

An interesting recent example of the value of appealing to a higher authority concerns the TV show American Idol, which was based on a hit British TV show, Pop Idol. In 2001 the two promoters behind Pop Idol, Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller, tried to persuade American TV networks to license a version of the show. They hired Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to help them pitch Pop Idol to American TV networks.

In meeting after meeting they met silence and blank looks. Executives at ABC and UPN passed. Finally executives at the Fox TV network in Los Angeles showed some interest, but progress toward signing a deal was slow. To push things along, executives from CAA exploited a connection the agency had with Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert Murdoch, the founder and CEO of News Corp., which owns Fox.

Elisabeth Murdoch runs a News Corp. subsidiary in Britain, the BSkyB satellite channel. She knew how successful Pop Idol had been in Britain. When she heard that executives at Fox were dragging their feet, she quickly called her father, urging him to buy the rights. In turn, Rupert Murdoch called the senior Fox executive in Los Angeles and asked how the deal to sign Pop Idol was going. He replied, “We’re still looking at it.” Murdoch shot back, “Don’t look at it. Buy it! Right now.”

The show, American Idol, went on to become a huge ratings success for Fox. The decision to sign it at Fox, however, was made only after indirect appeal to a higher authority—in this case CEO Rupert Murdoch—through a contact that had been made via networking: his daughter, Elisabeth Murdoch. Managers at CAA had cleverly hit on the right influence tactic.

Ingratiation Appeals to a higher authority, assertiveness, and coalitions are forceful ways to influence other people. At the opposite extreme is a “soft” influence tactic called ingratiation, which involves any attempt to increase the extent to which someone likes you. Ingratiation is a useful influence tactic because as a rule, most people prefer to comply with requests from people they know and like.

Flattering your boss in front of others, helping coworkers with their work, exhibiting similar attitudes (such as agreeing with your boss’s proposal to change company policies), and seeking the other person’s counsel (asking for his or her advice) are all examples of ingratiation. Research has shown that collectively, ingratiation behaviors are better than most other forms of influence at predicting career success as measured by performance appraisal feedback, salaries, and promotions.

Psychologically, ingratiation works by increasing the perceived similarity between a person and the target of the ingratiation effort, which causes the target (your boss for example) to form a more favorable opinion of you. However, it is not quite this simple. People who are obvious in their ingratiation efforts risk losing influence because their behaviors may be considered insincere and self-serving. The terms “apple polishing” and “brown-nosing” are applied to those who ingratiate to excess or in ways that suggest selfish motives for the ingratiation.

Research confirms that people who engage in high levels of explicit ingratiation are less influential and less likely to be promoted. There is, in other words, an inverted U-shaped relationship between ingratiation efforts and influence (see Figure below). Moderate ingratiation efforts can increase influence, but excessive ingratiation reduces influence. So ingratiation should be subtle and genuine, not obvious and overdone.

Impression Management Ingratiation is part of an influence tactic known as impression management, which is the process of actively shaping our public images. These public images might be crafted as being important, vulnerable, threatening, hardworking, rational, critical, or pleasant. For the most part employees routinely engage in pleasant impression management tactics to satisfy the basic norms of social behavior. Thus they may dress in accordance with established norms, ask others how they are doing, express concerns over bad

Ingratiation and Influence

personal news, offer to help colleagues and customers solve problems, and so on. Impression management is a common strategy for people trying to get ahead in the workplace. An extreme example of impression management occurs when people pad their résumés.

As with ingratiation, employees who use too much impression management tend to be less influential because their behaviors are viewed as insincere. Impression management can also backfire if it involves exaggeration, as in the case of résumé padding. In a recent example, Fox News Channel thought it had found an asset when it hired a gruff, barrel-chested former military man as a consultant to help in its coverage of fighting in Afghanistan.

Joseph Cafasso claimed that he had won the Silver Star for bravery, had served in Vietnam, and was part of the secret failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980. Moreover, Cafasso had an impressive network of contacts in military and political circles that he had built up over the years, including a stint as an organizer for the presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan. However, after more than four months, during which he appeared on Fox News numerous times, he was suddenly dropped from the channel.

It had been discovered that his credentials, which people at Fox and elsewhere had taken at face value, were false. Records indicated that his total military experience consisted of 44 days in boot camp in 1976, after which he was honorably discharged as a private, first class! Cafasso’s fall proves that honesty is best in impression management.

Persuasion Along with ingratiation, persuasion is one of the most effective influence tactics for career success. The ability to present facts, logical arguments, and emotional appeals to change another person’s attitudes and behavior is not just an acceptable way to influence others; in many societies this is a noble art and a quality of effective leaders.

The literature on influence tactics has typically described persuasion as the use of reason through factual evidence and logical arguments. However, recent studies have begun to adopt a “dual process” perspective in which persuasion is an attempt to influence somebody both by the use of reason and by appeals that evoke an emotional response that leads the listener to identify with the goals of the speaker.

The ability to tap into the emotions of others has been shown through history to be a particularly powerful persuasion tactic. Hitler used it, as did Gandhi. President John F. Kennedy encapsulated American foreign policy and evoked an emotional response from the people of Berlin with the phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and Martin Luther King moved a nation with his famous “I have a dream” speech. Eloquent words are a source of power and influence not just because they appeal to our rational side, but also because they elicit an emotional response that involves identification with what the speaker is trying to achieve.

The effectiveness of persuasion as an influence tactic depends on characteristics of the persuader, message content, communication medium, and the audience being persuaded.

What makes one person more persuasive than another? One factor is the perceived expertise of the speaker. Persuasion attempts are more successful when listeners believe the speaker knows the topic. The ability of the speaker to use eloquent language in an engaging manner is also critically important, as so many great speakers have demonstrated.

Message content can be as important as the messenger is when the issue is important to the audience. Persuasive message content acknowledges several competing points of view and carefully assembles arguments against those that are at variance with the speaker’s position.

Such an approach elicits more credibility than one that simply ignores competing points of view. The message should also be limited to a few strong arguments, which are repeated a few times but not too frequently. The message content should use emotional appeals (for example, by graphically showing the unfortunate consequences of a bad decision), but only incombination with logical arguments so the audience doesn’t feel manipulated.

Moreover, emotional appeals directed at a threat should always be accompanied with specific recommendations to overcome the threat. It’s not enough, for example, for a manager to state, “This new technology could put us out of business.” The manager also needs to show how a project he is proposing could avert this fate. Finally, message content is more persuasive when the audience is warned about opposing arguments. This inoculation effect causes listeners to generate counterarguments to the anticipated opposition, which makes any subsequent persuasion attempt by the opposition less effective.

Two other considerations in persuading people are the medium of communication and characteristics of the audience. Generally persuasion works best in face-to-face situations and through other media-rich communication channels. The personal nature of face-to-face communication increases the persuader’s credibility, and the richness of this channel provides faster feedback about whether the influence strategy is working.

With respect to audience characteristics, it is more difficult to persuade people who have high self-esteem and intelligence, and it is very difficult to change people’s attitudes and behaviors if they are strongly connected to their self-images.

Information Control Persuasion typically involves selectively presenting information, whereas information control involves explicitly manipulating others’ access to information in order to change their attitudes or behavior. People often trumpet information that presents them in a good light while suppressing information that raises questions about their performance.

An example would be the CEO who presents a favorable picture of the company’s performance to the board of directors while failing to inform them about negative developments in the business. The problem with this kind of influence tactic is that it can backfire if those who have been denied access to important information discover that they have been deliberately kept in the dark. CEOs, for example, have been fired by boards that discovered they were being misled about the true state of their companies.


Now that we have reviewed the main tactics used to influence people, you are probably wondering which influence tactics are the most useful. The best way to answer this question is to identify the three ways in which people react when others try to influence them: resistance, compliance, or commitment.

Resistance occurs when people or work units object to the behavior that somebody with power is requiring of them and refuse to engage in it, argue about it, or try to delay engaging in the behavior. Compliance occurs when people comply with a request, but only because they have to, and they exert the minimum level of effort required. They do what they are asked, but that is all.

Commitment occurs when people identify with the request of somebody trying to influence them and internalize that request, adopting it as their own. Commitment is associated with greater motivation to work toward the ends requested by the influencer. Commitment is thus the strongest consequence of influence and is what the influencer should aim for.

As noted, moderate ingratiation and impression management efforts can produce commitment. However, excessive ingratiation and impression management efforts can produce resistance or at best compliance. Beyond this, in general commitment is more likely when the influencer uses “soft” tactics such as persuasion, network building, and exchange to get things done. “Hard” influence tactics such as assertiveness and appeal to a higher authority might produce compliance but not commitment, and in the worst case they can lead to resistance.

For example, research has shown that coalitions are often successful, but their effect may be limited to compliance rather than commitment when the coalition is assertive and threatening in its approach.

This does not mean that hard tactics should not be used; but the evidence suggests that they should be adopted only when soft tactics have failed to produce the desired result, and the issue is important enough to risk resistance. The problem with hard tactics is that they can undermine trust, which can hurt future attempts to get things done through influence.

For example, a manager who appeals over the head of her boss directly to the CEO to get backing for a proposal that her boss turned down might get her way; but her immediate boss might now feel that his authority has been undermined and view that manager with suspicion going forward.

Apparently this is what occurred to William Pearson at Schwab. Although Pearson was successful in drawing the attention of top management to the threat posed by the World Wide Web, the meeting with Schwab was the high point of his career. In subsequent performance appraisals Pearson’s manager, whose authority had been circumvented, stated that Pearson was “not a team player.”

Aside from a general preference for softer influence tactics, a number of contingencies affect the choice of influence tactic. One contingency is the influencer’s power base. Those with expertise tend to be more successful at influence when using persuasion, whereas those with a strong hierarchical power base are usually more successful in applying silent authority.

Another important contingency concerns where the target of influence activities is located within the organization. Somebody trying to influence peers should probably focus more on persuasion, network building, exchange, and coalition formation, and less on assertiveness or appeal to a higher authority, both of which might generate resentment among peers.

Assertiveness, appeal to a higher authority, and information control are particularly risky tactics when applied to a superior in a hierarchy. But it is more acceptable for superiors to influence their subordinates through information control.

Another contingency of some significance is the personal values of the target, which may be determined by sociocultural factors. A general trend in North America, for example, is toward softer influence tactics because younger employees tend to have more egalitarian values than those nearing retirement. As such, silent authority and assertiveness are tolerated less than a few decades ago.

Acceptance of influence tactics also varies across cultures. Canadian and American managers and subordinates alike often rely on persuasion and moderate ingratiation because these techniques minimize conflict and support a trusting relationship. In contrast, managers in Hong Kong rely less on ingratiation, possibly because this tactic disrupts the more distant roles that managers and employees expect in these cultures. Instead influence through exchange tends to be more common and accepted in Asian cultures than in the United States, perhaps due to the long tradition of reciprocity in these cultures.

A final contingency relates to gender. Men and women seem to differ in their use of influence tactics. Men seem more likely than women to rely on direct impression management tactics. Men tend to advertise their achievements and take personal credit for successes of others reporting to them, whereas women are more reluctant to force the spotlight on themselves, often preferring to share the credit with others. At the same time women are more likely to apologize (personally take blame) even for problems not caused by them. Men are more likely to assign blame and less likely to assume it.

Some research also suggests that women generally have difficulty exerting some forms of influence in organizations, and this has limited their promotional opportunities. In particular, women are viewed as less (not more) influential when they try to influence others by exerting their authority or expertise. In job interviews, for example, direct and assertive female job applicants are less likely to be hired than male applicants using the same influence tactics.

Similarly, women who directly disagree in conversations are less influential than women who agree with the speaker. These findings suggest that women may face problems applying hard influence tactics such as assertiveness. Instead, until stereotypes change, women need to rely on softer and more indirect influence strategies, such as ingratiation.

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