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How to Harness the Science of Persuasion

​Based on the article by Robert C. Cialdini published in the Harvard Business Review.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) writes, "If leadership consists of getting things done through others, then persuasion is one of the leader’s essential tools. Over the past few decades, experimental psychologists have learned which methods reliably lead people to concede, comply, or change." We take a look at Robert C. Cialdini’s classic HBR article published in October 2001, to walk you through the scientifically proven principles of persuasion.

Persuasion - it's not just for Politicians

Because leadership consists of getting things done through others, persuasion is one of the leader’s essential tools. Many people assume that persuasion is available only to the charismatic and the eloquent, like politicians, but there are methods anyone can use to reliably lead others to follow your cues.

Cialdini's 6 Principles

Over the past several decades, experimental psychologists have learned through research that persuasion is governed by several principles that can be taught and applied:

  • Reciprocity (or Reciprocation)

  • Scarcity

  • Authority

  • Consistency

  • Liking

  • Consensus

1. Reciprocity: You Get What You Give

Research confirms that people tend to treat you the way you treat them. If you’ve ever smiled at a colleague just because they smiled first, then you know how this principle works.

You can put this into action by doing a favour before seeking one or by giving people what you know they want to receive. Cialdini reported that when charitable organisations started adding a small gift, i.e. modest personalised address labels, to their fund-raising letters, the response rate from would-be donors increased from 18% to 35%.

Gift giving may be a crude example, however in a business environment the “gift” could be considered to be information or resources, as opposed to actual presents. You can use the method of reciprocating by displaying the behaviour you want to see in others, with the expectation that others will potentially follow suit. It's a great way to encourage and strengthen team working.

2. Scarcity: People Want More of What Is Least Available

People tend to want more of something when it’s difficult to acquire. Cialdini states that study after study shows that items and opportunities are deemed more valuable if they are, or become, scarce. If this holds true then exclusive information is more persuasive than widely available data. In the same way, unique benefits are more appealing than those that are available to everyone. You can use the power of exclusivity by sharing information with key players before sharing it more broadly, thus building up a sense of anticipation and desire for what you hold.

When it comes to using scarcity to persuade, take the effect of the pandemic into consideration. As soon as the first national lockdown was announced in March 2020, consumers first reaction was to buy more toilet rolls, sanitiser (for obvious reasons) and canned goods than normal. Once the media started sharing the images of stores without any toilet paper or sanitiser left on their shelves it sent the public into a spin, with more and more people stockpiling goods. The effect drove more sales and higher prices from some retailers, with the situation lasting for weeks before supply caught up and demand settled down.

This principle translates as much to consumer goods as it does to the benefit you or your team can bring to your business. If you're trying to persuade people to use what you're offering, reflect on your USP (your unique selling point). If you have a key quality that makes you different and is not widely available anywhere else, then you'll appear more valuable and desirable - as long as you can evidence this added value to whoever your business users or customers are.

3. Authority: People Defer To Experts

Now let’s talk about authority, the fifth principle. Studies show that people really do defer to experts. Don’t assume your expertise is self-evident, though. You must establish it with your audience. It’s easy to assume people know you’re the expert, but you can’t be sure unless you tell them, either directly or indirectly.

Take, for example, physiotherapists in a hospital. In one study, they assumed that stroke patients would take their advice about the importance of regular home exercise simply because they had given it. As it turned out, many patients were abandoning the routines when they left the hospital. Interviews revealed that the patients didn’t know much about the physical therapists’ training and their credentials, and did not recognise how important it was to follow their instructions. A simple change, displaying the therapists’ awards, diplomas, and certifications in the therapy rooms, increased compliance by 34%. As a result, because the patients then saw the physical therapists as experts, they became more likely to follow the therapists’ directions.

4. Consistency: People Stick To Commitments Made Publicly

When people say they’ll do something, they’re more likely to actually do it, because they want to appear consistent to others. Individuals tend to keep promises if they make them voluntarily and explicitly. Get commitments in writing; people try to live up to what they have written down and what's more, written statements become even more powerful if they’re made public.

Many studies prove the power of getting people to write down a commitment.

Cialdini wrote that researchers in Israel asked half the residents of a large apartment building to sign a petition supporting the establishment of a recreation centre for people with disabilities. Two weeks later, on a national holiday for people with disabilities, the researchers went back to ask for donations as well. Almost all of those who had signed the petition gave money, 92% in fact compared with only about half of those who hadn’t signed.

5. Liking: People Like Those Who Like Them

People are more willing to co-operate when they like each other and if you need to persuade people, it’s worth the time to do two things:

- Uncover real similarities between you

- Offer genuine praise.

You can use this principle to help repair a damaged or an unproductive relationship. Imagine you work with someone, for example, who appears not to trust you. Because they don't seem to trust you and question your actions, you don’t spend much time with them. As a result, the performance of both of your teams is suffering.

To turn this uncomfortable relationship around, you could find something about them that you sincerely admire, whether it’s their concern for the people in their department, their devotion to their family, or their work ethic. By making an appreciative comment about that trait, you show them that you value what they value, and in so doing you slowly begin to establish trust.

6. Consensus: People Follow The Lead of Others Who Are Similar To Them

People are more likely to follow someone who is similar to them than someone who is not. We rely heavily on the people around us for cues on how to think, feel, and act -otherwise known as social evidence. This is discussed in detail in the Netflix production The Social Dilemma and if you haven't watched it yet then do... it's a must see in our opinion.

Used in a principled way, a switched on manager can benefit from the outward effect of positive peer pressure, making their case by enlisting their team members’ peers as allies. In other words, using the power of advocacy to create movement towards their desired goal.

Going back to the effect of social media, when companies wish to launch a new product many turn to social influencers or celebrities to sell on their behalf. The more followers the influencer has, the more people are likely to buy and this self perpetuates others to follow suit. This is a form of social evidence of how the buyer should respond.

The same thing can work in business. If you’re trying to gain support for an initiative, you’re much more likely to get others’ backing if you show them that their peers have already bought in. The key is finding that one key person to start off with who is likely to back your idea or business case and help influence others to get on board with it too.

Dishonesty Doesn't Work

Use these six principles of persuasion judiciously and ethically. Manipulating colleagues into compliance by overstating your expertise or implying buy-in that doesn’t really exist will work only in the short run, if at all. When deception is detected, you will destroy your ability to persuade and very likely turn people against you.


While these principles are each important in their own right, they are most powerful when combined. Used together, these six principles will help you capture an audience, sway the undecided, and convert the opposition. For example, while you’re demonstrating to a potential new customer that you have the skills and experience that their issue demands, you can also learn about their background, likes, and dislikes - information that will help you to identify genuine similarities and give sincere compliments. And if you succeed in bringing that person on board, you may encourage other people to sign on as well, thanks to the power of consensus.

If you'd like to hear more from Robert C. Cialdini, try this video in which he explains his research in more detail.

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