Being influential matters now, perhaps more than ever

Apr 14, 2020 | Sector & policy

With a stuttering global economy and coronavirus pandemic, we’re experiencing a massive headwind in how we recruit and develop young people. It’s a tough world out there. Being influential matters now, perhaps more than ever. The Smarty Train’s Nikolai Koval-Radley shares three of the most powerful approaches that you can use to advance your early talent agenda.

Few words in any language elicit the same feeling as the word “yes”.

‘Your budget is approved’. ‘Your proposal is green-lighted’. ‘Your suggestions are being implemented. ‘Everyone agrees with your idea’. If you’re feeling a warm glow and wish you heard these words more often, you’re not alone. According to a recent poll I conducted of over 100 global graduate recruitment and development leaders, 93% wanted to get better at influencing.

Countless studies have shown that we tend to over-estimate how influential we are, with 85% of us believing we’re above average. We also tend to under-estimate how impressionable we are, with 93% of us believing we’re better than average.

These kinds of self-enhancement biases are incredibly normal. We also tend to think we’re better drivers, funnier and more ethical, than the rest of the population. According to research undertaken by the Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Khanemen, only 5% of our decision-making is conscious. The remaining 95% is rapid, visceral and automatic. We’re not really that in charge.

Research shows that influencing is not random. It is entirely predictable. It often utilises more of our unconscious decision-making and relies less on reason. And you can get better at it right now. Because it is also entirely learnable.

Here are three of the most powerful approaches that you can use to advance your early talent agenda:

1. Priming

Psychologist Bob Cialdini has shown through many intriguing experiments that it is not what we do in the moment, but what we do immediately prior, that has most sway on the brain. In one experiment, a man was tasked with asking random women on the streets of a French city to give him their numbers. In front of most shops 13.5% obliged him on average (he must’ve been handsome!). It rocketed to 35% in front of a specific kind of shop, however. A florist. Why? The simple, shared association of flowers with romance was powerful enough to double his chances of success. Specifically, in that moment, the women were more amenable to amorous advances.

So what are your stakeholders experiencing in the moment before you propose something? Consider your time and place and the mental/emotional associations you want your target to experience. Small, dank meeting rooms with no natural light are unlikely to elicit sensations of creativity or open mindedness, for example. If you want people to feel pioneering, highlight the last intelligent risk they took that paid off. Be subtle, mind you.

2. Feelings first

A study by the Washington Post tracked false statements made by Donald Trump over a four-year period. There were a staggering 12,000, but only 1% of his supporters changed their allegiance when presented with this evidence. Described as the ‘backfire effect’, the reason for it is simple: feelings are more powerful than facts.

Most people will defend opinions that are grounded in strong sentiments or beliefs and ignore contradictory evidence. Panic-buying loo roll, even when told supply chains are intact, is another example of how feelings can be more powerful than facts. The shelves are empty. The world must be ending!

A leader at a large accountancy firm we work with at The Smarty Train was extremely proud of their graduate programmes and inductions. “I went on [ours] 20 years ago and I’ve made Partner. There’s no need to change anything.” Sound familiar? Facts alone would fail here.

If you want to sway someone who has strong emotions about something, make them feel good first. Flatter them. Agree with them. Make them feel rewarded rather than threatened. Only then jump in with your business case and agitate with data. And do it softly.

3. The invisible hand

You’ve been hacked. Not your computer or your phone, though. Your brain. Advertisers, town planners, governments and healthcare providers have long exploited our unconscious decision-making tendencies to both selfish, and sometimes altruistic, ends. Termed ‘nudging’, subtle changes are made to our ‘choice architecture’ (a fancy way of saying the decision-making opportunities and information we experience) to encourage us to choose in a certain way.

Have you ever scrolled to the bottom of a new website, only to approve a pre-populated data privacy agreement, without looking? You’ve experienced a nudge. Ever gone the long way around a train station because you followed the signs, only to inadvertently add ten minutes to your journey? Nudged again. Dr. Steve Martin, an influence psychologist, helped the NHS reduce appointment no-shows by 18% and produce a £150m saving, just by having patients complete and sign their own appointment cards, rather than receiving one from the receptionist. The researchers exploited a well-documented phenomenon in which people seek to preserve consistency with previous actions. I personally signed, so I must’ve meant it.

A tiny change can make a massive difference. Some pioneering early talent influencers are using nudging already. What choices can you pre-populate for your grads and interns to help them grow, achieve and flourish? The answer is many, from nudging healthier relationships with work devices, to driving attendance on the learning courses your best performers attend. You can also nudge your boss. Present the results of a successful pilot against two less successful ones and you’re more likely to gain approval than by asking for permission to pilot at all. It’s simply an easier decision for your boss to make.

In a world of COVID19, social distancing and nerves, there’s no better time to revisit your strategies to get to ‘Yes’. Remember to put feelings first, facts second. What we do before and after also matters more than what we do in the moment.

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Tags: Covid-19


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