Six Principles of Influence for Leaders

Influential people make things happen. What’s more, they rarely struggle to get others to follow their lead or listen to their point of view. 

How effectively do you wield influence to enhance your impact as a leader?

Influential leaders change the behavior of others, nudging them to do or think what they want them to, either in the absence of authority or without having to invoke authority. In 2018, researchers Lorinkova, Pearsall, and Simms found that leaders who maintain an influential / empowering leadership style outperform more directive counterparts—those who rely more on authority and tell people what to do.

In other words, influence pays!

To understand how to develop more influence, you must first become a student of human behavior and motivation. Much of what I learned about influence—and the research and principles I share with you here—stems from Robert Cialdini’s seminal book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. If this article inspires you to learn more, I recommend Cialdini’s book as your next step.

For a moment, though, leave your books and screens and join me on the grasslands of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, just a few moments before sunset. 

Picture a freeze-frame of your view, which includes a cheetah chasing a gazelle across the flat, dry landscape. That image, as you see it in your mind’s eye, isolates the root causes of every behavior.

The cheetah chases the gazelle for sustenance; to get something “good.” The gazelle runs from the cheetah to preserve its life; to avoid something “bad.” The root cause of every animal behavior—not just human behavior—is some combination of getting something good or avoiding something bad. As you learn more about influence, motivation, and behavioral change, you will come to understand that those two universal motivators are at the root of every decision and action your employees, customers, partners, and suppliers make and take. 

Helping others get what they want and/or avoid what they don’t is the foundational bedrock of building influence. 

With that foundation in mind, let’s explore six research-based principles of influence and how you can use them to become even more effective as a leader.

Use the Word “Because”

The word “because” is a point of influence. To understand why, consider the following study conducted at Harvard University:

There was often a long line of people waiting to use the copy machine in the library (this was, of course, back in the day when people made more copies than we do today!). Researchers hired someone to ask to cut the line in three different ways. In the first situation, the person cutting the line said, “Excuse me, I have five pages to copy. May I use the copy machine because I’m in a rush?” Ninety-four percent of the time, they were allowed to cut into the line. 

In the next situation, the person said, “Excuse me, I have five pages to copy; may I use the copy machine?” and 60 percent of the time, they were allowed to cut in line. 

The last scenario really drives home the impact of “because” when it comes to influence.  Here’s what the line-cutter said: “Excuse me, I have five pages, may I use the copy machine, because I have to make some copies.” In this case, there was 93 percent compliance—virtually the same rate as the situation involving a full, logical explanation—despite the fact that the person didn’t explain why they needed to cut at all. The results indicate that what comes after the word “because” really doesn’t matter—you get the same outcome regardless of what you say. 

Are you using the word “because” enough? Given its influence, you should incorporate it when you make a request, offer up an idea, or present a proposal to help sway others toward your desired outcome. 

Invoke the Law of Reciprocity

The Law of Reciprocity states that anytime you give away something of perceived value, the recipient will have a strong urge to return the favor. Researchers at Cornell University ran a study where subjects found themselves rating artwork alongside another person who worked for the researchers as a plant. There were two conditions: During a break in the art appreciation study, the plant either walked out and brought the other participant a soda or walked out and returned empty handed.

At the end of the art study, the plant asked the research subject if they would be interested in buying some raffle tickets. The plant explained that they were working for a charitable cause, and there was a $50 prize for the person who sold the most tickets. Far more tickets were sold to the subjects who had received the soda as a favor. Why? The Law of Reciprocity tells us they likely felt obligated to reciprocate, due to the plant’s generosity.

If you’ve ever bought a product at a grocery store or farmers’ market simply because someone handed you a sample, you’ve experienced the Law of Reciprocity firsthand. You can harness its power to influence business decisions as well. When you make a concession, you are giving away something of value. Thanks to the Law of Reciprocity, a concession tends to foster a sense of obligation.

Be strategic about what you choose to give away to invoke this point of influence. Build room for concessions into your ideas and proposals, rather than cutting right to the bottom line, to increase the chances that the deal will go through on your terms. And before you move on, ask yourself: When was the last time I did something thoughtful and unexpected for someone I wanted to influence?

Draw Contrast

You can also use contrast—big vs. small, expensive vs. inexpensive, the “best” option vs. a lesser one—as a point of influence, often to great effect. This is why car dealers pitch add-ons to your brand-new vehicle after you’ve already agreed to spend the big bucks. 

Studies in the retail industry have borne this out. Traditionally, salespeople sold smaller items first and worked up to bigger-ticket merchandise, say, suggesting a shirt or tie in a men’s clothing store before attempting to sell a full suit. The research, however, shows that it’s far more effective to do the exact opposite. Here’s why: 

If I spend $25 on a tie and you show me a $450 suit, the $450 will seem an even greater amount than it really is in comparison to the anchor price of $25 I first had in mind. That’s the Law of Contrast at work. Meanwhile, if you show me the suit first, anchoring me to the higher $450 amount, a $50 shirt and $25 tie will seem much less expensive in comparison. 

We’ve seen the Law of Contrast play out in history as well. The Watergate break-in that led to the end of Nixon’s presidency is a great example. G. Gordon Liddy, who masterminded the whole thing, ultimately received $250,000 to fund the operation—in untraceable cash—an amount approved by the Republican National Committee (RNC). 

Back in the early 1970s, $250,000 was a whole lot of money—which might make you wonder how the RNC could possibly have approved it. Unsurprisingly, the Law of Contrast played a large role. Liddy’s original proposal included a request of $2.5 million, a custom aircraft, and all kinds of sophisticated surveillance equipment. Of course, the RNC recoiled from this unthinkably extravagant and risky plan. 

But when he came back and said, “Well, how about $250,000, then?” it looked like a real bargain. They didn’t question it. In fact, they barely even discussed it before approving the funds. The rest, of course, is history.

So, relative to the law of contrast, do you deliberately anchor big (or small) first, and then work down (or up) to the right fit? How can you use the law of contrast to create more influence?

Point Out the Negatives

Every situation has pros and cons. When you present both as part of your proposals and ideas, you appear more trustworthy, and thus become more influential. 

When you point out the potential negatives of your own idea, others assume that your thinking is crafted such that the positives significantly outweigh the negatives, which helps them understand your willingness to share. And because customers, clients, and team members will feel as if they’re being given the whole story, they won’t be forced to rely on their imagination to speculate “what’s she not telling me,” or “what is his real agenda here.” You’ll also set yourself apart from any competitors, who are likely hiding their own negatives for fear of losing out on the deal. 

Are you rounding out your presentations and proposals by including some of the potential risks and negatives? If not, give it a try. Chances are, you’ll find the other person on your side of the table more often than not. 

Establish Consistency

Have you ever been in an argument and, after a while, all that mattered—regardless of what it was about or whether you felt you were right—was that you won? Research on Consistency Bias indicates that when you take a stance on an idea or issue, you will tend to defend and honor your belief, whether right or wrong. 

In 2001, three German researchers, Brandstatter, Langselder, and Gollwitzer, conducted a fascinating study on this influencing behavior. They asked people housed in a drug rehab facility to prepare résumés to be used after their release. They were divided into two groups. One group—the control—was asked to draft their résumés by the end of the day; they weren’t given any further instruction. The second group was asked to make a plan to complete them by writing down the following statement: “When I finish my lunch today and clear my table space, then I will begin to work on my résumé.”

The results were astounding. None of the members of the control group finished their résumés. That same day, 80 percent of the other group completed theirs. 

Human behavior is governed by a rule of consistency—we behave in a manner that aligns with our conception of ourselves. In the case of this study, a simple written statement of intention was all it took!

This phenomenon of consistency is also known as the “foot in the door technique,” and in the mid-1960s, researchers Freedman and Frazier demonstrated the true magnitude of its potential impact. A researcher went door-to-door in a residential California neighborhood and made an outrageous request of homeowners. They asked if they could place a huge billboard on the front lawn, featuring a public service announcement—something like “Drive Carefully.”  Unsurprisingly, 83 percent of homeowners said “no.” 

Interestingly, though, people in another neighborhood had a very different response. In fact, 76 percent of them agreed to post a big billboard in their yard. The prime reason for their remarkable compliance had something to do with what happened two weeks before, when they were asked to make a small commitment to driver safety. 

A different volunteer came to their door two weeks earlier and asked them to display a three-inch square sign in their window that read, “Be a safe driver.” It was such a small request that nearly everybody agreed to it. But the effect—thanks to the phenomenon of consistency—was so enormous that when the outrageous request came along two weeks later, 76 percent agreed to it. Had they dismissed it, they would have felt internal conflict because they had already committed to and taken a stand on the issue when they agreed to display the little sign.

The moral of Consistency Bias? Seek small commitments before asking for larger ones. Integrate this key influence strategy into all of your processes—including the ways in which you manage people, build relationships, and close deals. Keep thinking, How can I get others to agree to things in principle and then use that to advance my idea / proposal / agenda later?

Create Association

We tend to like things that are endorsed by people we respect. We use clues like titles, clothing, and professions to determine whether we should proceed with a particular recommendation. For example, when your doctor prescribes a horrible tasting medicine, or one that upsets your stomach, you are going to comply with their request because you respect their expertise.

There has been ample research in this area, and it’s further supported by the advertising industry’s love affair with celebrity spokespeople. About three years ago, US-based health insurer Cigna engaged TV doctors, including Patrick Dempsey from Grey’s Anatomy, to drive brand awareness and promote annual physical exams. In the televised advertisements, the TV doctors highlight their lack of expertise before encouraging viewers to head to a real doctor. Cigna created a double whammy of association—celebrities who also posed as doctors! Best of all (for them), the campaign was highly effective: Cigna experienced a 55 percent positive sentiment rate after the launch, compared to an average of 8 percent for its competitors. 

How can you use endorsements to earn compliance and agreement? Who has credibility and the power of association with the people you want to influence?


The six principles of influence we’ve enumerated are powerful catalysts that will improve your effectiveness as a leader. Here’s a quick recap: 

  • Use the Word “Because”
  • Invoke the Law of Reciprocity
  • Draw Contrast
  • Point Out the Negatives
  • Establish Consistency
  • Create Association

As with most things in life, these ideas are only useful if you take action and do something with them—not next week or next month, but today! 

Each of the principles is a learned behavior, which implies that you cannot magically absorb and internalize them overnight. Rather, the path to mastery—as with any other worthy capability—requires continual repetition, feedback, and adjustment over time. 

As best-selling author and leadership expert John C. Maxwell says: “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” With that final nod to the principle of Association, I wish you increased influence and growth in your leadership.


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