Influence Strategies that shaped the World: It seems Boris and Donald have more in common than just bad hair.

Okay yes, we got it wrong!  We figured the US election was going to be a predictable, boring affair and that the now President Elect Donald would get his much-deserved comeuppance for, well let’s be frank, being a lying, woman groping, tax avoiding, racist and all-round climate denying blow-hard. We figured logic would prevail throughout those great States of America and the school yard bully would be exposed for the imposter he was.  Wrong…. and wow were we wrong. How could this be?  Since the events of early November I’ve done some soul searching in coming to grips with this unexpected electoral outcome and, surprise surprise, the wonderful discipline of Psychology has once again come to my aid. The scientist/practitioner in me directed me back to a long interest in research concerning Influence tactics and how they may have played out in this election and in the UK’s game changing Brexit vote.

When it comes to understanding the research on influence and how it operates in the human context, no-one does it better than Gary Yukl, the US based thought leader and author of more than ten books concerning leadership and Influence tactics. For Yukl, it’s all a question of understanding the Influence tactics deployed by leaders and even more importantly, the likely response that each tactic may generate. In other words, how people will most likely respond. Yukl figured that there were at least nine different influence tactics and that each of them are used at one stage or another when we seek to influence others. The big secret however is that some of these tactics work much better than others and some of them, particularly the ones that are used most frequently, simply do not get the results we would wish for. Let’s consider the nine most commonly described in the Yukl research: inspiration, consultation, exchange, pressure, rational persuasion, ingratiation, personal appeal, legitimisation and coalition. For our purposes we need look no further than Rational Persuasion, the tactic that is used most frequently by leaders and legislators and characterised by relying on facts and logic as the basis of argument. But here comes the catch – while used most frequently by leaders, rational persuasion generates resistance in over 47% of the situations in which it is deployed. It generates compliance in 30% of the times deployed and elicits commitment in only 23% of the times deployed. In other words, rational, logical, factually based influence tactics are not necessarily the most effective way to bring about an outcome you would hope for. Sure it gets some people to do what you would want them to do some of the time, but for another very significant group (particularly when it comes to things like a democratic election) it is nowhere near the all-powerful   phenomena we think it is. Of course this will come as no surprise to our clinical and social psychology colleagues who have known for many years that just because something can be empirically shown to be deleterious, we will all studiously stay well clear of that negative behaviour; think smoking, driving under the influence and unhealthy eating behaviours.

Now back to Donald and Boris. Donald it would seem knew better than all the experts in eschewing a fact-based campaign in favour of one driven by exaggeration, denial, aggression, blame and intimidation. He used social media and Twitter like a sixteen year old with insomnia and while we all scoffed, a winning percentage of the population loved it.  In short he was able to inspire (the strategy typically least used by leaders in the Yukl research) enough people to buy something that simply was not rational, not logical and not able to be supported by the facts. When he provoked the crowds to chant “lock her up” he didn’t give much of a thought to the legal niceties of the rant but it was enough to provide a large number of very disaffected, angry people with a Berlin 1939 rally call.  When he spoke of “acid washing emails” you wonder if he had the slightest idea of what he was talking about but it all worked! He, in accordance with the research based definition of the term was able to be inspirational (making a request or proposal that arouses the recipients enthusiasm by appealing to their ideals and aspirations). Yukl’s research shows inspiration as an influencing tactic invites negligible resistance, generates only 10% compliance and elicits commitment 90% of the time.        

One of the big mistakes associated with the recent Brexit poll and US election campaign has been the erroneous assumption that the “fact checker” would ultimately prevail; that people when presented with the facts, the truth and hard data will simply fall in line with an eminently sensible, logical conclusion. Wrong…  across the Atlantic six months earlier what Boris and the Brexit vandals knew was that if you tell a big enough lie, often enough, people will buy it. More importantly what the “stay in Europe” advocates missed was the misapplication of another important Influence strategy; the legitimising tactic. They figured that if enough important people including the German Chancellor, The French and US Presidents and just about anyone else with an Economics degree argued for a “stay in” then ought the bulk of the British population; wrong! Yukl’s research again provides us with an important clue. Using a legitimising influence tactic ( claiming a higher authority) invites a whole lot of resistance, in fact 44% of the time. Legitimising does generate compliance 56% of the time but guess what, it elicits real commitment 0% of the time. So when the Brexit team came up with the “Big Red Bus” that told a “Big Red Lie” it actually inspired a lot of people.

So what does this all mean for we mortals in the world of leadership and people management?

For me it has meant a profound reappraisal of the strategies and tactics that ought be considered as I seek to influence others. It suggests that as I seek to influence, a sole reliance on facts and logic tells only part of the story and apart from telling a big red lie, if I truly want to influence and lead, I will continually need to think about how I can better inspire and engage with the people that are in my world.    

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