Professor Robert Cialdini’s groundbreaking research and his six principles of persuasion have been very influential with social scientists, marketers, and policy-makers, and have been applied in different contexts, from fund-raising to consumer and marketing research. Many of you are no doubt familiar with these principles of persuasion, which I summarize here:
1. Liking: people like those who like them, so find out what things you might have in common with others and give them positive recognition or praise.
2. Reciprocity: people “give and take” and they tend to respond in kind. If you behave in a collaborative way, they will tend to do the same.
3. Social proof: people tend to rely on cues for how others think, feel and act, especially with people who are like them. Therefore, they can be more easily persuaded if they are made aware of others’ opinions or behavior, especially if these are people they like and/or respect.
4. Consistency: people want to be consistent, so have them make public commitments about what they will do and they will want to align their behaviors with these statements.
5. Authority: people tend to defer to experts or those in positions of authority.
6. Scarcity: people tend to value things more if they are rare or not easily available. Therefore, creating situations where people feel they will miss out if they do not act can be effective in influencing them.
The research and the applications of these six principles have been impressive, and the evidence for their effectiveness has been strong. However, I have not seen many applications of his work in the organizational setting, although recently, Cialdini (2013) did publish an article with examples of how managers can use these principles. Furthermore, some have questioned whether these principles apply cross-culturally. Recent research has not been definitive on this. For example, Schouten (2008) showed that the authority principle (or source expertise, as she calls this) seems to be an effective compliance strategy across the Dutch, Turkish, and Moroccan groups she studied. On the other hand, a study by Cialdini and his colleagues (Petrova et al, 2007) showed that consistency-based compliance tactics were more effective with U.S. students than Asian students (including Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese). The authors hypothesized that this technique would work better with people from individualistic cultures like the U.S. than with collectivistic cultures. Other research has shown mixed results. Cialdini has argued that these principles do apply across cultures, although their weights can vary.
In addition, since these principles were first proposed over 15 years ago, are these principles as relevant today? For example, there has been an erosion in the respect that people sometimes confer on authority; with information being so readily available, people do not seem to hold as much faith in expertise as they used to. Witness the rise of so-called fake news, where people are more willing to believe information that conforms with their views, regardless of the source. In the organizational setting, workers expect to have a greater voice in decision-making than in the past. We have also seen the emergence of more complex organizational forms such as matrix organizations, where people might have two or more bosses, and/or where lines of authority have become more ambiguous and more complex.
In my experience, I believe these six principles are still worth considering for managers in the workplace today, with some adjustments; here are four suggestions for how they can best be applied. First, even before considering applying these principles, make sure that you build trust with those you wish to influence. Developing trust is very important in business and personal relationships, and perhaps even more so when building relationships across cultures. Once you have established trust with your global colleagues, you will be able to build a more fruitful working relationship and influence them more effectively. However, the way you build trust may vary by culture. The evidence suggests that in individualistic cultures, trust is built primarily on competence, while in collectivistic cultures, trust is built through relationships. In fact, in many parts of the world, building relationships takes precedence over immediately working on the task requirements.
Like empathy, researchers have identified two types of trust: affective- and cognitive-based trust. The former is about building the emotional bond between persons, while the latter is more concerned with gains and losses, and where competence and reliability are important qualifications for trust to occur. In some cultures, cognitive-based trust is necessary before affective-based trust develops, while in other cultures, affective-based trust may have to be established before cognitive-based trust is built. For example, Kwan and Hong (2014) state: “In Chinese organizations, it is possible that affective-based trust serves as the foundation for cognitive-based trust development; that is, trusting someone’s abilities follows when guanxi (affective-based trust) has been developed.” (p. 102) Western leaders who are working with colleagues and business partners from collectivistic cultures would do well to spend time building and nurturing relationships, and/or establishing connections with their colleagues’ in-group. As a general rule, I advise my clients to remember the three Cs of trust-building: find commonality or connections, show competence, and establish credibility.
Second, and this is related to the first, ask yourself whether your goal is compliance or commitment. Cialdini’s six principles were formulated to get people to comply, with the assumption that the relationship would be a one-off or short-term. However, managers in organizations want more than mere compliance, and want to make sure that those they are influencing are committed and engaged. If so, then building trust becomes even more important since such trust is more likely to lead to commitment. Consider the recommendations for building trust that Zak proposes in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review (Zak, 2017). He claims that “… employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies.” Among his recommendations are the following: recognize excellence, induce challenge stress, share information broadly, intentionally build relationships. Note that these align very well with Cialdini’s principles of liking, consistency, and scarcity, suggesting that these three principles should be applied first when building trust.
Third, you may need to reframe some of these principles when applying them in the workplace. Here are three examples. One, the take-away for applying the principle of liking is to build empathy. That is, apply this principle by showing empathy to your employees, especially in trying to understand their point of view (what is called cognitive empathy or perspective-taking). Two, the take-away for managers applying the principle of reciprocity is to be a role model for employees, to do as you say you will do (rather than simply to engage in give-and-take). That is, rather than thinking of this principle in terms of a transactional quid pro quo, apply it by making sure that you are modeling the right behaviors for your employees; this can have a powerful influence on their own behavior. Three, the take-away for applying the principle of scarcity is to build a sense of urgency. Explain to your team why it is important to act now, and what the costs might be for not acting.
Fourth, Cialdini has noted that these principles are most effectively applied in combination. I agree. In addition, I would argue that they should also be prioritized depending on the situation. This requires that those of us working across borders get a good understanding of the cultural values and preferences of different cultures, as well as build our own skill set so we can apply these principles appropriately depending on the situation and the culture. For example, the principle of authority will work more effectively in cultures that are higher in “power distance” than those that are lower in power distance. Having a Master’s or a Ph.D. or having an important title carries more weight in some cultures more so than in others – and even in some organizations more so than in others.
Cialdini, R. (2013). The Uses (and Abuses) of Influence. Harvard Business Review, 132, 76-81.
Petrova, P., Cialdini, R. and Sills, S. (2006). Consistency-based Compliance Across Cultures. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 104-111.
Schouten, B. (2008). Compliance Behavior and the Role of Ethnic Background, Source Expertise, Self-Construals and Values. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 32, 55-523.
Zak, P. (2017). The Neuroscience of Trust. Harvard Business Review. January-February, 84-90.