HomeTalentLeadership DevelopmentIncreasing HR’s influence through social imitation and affiliation

Increasing HR's influence through social imitation and affiliation

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Rational persuasion and other traditional techniques for influencing others are ineffective. If HR leaders wish to impact people, senior management, and the boardroom, they should pursue principles including social imitation and affiliation, argues Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters.

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Amanda Nimon-Peters: Increasing HR's influence through social imitation and affiliation

Recent trends in working conditions and employment patterns have highlighted the importance of planning for employee needs in the overall productivity of a company. As a result, HR professionals have made a case for placement and influence at the senior management level, and even in the Boardroom.

People are the lifeblood of organizations and the ability to enable those people to thrive is critical to organizational success.

As an HR leader with a greater need to influence employee behavior or the decisions of senior management, developing this ability is critical to your chances of successfully impacting business-level improvements.

So, what techniques can you employ to win (senior management) friends and influence people?

Your current techniques to influence are not as useful as you think

Around the world, the most common approach to influencing others at work is rational persuasion. Even though it is common, it isn’t as effective as you probably believe. A meta-analysis involving around 9,000 people at work indicated that it works around 12% of the time. This is because we think we are logical, rational creatures, whereas human decision-making is far more emotional than we recognize.

Further, we tend to believe that the more logical reasons we give someone, the more influential we will be. Behavioral science reveals exactly the opposite. A study of human resources managers found that those who attempted to strengthen their logical arguments by including additional data and reasons were actually less influential than colleagues who did not.

There are four default techniques that almost everyone uses: rational persuasion, bargaining or offering something in exchange for a favor, compromising, and finally pleading. These techniques are so common that no one needs to be taught them. What they also have in common is they make the influence attempt obvious.

In the model I have called Working with Influence, I present nine distinctly different persuasion principles. These techniques have two main features:

  1. They enable you to tap into how human brains are already making choices and decisions
  2. They can be used in a way that is almost entirely invisible

Earlier, I wrote about the principle of effort as a valuable approach for HR professionals seeking to increase their influence. Here I delve into two more of these nine principles so you can start improving your skills today.

The principle of social imitation

Although we are mostly not aware of it, our brains are continually seeking information about what is normal, usual, or expected behavior in each situation. We can obtain that data about what behaviors others expect by watching what people around us do. We can observe which behaviors are rewarded at work, or pick up data about what is normal to do.

Many studies demonstrate that this social normative information exerts a strong influence. For example, In a study of workplace cafeterias in England and Wales the basic intervention of putting posters in the cafeteria stating “most people here choose to eat vegetables with their lunch” led to a significant increase in the purchase of meals containing vegetables. All this without the need to give people logical reasons.

The effect of social normative information about what most people do gets stronger the more people care about their membership of the referent group. For example, if your goal were to influence someone to choose a particular product or take a specific action, framing that choice as the same choice made by top-performing companies or people will make it more attractive.

Again, you can use this approach in an almost invisible manner. For example, when someone presents various options at a meeting. You can simply highlight that option X is the one that most people choose. The effect also increases when people have decision fatigue. Being tired makes it even more likely that people do what others do.

The principle of affiliation

Human brains are also continually and invisibly judging other people as being ‘like us’ or ‘not like us.’ Once we determine that another person is like us, we favor them in a variety of significant ways. We become more likely to listen to their advice, more likely to perceive them favorably, and more likely to help them.

Hence, if you can trigger another party to feel a sense of affiliation in some way, you will increase your influence with them. This can tip decisions in your favor during an interview, a client meeting, a performance review, or when you seek help, advice, and resources.

It is important to be aware that the default source of data subconsciously used to determine whether someone is part of our group or not is information that is easy to access. This includes physical appearance, which causes problems with bias in our highly diverse workplaces. It also includes any highly visible information, such as seniority levels. Yet, despite obvious differences, there are generally many things that we have in common.

The key to generating a sense of affiliation between you and others is to find genuine similarities. Often these are things that you need to say, because others cannot see them. The more those similarities are genuine, and something the other party is happy about or proud of, the greater the sense of affiliation you can trigger.

Improving your influence skills

The best approach to developing your ability to influence using psychology is to start small, in relatively low-risk situations. Learning from your first attempt will help you get better results from your second attempt. Remember that using these approaches will not get you the outcome you seek every single time. You cannot completely control human behaviour any work-appropriate or ethical manner.

Nonetheless, sharpening your skills in these techniques can lead to a long-term pattern of success. And the best part? No one may even know you are trying to influence them!


Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters is a Professor of Leadership at Hult International Business School. Dr. Amanda’s book Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion for Accelerating Your Career (Bloomsbury Business) is available via Amazon.

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