“Influence comes in many forms and even more intricacies come into play… creating positive influential change is a battle but one that, if approached with enough nuance, can be handled well. By embracing the difficult concepts and creating environments that value authenticity, empathy, and mutuality, we can unearth approaches that not only sway opinion but foster meaningful change”.
The psychology of influence.
In 1987 in a ballroom not far from Wallstreet, Paul O’Neill walks onto stage as the new CEO of Alcoa. In front of a room packed with investors and analysts he says something that silences the room: “I want to talk about worker safety”.
Safety was one of the few things that the company was doing well at the time however, their general performance had been lagging. Confused, the investors tried to bring conversations back to efficiency, which only led to Paul O’Neill doubling down that no steps forward in efficiency would happen without them becoming “the safest company in America”.
Mr. O’Neill proceeded to influence all future steps forward in Alcoa with this in mind, sharing his message that his employees were more important than his shareholders.
Through various battles against executives that held opposing views, O’Neill began to spread wide change as people began to see the value in what he was espousing. This led to the safe and efficient systems that brought the company’s $3 billion valuation to a $27 billion dollar valuation over his tenure.
What O’Neill did wasn’t influence through generic easily digested messages around stock value like many CEOs might do, instead he made a crisis. He created a crisis of safety to motivate his company. He created revolutionaries to carry his message and create the schism between the held attitudes of executives towards efficiency at the cost of safety and the personal identity of working at “the safest company in America”.
Paul is a great example of someone positively influencing by rallying his company and breaking down the ideology present when he joined. Paul’s approach to influencing his company touch on many deeper elements of the psychology of influence itself. From the groundwork of Asch and Milgram to the cognitive dissonance theory of Festinger, all the way to the trust equation of Charles H. Green.
How do we approach influence.
It is difficult to rethink how we approach influence without touching on the seminal theories of Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram. Asch’s research on conformity and Milgram’s research on obedience reveal the intricate interplay of social pressure and authority in how we influence and interact with those around us.
Asch’s (1951) work in short demonstrated the power of group consensus on shaping individual decisions, to the point of conforming even when one’s own judgement may contradict the group consensus. Milgram’s (1961) research however was focused on how an individual may yield to authority figures, relinquishing their personal ethics to follow perceived orders. Both pieces of research came following the atrocities witnessed in World War 2, as they wanted to answer how the people of Nazi Germany could be influenced to commit the morally void actions they had.
Obedience and conformity are incredibly strong influential elements, in the case of O’Neill in Alcoa we saw this in his shift of upper management’s views on safety. By enforcing a focused change to the culture through the avenues of power he opened conversations in a way that supported his safety focused approach.
In terms of rethinking how we approach influence, it’s important we’re aware of these factors:
'A strong word or lack of from a leader can shift the direction of a company in a mere moment. People given power from above will enforce it with impunity' .
This can be channelled positively through champions of a message inside of the teams you are influencing however, these teachings can also be taken in the opposite direction in cultural design.
Learning from Milgram and Asch and emphasizing the importance of encouraging psychological safety will empower your employees to voice their opinions and question authority so that abuses of power don’t occur. Bring in diverse perspectives and promote critical thinking. By recognizing the potential of obedience and conformity and balancing them correctly, leaders can be more efficient in engaging their workplace. However, it’s important to remember social pressure and conformity shape are not only our choices, but the very contours of our identities.
Identity plays an important role in every decision and action we take in life and work. The expectations, norms, and values of how we self-identify paint the canvas of who we are, whether that be to uphold expectations or to break stereotypes.
Identity is a complex and multifaceted concept. However, we can target one specific mechanism of identity and its effect on how we influence. Cognitive dissonance is a theory put forth by Leon Festinger in 1957 and became one of the most influential theories in social psychology. When there is a conflict of an individual’s beliefs and actions, they experience ‘cognitive dissonance’ a mental discomfort that is resolved in one of two ways; reinterpreting their beliefs or changing their behaviours.
This discomfort is a powerful catalyst of change, in the desire for mental equilibrium is where the strongest changes occur in individuals. This was shown within O’Neill’s approach to Alcoa; by doubling down on “being the safest company in America” it enforced a belief upon employees from top to bottom. Through the discomfort brought on by creating a safety crisis in the company that conflicted with their perceived stance on safety, it allowed O’Neill to create an atmosphere that compelled individuals to re-evaluate their stance towards safety.
Through the presentation of information that challenges existing viewpoints, it creates a gap in which strong messages can reshape entrenched attitudes and behaviours. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful tool and one commonly used by advertisers to convince people of their need for a product, or governments to influence public behaviours, (an example includes the images on cigarette packages which cause people to think about their health while smoking).
When influencing it’s important to keep in mind that in discomfort come some of the greatest changes. With cognitive dissonance discomfort births change, and influence becomes the catalyst for long term meaningful transformation.
The trust equation.
Some people may question what happens when someone doesn’t trust the influencer coming in to fill the dissociated gap. The simple answer is - nothing. Trust and credibility are at the core of meaningful influence.
The concept of the “trust equation” created by Charles H. Green conceptualizes trust in a digestible way. His concept is that trust is equal to someone’s additive perception of your credibility (your believability) reliability (your dependability) and intimacy (the level of emotional security). This is then all divided by your self-orientation (your motives and focus on self).
The important key word is perception; it doesn’t matter what your real validity, reliability, intimacy, or self-orientation are, the only thing that matters is how they perceive it.
One’s perception of reality trumps their experience of reality, which is an important thing to keep in mind when creating positive cultures and environments. If you want to create a feeling of trust, reciprocity must be at the core of your communication. Transparent honesty when influencing (or at the very least the illusion of) aids in creating an environment where intimacy may increase while decreasing perceived self-orientation.
By taking a mental note of this approach to relations with those that you are interacting with, it can assist you in building stronger more meaningful connections or, recognizing gaps in your own approach to influence.
Positive influential change.
Through these lenses we can think beyond the purely transactional approach to influence and instead look at it for what it is - a complex multifaceted subject. Particularly in larger companies or when influencing large groups these subjects become more and more relevant to how we strategize and rethink our approach.
Creating positive influential change is a battle but one that, if approached with enough nuance, can be handled well. Embracing the difficult concepts and creating environments that value authenticity, empathy, and mutuality, we can unearth approaches that not only sway opinion but foster meaningful change, like O’Neill’s work with Alcoa.