Survival Guide: Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology and author

Robert Cialdini

If you want to transform your organization, it's not enough to have a good plan. You've also got to persuade colleagues to follow it. Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University and author of the book, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion," is an expert on what it takes to get people to say yes.

Cialdini has studied how people react to requests -- especially for money -- in the laboratory and in real life, even going undercover to learn the sales and fund-raising techniques in numerous professions. While the six principles he identifies may seem obvious, Cialdini said even experienced managers fail to use them properly. Cialdini spoke with Washington Technology Editor Steve LeSueur about the science of persuasion.

WT: When did the study of influence begin?

Cialdini: The genesis was in the large-scale propaganda programs of World War II on both sides. When we did it, we called it "information programs," and when they did it, we called it propaganda. There's a focused body of 50 years of research now into what causes people to say yes by how you present your case.

WT: What is the line between legitimate persuasive argument and manipulation?

Cialdini: The legitimate agent identifies those principles that are already there that people simply are not recognizing and makes them prominent -- for example, if there is true authority for an argument. But it's ethically objectionable to counterfeit the presence of one of these principles, such as when an advertiser uses an actor in a white coat with a stethoscope, who says, "I recommend this." There's no real authority there.

WT: Can your principles help people and organizations to cooperate and share information?

Cialdini: Reciprocity is a key. Somebody has to incur the cost of an initial step. True leaders, true transformation artists, take the first step. They identify the need, and they do not wait for the other side to do it as a show of faith. They take the first step. And what that does is spur the other group to take a step in return, to expend some of its resources. Now you've got two people who are exchanging steps and collaborating and cooperating. Somebody has to take the first step.

WT: When you look at President Bush's attempts to garner world support for war against Iraq, would you say he's effectively using the principles of influence?

Cialdini: At first I was disappointed, because he wasn't turning to other peer countries and nationalities for making a case. Bush wasn't acting like a long-term partner that cared about the rest of the opinions in this. It's very important that it's not just the United State and Britain. But now other countries are coming on board and making the case. It makes the argument much more valid if it's being made by our allies.

Even if we're going to take on the economic and military burden, the persuasive burden has to come from an array of sources. And to have other nations help advance the case is not only more persuasive to those who hear the case; it becomes a committing exercise to those who make the case with us. Now, they become more committed to the argument as a result of making an active, public, voluntary presentation.

You get two things working simultaneously: You get consensus from the audience and you get commitment from the people who made the case with us.

WT: Can you separate the act of developing a transformational plan from the act of persuading people to go along?

Cialdini: Developing the plan, of course, requires that people from all levels of the organization be contributors, too, or at least that their counsel is taken into account. The most effective leaders say to the members of their groups: "I want to hear from you. Your opinion will not be dismissed. It may not be the direction I follow, but it will be taken into account."

That actually produces more effectiveness than any other message you can give to people. And then they become part of the process for organizational transformation. People don't sink the boats they're in.

WT: How can government contractors persuade customers that they're not just trying to make a quick buck?

Cialdini: They should be upfront and acknowledge that: "Of course, there is some benefit that will come to us. But let's be clear, what we're looking for is a long-term partnership, and that means providing benefit to you, so that the next time there's a contract, you will look favorably to us. And the only way we can do that is to provide more benefit to you than you can get anywhere else." If that's the exchange, then it's a fair one.

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