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Most people underestimate how much influence they exert, researcher finds

Posted by Neha De

September 30, 2021    |     4-minute read (659 words)

Most people fail to recognize the influence they have on others. They either often accidentally misuse their power or miss opportunities because they doubt their own powers of persuasion, according to Vanessa Bohns, professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University and author of “You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters.” 

Bohns says, “We walk through our lives, and we don’t realize how many people notice us and, because they notice us, how many people might imitate our behavior, or change their behavior because of something we did or said,” 

In order to get a sense of how wrong most people are in judging their influence on others, Bohns, along with Frank Flynn of Stanford Graduate School of Business, conducted a series of experiments. First, they asked research participants to evaluate how many people they would have to approach before someone agreed to let them borrow a cellphone, make a donation to a charity or fill out a questionnaire.

When the participants went ahead and made these requests, they were surprised to find that strangers were twice as likely to go along with their requests — in a separate set of studies, Bohns found that people were as willing to say yes to requests for engaging in unethical behaviors, such as vandalizing a library book or lying for others.

This led Bohns and her teammates to the conclusion that most of the time, people are extremely pessimistic about their ability to get others to comply with their requests.

The power of influence at the workplace 

According to Bohns, disconnect between expectations and reality is a particular problem in the workplace. She backs this claim with research that shows that people in power are extremely bad at taking the perspective of those who are in a lower power position from them. Most of the time, powerful people do not even try to understand what is happening with those who do not have power, as much as the opposite relationship. For example, bosses may ask their subordinates to, say, stay late in the office or work over the weekend, believing that if the request is too inconvenient, the employee will say no, which, most of the time, does not happen. Also, because seniors do not need juniors as much to get ahead and to make things happen, they tend not to put themselves in the juniors’ perspective.

On the other hand, since most companies focus on the formality and rigidity of their organizational hierarchies, employees too tend to take it for granted that their influence is dependent upon their roles or titles — that is, if they do not hold official clout, they cannot and should not ask for anything. 

Another study by New York University’s Frances J. Milliken and colleagues revealed that, despite being in situations where they were concerned about an issue, most employees do not raise it to a supervisor. The study also showed that they do not feel comfortable speaking to those above them about any issues or concerns, due to “the fear of being viewed or labeled negatively, and as a consequence, damaging valued relationships.”

A large part of the problem is that staff members do not realize that their superiors are also people and that the dynamics that affect all relationships exist even in a senior-junior relationship. Just like they don’t want to ruin relationships with their bosses, the latter too care about whether their subordinates respect them, and they also feel responsible and embarrassed if they let their direct reports down. 

Essentially, most of the time, human beings are unable to put themselves into the shoes of those on the receiving end of requests. They tend to forget that the social pressure to give in to a request is extremely strong. And, the fact is, it is often harder for people, irrespective of their social or professional standing, to say no than yes.

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