Overcoming the Five Barriers to Influence

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By G. Richard Shell, Mario Moussa

Consider the obstacles that pose the greatest risks to a successful influence encounter. These are: negative or ambiguous relationships, poor credibility, communication mismatches, hostile belief systems, and conflicting interests. The first two of these barriers relate to how people see you personally. The final three make it harder for people to hear your idea clearly.

Each of the five barriers has the potential to become a valuable asset in your idea pitch if you do your homework well. But, at a minimum, your goal should always be to clear out of your path as many of these obstacles as possible in order to give the other person a chance to objectively evaluate the merits of your proposal.

Potential Barrier #1: Relationships. The first potential barrier is often the one that colors all the rest: How will the other person view your relationship to him or her? Will he or she know you? Like you? Best of all, trust you?

Persuasion at work always takes place within a network of relationships. A relationship with someone, somewhere will be the starting point for putting your idea “in play,” and relationships with and between people you may not even know will often be the end point for getting it adopted. You need a circle of influence, a network of people who know people who know people. And it may be too late to form such a circle when you are ready to make your sale. The relationships must already be in place. The biggest barriers, of course, arise when you face negative or hostile relationships in the pathway of your idea.

Potential Barrier #2: Credibility. Next, you need to think about whether the other person will see you as a credible advocate for your idea. Will he or she view you as competent? Reliable? Someone with special expertise? This factor explains why trying to manipulate other people does not work when you are selling important ideas.

We have a friend who is the regional sales manager for a large franchise organization. He is fascinated by books that explore the “hidden psychology” of persuasion—the kind of books that promise to make you an expert in “instant influence” so you can close deals “in ninety seconds.”

Our friend learned about the importance of credibility when he tried the “Door in the Face” technique on his boss at raise time. The gambit works (when it does) by making a request that the other party is sure to reject (he slams “the door in your face”). Then you immediately back down to a much more modest suggestion. Your second request looks so reasonable by comparison with the first one that people are more inclined to say “OK.” Research on the “Door in the Face” technique has shown that people raising money for charities can get more ten-dollar donations if they start by asking for fifty dollars and shifting quickly down to ten dollars (after the target donor says “no”) than they can by asking for ten dollars in the first place.

Our friend decided he would try this with his boss. He asked for a raise that was three times what anyone in his or her right mind would have requested. When the boss looked at him in shock, he backed down to the regular raise he had planned to ask for.

The boss was still in shock. “You are being completely unreasonable,” he said. Our friend tried to recover by making a joke of it, but nobody was laughing. Our friend got no raise because he had, temporarily at least, lost his credibility.

An important part of credibility is character, a point emphasized by the ancients who studied rhetoric and persuasion. Aristotle, in particular, underlined character—one’s ethos—as the antidote to becoming overly focused (as the Greek “sophists” eventually became) on pandering to particular audiences. He argued that character was the most important persuasion tool of them all.

So will we. If you want to be truly persuasive within your organization, you must develop your own ethos and endorse character as a value. This attitude was summed up well by the banking mogul J. P. Morgan in a short interchange he had with a congressional committee in the early 1900s. The committee was investigating possible financial manipulations in a deal Morgan was associated with (the committee eventually exonerated him). In the course of the hearings, the following exchange took place:

Committee Member: Is not commercial credit based primarily on money or property?
J. P. Morgan: No, sir. The first thing is character.
Committee Member: Before money or property?
J. P. Morgan: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it.

Potential Barrier #3: Communication Mismatches. With both the relationship and credibility issues addressed, you are ready to encounter the third barrier: your audience’s preferred style or channel of communication. Your natural enthusiasm and humor may be effective for selling an idea to your marketing group. But the company’s straitlaced executive committee may not appreciate that style. You may need to adjust.

For example, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the legendary media mogul who founded the studio DreamWorks and then took it public, once made this sort of mistake. Like many in Hollywood, he is a natural-born user of visionary influence, wooing audiences with enthusiasm, snap, and passion. But on this occasion, he got carried away with his own message and forgot to see it from his audience’s point of view. It was a costly lesson.

One of the first movies DreamWorks launched after going public was a cartoon feature called Madagascar. Following his usual style, Katzenberg aggressively hyped the film in the media. When the production met DreamWorks’ projections by pulling in $47 million at domestic theaters over its opening weekend, everyone inside the company was pleased. But DreamWorks’ stock price took a dive. Why? Katzenberg had failed to recognize that, as CEO of a public company, he was now speaking to an audience of stock analysts. Addressing these number-crunchers required a prudent rather than a passionate approach. They read Katzenberg’s prelaunch hype as a signal that the movie would hit a much higher number. As one analyst explained the stock-price dip, “Credibility has not been helped by ‘talking up’ Madagascar only to have the film [merely] meet expectations.” Katzenberg’s blunder was costly for his stockholders, and he quickly learned to adopt a more audience-sensitive persuasion style (in this case a data-driven, reason-and-logic mode) in public statements about future films.

Potential Barrier #4: Belief Systems. If your organization is committed to diversity in hiring, a proposal to save money by focusing only on Ivy League universities during recruiting season will be a tough sale. Asking people to buy an idea that violates one of their basic values or beliefs—or the written standards and policies that sometimes give concrete expression to these beliefs—puts people in an uncomfortable position: either they buy your idea and give up the core value or reject your idea and keep their value.

They will usually find it easier to reject your idea. Effective idea selling, therefore, requires you to position your idea as consistent with (or better yet, furthering) your audience’s important beliefs and values.

Potential Barrier #5: Interests and Needs. Fifth and finally, effective idea sellers focus on the other party’s interests. For example, when Napoleon was a young officer in the French army, he established an artillery battery at the siege of Toulon in such an exposed position that his superiors told him he would never get soldiers to man it. Had he ordered his men to take on this duty, his superiors would probably have been right. It was close to being a suicide mission. But Napoleon showed his skill as a persuader by finding and appealing to a fundamental interest—his soldiers’ pride and their desire to be seen as men of courage.

He created a large placard to put on the battery. On it, the following words were printed in bold letters: THE BATTERY OF THE MEN WITHOUT FEAR. Instead of shying from a life-threatening assignment, Napoleon’s men competed for the honor of being known as the members of this fearless band. The position was manned day and night.

As this story shows, understanding what is really motivating other people opens up a host of options for influencing them. It is also important to pay attention to interests because conflicts related to control over resources, credit for initiatives, and career advancement can be the source of political disputes. The more people who have interests that conflict with your idea, the more potential enemies you have.

Reprinted from The Art of Woo by G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright© G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa, 2007.

About the Author(s)

G. Richard Shell is director of the Wharton School’s Executive Negotiation Workshop and professor of legal studies, business ethics, and management. His previous book is the award-winning Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People.
Mario Moussa teaches at the Wharton School and is a principal of CFAR Inc., a management consulting firm.