Influence Through “Soft Power”

Brian Leggett, IESE Professor

23/08/2013 Barcelona

Brian Leggett

How frustrating it can be for us as managers, group leaders, when we feel we lack the ability to influence others except by using our positions. How many group leaders actually try very hard to motivate their teams, but fail dismally? Technically speaking, we feel we are on top of our jobs, but we know that those around us listen to us only because of our position. Indeed, an ability to freely influence others may seem to be beyond us. But the good news is that we can learn to be influential people if we learn to be persuasive speakers; it is within everyone’s grasp. If the world were certain, we would not need persuasion, but it is not. We need to persuade others to accept change, new attitudes, or even to reinforce old ones.

The art of persuasion as a management tool has been ignored by management specialists for far too long. Peter Drucker, an astute observer of management behaviour, told us decades ago that: "Good communication and interpersonal relationships are imperative to overall business performance and sustainability. Yet they tend to be neglected in terms of their importance." Researchers such as Robert Cialdini have tried to redress this situation and have opened the door to a more scientific approach to persuasion.

The ability of managers, group leaders and supervisors to influence through persuasion not only their groups’ motivation and identification but also their learning process has been termed by Joseph Nye, the Harvard academic, Soft Power. For Nye the terms "soft power" and "persuasion" are synonymous. Soft power or persuasion has four principle dimensions: emotional intelligence, vision, rhetoric and non-verbal communication.

Emotional intelligence, our first dimension, is the ability of a speaker to recognise her own feelings and those of the person or persons she is speaking to. In other words it calls for a degree of empathy and centers on self-management and relationship management.

The second dimension of persuasion has to do with the message or vision we wish to communicate. This need not be some grandiose vision, but one that is relevant to the situation where the speaker finds herself. But she should be able to visualise the message herself before attempting to communicate it.

Then there is rhetoric, our third dimension. This concerns the verbal communication of our vision. The most important element here is our credibility, both personal and professional. This credibility may already exist, or if not, it must be established. Our message or vision must be grounded in rationality supported by argumentation to give it credibility. Rhetoric also requires us to create the right emotional environment for our message to be received. We have a mixture of three languages available to us: the languages of feeling, meaning and action. Aristotle’s advice here was clear: the speaker must feel the same emotions while speaking that he expects his audience to experience. Most good speakers know this cannot be faked.

The fourth dimension, non-verbal communication, covers such areas as our tonality, facial expression, body language and the use we make of symbolism. Joseph Nye, while acknowledging Gandhi was no first rate speaker, uses him as an example of a master of both non-verbal communication and the clever use of symbolism. This mastery made Gandhi one of the great inspirational speakers of the mid-20th century.

Finally, many of us may think there is very little difference between persuasion and manipulation; wolves dressed in sheeps’ clothing, so to speak. But there is a clear difference. Persuasion gives others the right to say "no". Manipulation, on the other hand, creates a degree of dependency and takes away the person’s right to say "no". Using persuasion we can become a lot more influential than we are today.