Examples of Persuasion in the Workplace

8 min read

As the world adapts to the ever-changing professional landscape, one thing remains the same. Human beings respond better to persuasive efforts that honor relationships than to force.

Persuasive techniques may be used to influence others to buy into one’s purpose, perspective, or passion. Contrasted to misuse and abuse of power, building trust to gain influence results in winning hearts and minds while motivating others to join in resulting actions.

Employers and employees alike can fill their strategic playbooks with techniques that are more likely to influence than intimidate. By taking time to understand the human need for “buy-in”, both parties can learn the basics with examples of persuasion in the workplace.

What Does Workplace Persuasion Look Like?

According to lexico.com, persuasion is the action or fact of persuading someone or of being persuaded to do or believe something. And, it doesn’t take much to convince society that we need to study the art of persuasion as it is one of the most extensively researched areas in social psychology (Fiske et al., 2010).

When working to enhance persuasive efforts in the workplace, it is important to note the credibility of the speaker carries a lot of weight in terms of who we allow to persuade us (Hovland & Weiss, 1951).

As an example of persuasion in the workplace, examine this case study. In the 1936 self-help classic, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie shared a story about Benjamin Franklin. When a friend warned Ben about his brash ways of speaking, he purposed to never openly oppose others or to shout them down. He stopped the use of words like “certainly” and “undoubtedly” that tended to carry an air of patronization and an unwillingness to consider other perspectives. “Doctor” Franklin attempted to honestly see things from the other person’s point of view, thus opening the door for persuasive strategies for success that followed him.

As “Gentle Ben” began using phrases like “I conceive” or “I imagine,” he witnessed a willingness to engage in thoughtful discussion unseen before. “I’m right, and you’re wrong” sounds a lot like “I’m smart, and you’re stupid.” Either way, those word choices are not likely to win friends or influence people. Showing respect for the opinions, beliefs, and values of another is a great way to establish trust and influence others in the workplace.

When trying to win someone to your way of thinking, it’s best to avoid character assassinations, value judgments, or “lording it over” with your perceived superior opinion.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Another method of convincing others to join in the worthiness of your mission is the use of logic, data, and facts. For example, employees who wish to continue “work from home” options are more likely to convince employers when centered on facts surrounding productivity, employee morale, and financial returns for the organization. Emotional arguments about wanting to stay home with pets or children are not likely to get very far in persuading the boss of your great idea.

You Scratch My Back

Using the gift of reciprocity in the workplace finds people wanting to help each other. Human nature leads us to want to return the favor when someone is helpful to us in our time of need. As kindness begets kindness, it’s easy to see colleagues passing it on when inspired by the kind actions of others.

As you give to others in the workplace, it’s important to be sure your efforts are genuine. Your goal is to persuade others that you are sincere and sympathetic to their perspectives, ideas, and desires. When you show legitimate concern about their best interests, others in the workplace will be more likely to bend to your way of thinking when the time comes.

You Can’t Teach a Man Anything

Over three hundred years ago, Galileo said: “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.” As an example, in a professional setting, former slave Booker T. Washington shared this concept with a racially mixed audience in his Atlanta Exposition Speech in 1895. In his speech, he made the bold suggestion that instead of lamenting circumstances and pointing out the wrongs of whites, black Americans should choose to work hard, earn respect, and acquire vocational training as full participants in the economic development of the South.

This first speech given by an African American to a racially mixed audience in the South was instrumental in forging race relations and advancing the internal fire for entrepreneurship that ignited financial and vocational success inside the black community. It appears as if Washington also created a kindred spirit in Dale Carnegie, who later echoed the sentiments by saying, “I am convinced now that nothing good is accomplished and a lot of damage can be done if you tell a person straight out that he or she is wrong.”

Both men learned it’s easier to persuade someone to join your way of thinking by convincing them of what already lies within themselves.

It’s All About Relationships

When building trust in the workplace, doors of possibility open using phrases like: “I could be wrong.” Part of the principles of persuasion can be found in admitting that you may be wrong and highlighting how others could be right. But, if you’re not quite ready to eat crow, try the tactic of getting the other person to believe the drawn conclusion is their own.

Persuasive leaders in the workplace value the individual more than the points of disagreement. Beginning discussions with sincere praise and honest appreciation will take you far in honoring the relationship above the problem. When treating the other with dignity and respect, you’re likely to lead the other party to feel enthusiastic about doing the thing you suggested.

How is Persuasion Better Than Using Force?

People who mastered the art of persuasion know how to craft suggestions instead of forcing demands. Without using force or coercion, effective leaders create methods for motivating people to work together as they collaboratively make the vision a reality.

When John Hopkins University studied 108 Super Bowl commercials over a two-year period, they found people were more likely to engage with ads that shared a story. As social creatures, we relate to other people. Effective leaders know they can influence and persuade more effectively by creating a connection through a personal anecdote or a story of success.

For example, when Lt. Col. Melchizedek “Kato” Martinez and his children were severely wounded, and his wife was killed in a terrorist attack, this officer faced a decision about cutting ties with his military family and giving up hope. Instead, he convinced his surviving family to join him in sharing their story of resilience.

Not a dry eye in the room, their personal journey out of darkness inspires enlistments, extends service commitments, and gathered support for newly formed resources for wounded warriors. He could have used his anger at the enemy to force actions and demand results, but in a winsome way, his persuasive story continues to engage empathy and invite connections that lead to incredible actions.

Why You Can Never Win an Argument

In Samuel Butler’s (1612-1680) 17th-century poem Hudibras, we find a foretaste of workplace wisdom:

He that complies against his will
Is of his own opinion still
Which he may adhere to, yet disown,
For reasons to himself best known

Consider the quandary of a nation facing the decision on whether to enter a World War. James Montgomery Flagg depicted Uncle Sam pointing directly at the viewer with the persuasive prose, "I Want You for U.S. Army." Rather than forcing unwilling participants, his artful invitation to recruit soldiers for the American Army during World War I welcomed brave men to tap into their sense of national pride by willingly joining the fighting force. The federal government knew it would be less likely to succeed when forcing enlistments against the will of the people.

Don’t Force It

After learning about the art of persuasion, it’s not hard to recall stories about persistent patterns of mistreatment from others in the workplace. Whether verbal, nonverbal, physical, psychological, bullying, and other forms of abuse on the job are signs of a clear lack of persuasion in the workplace. While anyone can use force to bully others in the workplace, most cases of workplace bullying occur at the hands of someone in a leadership position, with authority over the one(s) victimized by the bullying.

In “Take This Job and …: Quitting and Other Forms of Resistance to Workplace Bullying,” researcher Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik defines workplace bullying as “persistent verbal and nonverbal aggression at work, that includes personal attacks, social ostracism, and a multitude of other painful messages and hostile interactions." That doesn’t sound like persuasion.

Thomas Carlyle, a British historian, and author said, “A great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men.” It’s best to avoid the perception of evil by striving toward the use of persuasive techniques in the workplace that treat others with professionalism. Being perceived as a leader who engages teams to join efforts willingly is much more effective than bullying subordinates into doing things your way. Aggression, emotional abuse, workplace harassment, or bullying can be avoided by learning to respect different views while attempting to win friends and influence people in the workplace.

Workers can spot bullying and other abusive tactics and are likely to create resistance when leaders aren’t engaged in respectful workplace tactics like using the art of persuasion. As employers and employees learn the difference between persuasion and force, they can both avoid the potentially catastrophic risk that results from subjecting employees to a hostile work environment.

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