Business culture continues to move toward more collaborative and cross-functional teams, and as a result, project leaders are often forced to manage team members over whom they have no formal authority. This means that your project managers can no longer rely on “command and control” to get the job done but, instead, must call upon more subtle approaches like influence and adaptability to move a project forward.

The challenge is that many individuals leading projects are not equipped with the right interpersonal skills to allow them to effectively manage up, down, across, or diagonally within organizations. Without these skills, managers often find themselves frustrated, immobilized, and unable to fully execute a project or strategic initiative. This is especially problematic in today’s increasingly complex business context, where change happens quickly, and organizations need to be able to respond immediately.

The good news is that influence and persuasion are business skills that can be taught and sharpened. By understanding the key principles of persuasion and implementing a few strategic tools, leaders can influence stakeholders at every level of the organization, avoid internal barriers, and move projects along swiftly and successfully.

Understanding the principles of persuasion

Most researchers agree that there is a science to persuasion. While most people assume that decision makers in a business context think logically and rationally, research shows that emotion and the way people are treated strongly impact how they make decisions.

According to neurologist Antonio Damasio, the center of conscious thought (the prefrontal cortex) is tightly connected to the emotion-generating amygdala, which means that no one makes a decision based on pure logic.1 Instead, Damasio’s research suggests that logical reasoning is usually no more than a way to justify emotional choices.2 In other words, how people feel—and how you make them feel—will influence their personal and professional choices.

Research from author Dr. Robert Cialdini takes it a step further and identifies six universal principles that guide human behavior. Cialdini contends that when these principles are understood and employed ethically, they can significantly increase the chances that someone will be persuaded by a request.3 The Six Principles of Persuasion according to Cialdini are as follows:

Reciprocity. People feel obliged to give back to others the form of a behavior, gift, or service that they have received first.

Scarcity. People have a desire to acquire more of those things they have less of. To put it another way, people value what they can lose just as much as what they can gain.

Expertise. People follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts.

Consistency. People like to be consistent with the things they have previously said or done.

Liking. People prefer to say yes to people they like personally.

Social proof. People will look to the actions and behaviors of others to determine their own, especially if they are uncertain.

Steps for influencing strategically

Once project leaders understand the key principles of persuasion, they can start to put a few strategies in place to influence stakeholders. One popular methodology is an approach developed by business professors Allen R. Cohen and David L. Bradford. Known as The Cohen-Bradford Model, the method is based on the reciprocity principle as well as the idea that all stakeholders should be viewed—and treated—as allies.4

Using The Cohen-Bradford Model as a foundation, the following is a step-by-step approach for line-of-business leaders who need to influence change without the power of authority:

Step 1. Clarify goals and identify priorities. Make sure you are clear on what you want and what you need. Identify your goals and what you are willing to give or give up to achieve your primary objective.

Step 2. Stand in their shoes—but take off your own first. This step requires you to put aside the goals you identified and look at the scenario from the other person’s point of view. Too often people try to convince a stakeholder to give them something without looking at how it impacts the other person. What are his goals? Is what you need going to create conflict or obstacles for this person or her team? What does she have to gain or lose from your request? This is critical for identifying what might trigger a positive response from this person.

Step 3. Analyze your “currency.” Building a business relationship can be similar to requesting a bank loan or making an investment. Your currency is the leverage you have to influence this person. Have you helped this person before? What do you have to offer that might be valuable? When is the last time you deposited something into another person’s account?

Step 4. Evaluate the relationship. Take an honest analysis of your relationship with this person. Is it balanced? Do you ask for more than you are offering? Have you taken the time and effort to establish mutual trust?

Step 5. Make the exchange. Ask for what you want and be prepared to offer something of value in return. This may or may not require some negotiation, but if you thoughtfully completed all of the aforementioned steps, you should be prepared to graciously and respectfully make the scenario mutually beneficial.

Lasting results

Influencing up and down in an organization has more to do with people than with power. By combining strong personal relationships with the principles of persuasion, project leaders can strategically and effectively use influence to initiate change and ensure desired outcomes. This skill is necessary now more than ever. In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing business environment, leaders need to be sure they are constantly networking, establishing genuine relationships, and building coalitions so that they can be leveraged at any given time.

1 The Balance, “20 Ways Zappos Reinforces Its Company Culture,” Susan M. Heathfield, 1 1 Goman, C. (2017, May 21). 3 Crucial skills for leading without authority. Retrieved from
2 1 Goman, C. (2017, May 21). 3 Crucial skills for leading without authority. Retrieved from
3 2 Cialdini, R. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
4 3 Cohen, A. & Bradford, D. (2005), Influence without Authority. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.