By Vanessa Bohns
February 1, 2023
Vanessa Bohns, Author of You Have More Influence Than You Think, and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Cornell.
Adapted from Don’t Underestimate Your Influence at Work, published in Harvard Business Review, January 6, 2023 ( https://hbr.org/2023/01/dont-underestimate-your-influence-at-work)
Most people chronically underestimate their influence. When researchers ask people how much they think others pay attention to them, think about them, and would agree to do things for them and then compare these estimates to objective indicators, they find that people are consistently underconfident in their perceived ability to win friends and influence people.
Failing to recognize the influence you have can lead to missed opportunities to spearhead change efforts, ask for things you deserve, and show up in support of causes you care about. It can also lead you to say or do things haphazardly, leading you to influence others unintentionally—sometimes in ways you wish you hadn’t.
This tendency toward under confidence can also lead people to needlessly—and endlessly—search for ways to gain influence when what they really need is to get better at recognizing the influence they already have, but may not be wielding effectively. Below are three suggestions from my recent book, You Have More Influence Than You Think, for becoming more mindful of the influence you already have but don’t always recognize.
See your influence
One reason people fail to recognize the influence they have over others is that they simply don’t see it. When we look out at the world, we do so through our own two eyes. As a result, we see all the things other people do that impact us, and the ways in which those people impact one another. But critically, we miss all the ways in which we may contribute to an interpersonal dynamic.
To get better at seeing the influence your words and actions have on others, practice getting out of your own head. Try taking 10 minutes to visualize a salient workplace interaction you had recently from a neutral third-party perspective. Pretend you are a coach reviewing the tape of their team’s last game — except the game you are reviewing is this workplace interaction. How would someone observing this interaction from the outside interpret the dynamics at play? What were you saying and doing that the other person or people may have been responding to?
Feel your influence
Another reason people fail to recognize their influence is that they guess how the things they say and do make others feel, rather than asking and confirming that their presumptions are correct. To understand our influence over others, we need to be able to understand how our words and actions actually make others feel. While it is widely believed that to understand someone else’s thoughts and feelings, we should simply try harder to think about things from their perspective, this intuition is false. Try as we might to take someone else’s perspective to figure out what they really thought of something we said, when we do so we never actually get out of our own heads and are left guessing, often inaccurately.
This is why researchers have found that to truly understand what someone else is thinking or feeling, instead of trying to take their perspective, we need to actually get perspective. Instead of guessing, try asking someone what they are thinking or feeling. Even though people don’t always tell us exactly what they are thinking, talking to another person gets you out of the echo chamber of your own head. It allows you to base your reading of someone else’s mind on more than just your own assumptions about them.
Experience your influence
Lastly, a major reason people tend to underestimate their influence is that they fail to test it out. We don’t say things unless we are sure others are likely to be receptive, and don’t ask for things unless we are sure people will say yes. But our judgments of receptivity and the likelihood of agreement are wrong. If we were to test out our influence, even in small ways, we would quickly see how much more influence we have than we thought.
In my own research, I find this to be true. When my colleagues and I instruct participants to make small requests of other people, they are regularly surprised at how willing others are to agree — and thus the influence they have through a simple request. In other research by myself and others, working up the nerve to give someone a compliment or express your gratitude means more to people than we think.
For these reasons, one of the quickest and most effective ways to recognize your latent influence is to test it out. Rather than bending over backwards to avoid asking for a simple favor, go ahead and ask. Rather than keeping your gratitude or admiration of a colleague to yourself, go ahead and tell them. You will quickly learn that your words have impact — more than you might have thought.
Vanessa Bohns is a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University and author of the book You Have More Influence Than You Think (2021, Norton). She holds a PhD in psychology from Columbia University and an AB from Brown University. Her research has been published in top academic journals in psychology, management, and law, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Economist, and on NPR’s Hidden Brain, among other media outlets. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Business Insider, and elsewhere. Professor Bohns is an expert on help-seeking, social influence, compliance, consent, and why it’s so hard to say no.
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Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.