When is it Positive to Use Influence Tactics?

November 8, 2010 / General /

By Ryan Quinn


Key points in this entry:

  • An introduction to and description of the tactics that we can use to influence others
  • Questions that can guide our choice of tactics to make sure that we use tactics in positive ways
  • A description of how lift puts us in to a state to be a positive influence, and not just to use influence tactics positively.


Three weeks ago, we shared the story of an experience that Emily Plews had in talking to a manager that did not want to let Emily organize an Earth Day because he did not believe in Climate Change. This entry sparked some wonderful discussion about when an emotional issue like climate change is the real issue that we should focus on, and when it gets in the way of productive conversation. We believe that this is an important conversation that we should talk about, and not shy away from. We hope the conversation continues, and continues as a learning conversation rather than as an adversarial conversation.

This week, I would like to discuss Emily’s story again, but with a different lens. In particular, I would like to address the question of how Emily convinced the manager agreed to let her organize the Earth Day. This manager told her “No” the moment she asked him the question, and then instantly began to attack her beliefs. Given this situation, how was Emily able to end her conversation on such a positive note?

When I begin courses with managers and ask them what they would like to learn, the answer is almost always the same: “How do I get people to do what I want them to do?” Anyone who cares about that question is likely to be interested in the answer to the question of how Emily was able to get the manager to allow her to organize the Earth Day.

Influence Tactics

Emily’s story of getting permission to organize an earth day can be broken down into seven segments:

  1. She made a request and the request was denied.
  2. The manager asked Emily if she believed in climate change and attacked this belief.
  3. Emily and the manager then exchanged rational arguments.
  4. The manager asked Emily what she thought of a politician who voted against climate change-related initiatives, and when Emily said she did not like the politician, the manager told her stories about wonderful things this politician had done for his family.
  5. Emily asked if it mattered if you believe in climate change. The manager had no answer.
  6. Emily asked if the manager recycled. He said he did, and spoke proudly about his family’s conservation efforts.
  7. Emily stood to leave and the manager stopped her and agreed to sign her request.

It is useful to break this story down into segments because it allows us to see the different tactics [1] that Emily and the manager used to try to persuade each other, and the responses that they had to each other’s tactics. These tactics were, in order:

      TACTIC                         RESPONSE
  1. Appeal                         Denial
  2. Agenda setting                 Compliance
  3. Rational arguments             Rational arguments
  4. Agenda setting, moral appeals  Tears
  5. Introducing ambiguity          Silence/sensemaking
  6. Finding common ground          Pride/connection
  7. Giving up control              Compliance with the original request

In other words, after Emily’s initial request, the manager took over the conversation by asking questions that set the agenda for the conversation and then, within that agenda, using rational arguments and moral appeals to support his agenda. Emily was unable to exert influence or even to be convincing as long as the conversation was defined by the manager’s agenda.

Emily was able to break the control of the manager’s agenda, however, when her honest, sincere question about whether or not it mattered if you believe in climate change. This question introduced ambiguity into the conversation, which made learning possible. Once learning was possible, Emily was able to make other moves, like finding common ground with the manager, and giving up control (essentially, getting up to leave because she thought the manager would never agree to sign the request for permission to organize an earth day). When Emily gave up control, the manager gave her control by signing the request. He probably did this, at least in part, because he no longer saw Emily as a threat to his beliefs and he trusted or at least respected her.

Other Tactics

The influence “tactics” that Emily and the manager used in their conversation are just the beginning of long lists of tactics that researchers have studied in trying to understand how we influence each other. For example, other tactics include:

  • Assertiveness
  • Ingratiation
  • Exchanging benefits
  • Coalition building
  • Friendliness
  • Authority
  • Appeals to higher authorities
  • Capitalizing on unplanned opportunities
  • Framing
  • Brokering
  • Asking for more and settling for less
  • Maintaining goallessness
  • Aggregating interests
  • Trying many things to get one
  • Convincing others that you have more options than you do
  • Getting others to think that they are in control
  • Connecting with influential others

…and the list goes on and on.


The question we must raise, however, in a blog on Positive Organizational Scholarship, is the question of whether and when the use of influence tactics is positive. There is no simple answer to this question. If we want our influence to be positive, there are many questions we should ask about our influence, such as:

  • Outcome: Is the outcome that we are trying to pursue with our influence going to lead to a result that creates the maximum benefit for the largest number of people possible?
  • Process: Is the way I plan to use these tactics honest, forthright, caring, and open?
  • Motives: Would I be ashamed of myself if everyone knew my most honest reasons for exerting influence in this way?
  • Relationships: Am I honestly considering others’ wants, needs, values, and feelings as I do this? Is anyone being excluded that should not be?
  • Feedback: Am I open to feedback about the impact of the influence I am exerting?

There are other questions we could ask ourselves as well, but these questions are sufficient to illustrate what we need to consider in our efforts to make our influence positive.


There is another issue we must raise in discussing influence tactics and the degree to which the use of these tactics as “positive”: intentionality. For example, when Emily introduced ambiguity, found common ground, and gave up control, she was not thinking, “Ah! If I ask a question, find commonalities, and then get up to leave, I’ll finally have this guy where I want him.” In fact, when Emily told me this story, she asked me if she could help me explain why the story turned out the way it did because she did not fully understand it herself.

If Emily was unaware of why she had the influence that she did, then the word, “tactic,” is somewhat of a misnomer. To use tactics intentionally can sometimes be manipulative. To use them unintentionally, but to do so while seeking constructive goals, with good means, positive intentions, nurtuing relationships and being open to feedback along the way, suggests that our influence is more positive and less violent. Knowing and using influence tactics is a normal, natural thing, that can be positive and ethical. But it can also be dangerous, and often is when used in a calculated way.

I support and encourage the understanding and usage of influence tactics. Because of the ethical dangers involved with their intentional use, however, that we have come to study and teach positive influence in a much different way: as Lift.

In Lift, we do not focus on what people do to influence others. Instead we assume that “influence happens.” We cannot live in our social world without constantly influencing and being influenced, whether we intend to or not. And if influence never stops, then we do not have a choice about whether or not to influence others. Instead, our most fundamental choice is a choice about what kind of influence we want to be. The positivity with which we influence the world is driven as much if not more by who we are in any given moment than by what we do.

A few weeks ago, as I taught the principles of Lift to a group of health professionals, a doctor gave me a wonderful example of this. She said that a patient had died in the hospital. The patient’s doctor stormed through the department, shouting at people for the things they had done wrong that had contributed to the patient’s death. The people the doctor was shouting at already felt horrible, and the shouting was not helping. She wanted to shout back at the doctor. Instead, she changed herself from being a blameless victim to being someone who cared about and empathized with the screaming doctor. As she began to empathize with how the doctor felt, she stepped up to him, looked him in the eye, and said, “You are a good doctor.” The doctor stopped shouting. He melted before her, and instead of shouting, began to express the horrible pain he felt over the patient’s death. His behavior was simply a result of his pain, and her love and concern helped him to confront his pain and to stop taking it out on others.

There is no category of influence tactic that I know of that the sentence, “You are a good doctor” falls neatly into. Perhaps it is friendliness, or re-framing, or agenda-setting. Ultimately, its category is irrelevant. The woman who told the story simply chose to be a loving person, and the doctor responded intuitively, emotionally, and positively for her and for all of the others involved. This is not a tactical change. It is a simple and fundamental change to who we are together.

When we choose to ask ourselves the questions that lift us, we lift others as well, just as Emily lifted the manager and those who attended Earth Day, even though Emily did not knew how her uplifting influence was occurring.



[1] Research on influence tactics can be found in publications like Yukl, G. and C. M. Falbe (1990). “Influence Tactics and Objectives in Upward, Downward and Lateral Influence Attempts.” Journal of Applied Psychology 75: 132-140; Kipnis, D. and S. M. Schmidt (1988). “Upward-Influence Styles: Relationships with Performance Evaluations, Salary, and Stress.” Administrative Science Quarterly 33(4): 528-543; and Fligstein, N. (1997). “Social Skill and Institutional Theory.” The American Behavioral Scientist 40(4): 397-405.