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The Ethical Edge of Persuasion.

Where is the line between persuasion, manipulation and coercion?

 Persuasion is an ethical form of influence that leaders use to compel their followers to act. Sometimes referred to as an art, leaders can even read books and take classes that give them the skills needed to package and present ideas in a way that engages people to follow. Persuasion in this case is seen as good, and even ethical, but as with anything… too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing. Persuasion is just one form of influence. Manipulation, persuasion gone rogue, and coercion, a persuasive offer you literally can’t refuse, are two other forms of influence that an ethical leader would potentially want to stay away from.

 But where is the edge? How does an ethical leader continue to persuade without passing the point of no return into unethical behavior? This is an important question, because once you fall off, there is no climbing back up. Dr. Robert B. Cialdini, who studies persuasion, gives us six principles that we can use to see where that edge might be. 

 Consider these principles and examples: 

 1. Reciprocity – people are obliged to give back to others the form of a behavior, gift, or service that they have received first. Recognizing those you lead for their individual actions, such as an award for hard work, is good. Giving praises in the form of tangible items to a group or team as a whole is as well. The reciprocity principle says that the receiver and those who bear witness will be more likely to continue the behavior you are rewarding. The edge comes when bestowing something elaborate or maybe potentially undeserved on an individual follower. The follower, as well as onlookers, may be confused about what the gift is for, or worse, think you want something more in return. To stay away from the ethical edge with this principle, try presenting anything given as tying directly back to their action, have the reward fit the size of the activity being rewarded, and make it come from the company or maybe the entire group. When in doubt, stay away from the cliff by leaving your personal emotions out of the transaction altogether.

 2. Scarcity – people want more of those things they can have less of. Job specialization is a great thing. Individuals working at full capacity in a unique role keep the entire team efficient. Explaining to a follower their unique contribution to an effort and discussing how this task they are performing is one-of-a-kind evokes the scarcity principle in people, making it more likely that the follower is interested in pursuing or completing the task. Knowing this as a leader, there may be a tendency to describe uniqueness across the board, or worse, misrepresent the effort to a follower to try to make the task seem more attractive. To stay away from the edge, realize that facts are facts. Present them as they are. And, it should go without saying, never withhold things like praise, communication or correspondence with you, or entry to meetings and other events to play on this principle. Doing so will only work against you.

 3. Authority – people follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts. We can’t know everything as leaders, but sometimes we like to think that we do. What’s worse, other people look at us as if we do. While hanging diplomas or adding letters of certificates after our name triggers this authority principle, it’s easy to pass the point of no return on this one. How? Speaking authoritatively about a subject which you have no knowledge of. article continues after advertisement Be willing to stay quiet when you don’t know, or better… say “I don’t know” to stay away from the edge on this one. Rely on followers with expertise in certain areas to rise up or be an advisor to you in public or private and cite their help when speaking up about a subject. The bottom line here, resist the tendency to talk big in front of your followers. 

 4. Consistency – people like to be consistent with the things they have previously said or done. When leading and wanting to persuade followers to take a large action, this principle would say to first get them to agree to smaller, voluntary, active, and public commitment along the same lines (and ideally get those commitments in writing). For example, if you want a follower to speak in front of a large group, have them commit to a talk with their team first; or if you want a follower to take on a new role, try having them agree to an assistant role. If you need their undying commitment to a vision that you have, try getting them to commit to different parts of your vision first… in this way, making the leap to the entire vision won’t be so much of a stretch. Where can you fall off the edge on this one? Two ways: a) making or forcing followers to take the smaller commitment, thinking that when they do, surely it will be fine and they will commit to the larger role, and b) assuming followers who are OK in the smaller commitment will always adhere to this principle and make the larger leap. To stay ethical, let followers choose for themselves how far they are willing to commit. 

 5. Liking – people prefer to say yes to those that they like. We all want our followers to like us, and this principle says that if they do, they are more likely to follow and do things we ask of them. Why? We like people who are similar to us and people who pay us compliments. As a leader, finding areas of similarity between you and a follower is a good thing and being able to compliment followers genuinely helps trigger this principle in followers. article continues after advertisement The edge here should be easy to spot. Misrepresenting yourself as a leader to fit in with your followers, or paying your followers comments just to make them like you more, is clearly past the point of no return. Be careful with this one. Don’t even approach the edge because it is so easy to fall off. Get to know your followers, but be who you are, and only give compliments when extremely warranted. 

 6. Consensus – people will look to the actions and behaviors of others to determine their own, especially when uncertain. Followers, by definition, follow. If you have a follower you are trying to persuade to take action, but they won’t, getting others involved to take the action around that follower may help. The edge here comes when you as a leader falsely claim that everyone else is OK with it, or this is how everyone will be doing it soon or trying to make the follower feel bad that they haven’t gotten with the program. Triggering this principle in a positive and healthy way can be a powerful tool, but abusing it comes with a price. The ethical edge gives way quickly to manipulation and coercion. While too much of a good thing can be bad, there are ways to climb the mountain of leadership persuasion, pushing the boundaries of ethical leadership without falling off the manipulation or coercion cliff. To do so, however, takes thoughtful consideration on the part of the leader to stay away from the ethical edge of persuasion.

References Erickson, J. (2005). The Art of Persuasion. Hachette UK. Cialdini, R. B., & Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (pp. 173-174). New York: Collins.