People influence others – for better or worse

You already have tremendous influence over others – you just might not realize it.

“There seem to be endless books, articles, and seminars on how to gain influence, and if you were to take their popularity at face value you would think that people are hopelessly lacking in influence and desperately need all sorts of tricks and tips to gain it,” said Vanessa Bohns, associate professor in the ILR School and author of a new book, “You Have More Influence Than You Think,” out Sept. 7.

“As a social psychologist who has studied social influence for many years, I see all the time how much influence we have over other people,” Bohns said. “This book is a counterpoint to the message that you need some special something in order to have influence. It says you actually already have influence every day – you may just be overlooking it because of several psychological biases that cause us to regularly miss seeing the influence we have.”

Bohns, a social psychologist in the Department of Organizational Behavior, draws from her original research, and that of others in her field, to illustrate why individuals fail to recognize their own influence, and how that lack of awareness can lead to missed opportunities or accidental misuse of our power.

Bohns also draws on what University of Pennsylvania researcher Erica Boothby calls the “liking gap” to explain that “people like you more than you realize, which in turn means you have more influence than you realize.”

“I’ve studied compliance with requests for over 15 years now and have seen over and over how we underestimate our influence over other people through the power of a simple ask,” Bohns said. “But in more recent years, I started coming across newer research suggesting that our tendency to underestimate our influence over other people isn’t limited to the domain of asking for things.”

The heart of Bohns’ book demonstrates that people see one another, listen to one another and agree to do things for each other more than we realize – for better and for worse.

“To combat misinformation, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, organizational misconduct, and so much more, we each must recognize our own role in perpetuating or condoning these things, and take responsibility for the influence we have,” she writes in the book.

“There are two main things I want a reader to take away from this book,” she said. “First, I want them to feel reassured. This book is in many ways a summary of the research I’ve used to make myself feel better in those awkward moments where I’m walking away from an interaction cringing about something I said, or working up the courage to ask for something. I remind myself that the research says we are harder on ourselves than we need to be, and that people are less likely to judge us for our foibles, or for needing help, than we think they are.

“Second, I want them to be more mindful of the impact they have on other people every day – to do a sort of ‘influence audit’ – in order to ensure that their impact is a positive one.”

Julie Greco is a communication specialist for the ILR School.

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Gillian Smith