How to be more influential at work

Warren Buffett understands the power of humility when it comes to influencing people
Even small changes, like always using highly precise numbers, can boost your persuasiveness, says Steve Martin.
Everyone wants to be more persuasive and influential – particularly at work, where the ability to build relationships, convince the undecided, persuade clients and position yourself for the next great job is crucial. But how to accomplish this? In our world of information overload, influence is increasingly governed by seemingly insignificant changes linking a request to deeply rooted human motivations. Drawing on my new book, The Small Big, here are five little things that can make a big difference to your powers of persuasion.


In a reputation-obsessed world, received wisdom is that we should present only our strengths, while simultaneously sweeping flops and failures under the carpet. But persuasion scientists have shown that communicators’ messages can be amplified by the extent that they are willing to present the small drawbacks or weaknesses in their case first.
Warren Buffett recognises this. Even in the years when Berkshire Hathaway has been more successful than anyone could have imagined, the first few pages of his chairman’s report often draw shareholders’ attention to a snag or shortcoming. Counterintuitive as it sounds, Buffett recognises the upsides of presenting downsides, and the higher levels of trust this subsequently promotes.


When building relationships and extending your network, don’t think “who can help me achieve my goals?” Instead, ask “who can I help?”, and look for ways to provide that help and assistance. People are more likely to be persuaded by, and say “yes” to, those that have given to them first. Remember: the best way to enhance people’s appreciation of you (and your subsequent influence) is to provide them information and help that is unexpected.


Business negotiations can be a bit like the first minutes of a boxing match. In the same way that boxers dance around each other, reluctant to throw the first punch, negotiators are often unsure about whether to put an offer on the table first, believing that it will signal their strategy and forgo competitive advantage. But the research is clear – it is much better to make the first offer. In one study, when negotiators buying a factory made the first offer, sellers ultimately agreed to a selling price that was more than $5m (£3.1m) less than when sellers made the first offer. Initial offers act as anchors, subtly influencing subsequent discussions.


About to go into a meeting to discuss next year’s budget, or negotiate a pay rise? Research shows that you can increase the chances of a positive outcome if your opening offer sounds precise, rather than ending in a round number. Even though it may be easier and simpler to ask your boss for a 10 per cent raise, asking for 9.7 or 10.3 per cent could mean less resistance.


In one study, recruiters were asked to evaluate applicants for a senior manager position in a large corporation. Their backgrounds differed only in one key aspect: one had gained two years’ industry experience and scored highly on a leadership assessment test, while the other had little experience but scored highly on a leadership potential test.
Despite having little experience, the candidate who had scored highly on the leadership potential test was rated as likely to be the more successful hire. So when attempting to further your career, make sure that you always communicate your potential, especially if you lack experience. The arousing quality of potential means that it can outshine reality, and persuade people to think about you more positively.
The Small BIG: Small Changes that Spark Big Influence, by Steve Martin, Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini is out now (Profile Books, £11.99)

Get better at sums

If using precise numbers on-the-fly is a good way to influence people, it’s probably worth brushing up on your mental math skills. This app allows you to practise basic arithmetic, division (with remainders) and percentage calculations, and comes with a range of four difficulty levels and adjustable time limits.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Related articles