Mastering the art of influence
or, an interview with Yale School of Management professor Zoe Chance
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The ability to influence other people is a skill that’s important in both professional and parenting contexts. Which is why, from the moment I preordered a copy of her bestselling book Influence Is Your Superpower, I knew I had to interview Zoe Chance for this newsletter.
Zoe is a fellow faculty member at Yale—she teaches the most popular course at the School of Management—and is the mom of a teenage daughter and tween stepdaughter. Her research has been published in top journals and covered in the global media. In the fall, she will be teaching a free class on Coursera called “How to Ask for Anything”. She is also incredibly smart, gracious, and kind.
Before joining academia, Zoe managed a $200 million segment of the Barbie brand, helped out with political campaigns, and worked in less glamorous influence jobs like door-to-door sales and telemarketing. She’s a climate philanthropist and donates half of the proceeds from her book to 350.org.
JW: When did you first realize the power of your own ability to influence others?
ZC: I guess what I realized first was the opposite. I felt so invisible and un-influential when I was young. This had partly to do with me being shy and nerdy, and partly to do with my family being poor, but in an upper-middle class community where the differences were really stark. I felt like an outsider, and people would speak over me because I was quiet.
I started doing theatre and saw the real world impact I could have. You can take a beginning actor, someone who's never been on stage, and help them transform into someone who can have the audience laughing and crying. Then, by working in sales and marketing, I started to become more interested in studying learning and practicing influence skills.
I think a lot of people who are introverted have the idea that being influential or charismatic depends on being extroverted and loud, but it really doesn't. It really just depends on learning to connect with people and, in many cases, introverts can be even better at learning about and pursuing and practicing the science of influence and connection.
JW: One of the themes you return to in your book is that to be influential you have to be the kind of person that people want to say yes to. Tell us what you mean by that.
ZC: We have these immediate, visceral, unconscious reactions to one another that make more of a difference than people realize in who and what we say “yes” to. The two main dimensions of social judgment are warmth and competence, and the warmth dimension is far more influential.
If there's somebody that we like, we can make a lot of excuses for them, and if there's somebody we dislike we can make a lot of excuses for why we don't hire them or promote them. It’s not that competence doesn't matter. It does. However, if the liking part isn't there, it almost doesn't matter how competent you are.
But we go pretty far to try to prove our competence, not understanding that what matters even more is how much they like us. It's not enough to just have good intentions, we have to actively display warmth, show people that we like them, and actively connect with them through listening and asking follow-up questions. That way, they can persuade themselves to say yes to what we're offering or asking.
JW: This raises questions for me about the dilemma of professional women and “niceness”.
ZC: You're right, it's complicated. There's a lot of research in this area that makes me and many other women angry. It's an empirical fact that women who are judged as less warm get discounted much more easily than men who are judged as less warm. Think about all of the gender-specific “B” words (bossy, bitchy, bratty) that we use for girls and women who are displaying leadership without warmth.
It's not that warmth is all that it takes, but—even more than men—we have to do both, we have to be warm and competent. And because we're trying to prove our competence, it can be harder for women than for men, because we underplay the warmth.
At the same time, I want all women to know that I'm not one of those people who says you have to smile and bake cookies to get ahead. I'm just telling you that when we are not warm, we risk negative judgments in ways that men don't. But sometimes we need to be angry and aggressive and draw a very clear line, lest other people think that it's okay to violates our boundaries, social norms or ethics.
Also, I think it’s important to note that, in written communication, people perceive less warmth and more aggression than the writer intended. Warmth is harder to bring across the more distant we are, so this is particularly tricky in the remote working world.
JW: On this same topic of gender, you point out that the majority of women are uncomfortable negotiating. What strategies can you offer us for asking for a raise, advocating for flexible working arrangements, or even negotiating redistribution of household labor.
ZC: All of these are so important, and I like that you're putting these very different kinds of negotiations together, because we're really negotiating all the time. We have a lot of experience with negotiations, but we don't usually call those conversations with people we know—where we're just figuring out how to collaborate—"negotiations”. So we get scared in anticipation of asking for a raise or promotion, but it's really the same thing.
The best strategy that I can share for almost any situation is my very favorite influence technique that I call The Magic Question, and it is: “What would it take?” It's a respectful question. You're acknowledging the other person’s freedom to choose, you're acknowledging their expertise and preferences, and you're acknowledging that you're potentially open to their influence—plus, they’re implicitly committed to supporting the outcome. You're also finding out, in many situations, information that you couldn't possibly have guessed.
I interned at a medical device company as an MBA student and they needed to ask employees in the production facility to work overtime during the holidays. Ginger Graham, who was the number two person to the CEO, asked the employees, “What would it take?”—in addition to money, obviously.
And they told her, “We take the bus and it doesn't run at night, so we need cab fare”. They said, “We're hungry and we like pizza”. Okay, great. And they told her, “We're stressed about wrapping our Christmas presents, so if you could hire a Christmas present wrapper, that would be really helpful to us”. She never could have imagined these things. They set records in production and employee engagement remained high, even after the incentives went away.
JW: You say at the beginning of the book that we’re all born influential (crying babies get what they want!), but as we grow up, we’re discouraged from demanding things and told to “wait our turn”. What suggestions do you have for parents who want to raise kids who believe in their own capacity to influence others?
ZC: It's really challenging to be a parent and to be faced with the formidable influence of children, and especially small children. Kids are so powerful and they can be hard to influence, but at the same time, parents and teachers—because we just want to have peace in our home or peace in our classroom and a community that gets along with each other—we're training our kids to play small.
I always remind myself that anybody can ask anybody for anything. At the same time, all of us can get turned off or annoyed when somebody is asking in a way that sounds entitled or it sounds annoying or overly persistent. So, my goal is to help my daughter be more graceful about it.
I also celebrate when she puts herself out there in ways that are scary. When she was small, I would have her make a purchase by herself. I would hang back and watch, but she would do it herself. And just a couple of weeks ago she ran for Class President. She did win and we're excited for her, however, the celebration happened when she ran and she gave her speech before the outcome came out.
JW: You touch on the murky issue of influence and privilege. How do we balance our needs and others’ needs so we can be sure we’re using our influence in ways that don’t further perpetuate inequality and unfair advantage.
ZC: We shouldn't wait for people to ask, and when one person asks us for some kind of privilege, help, leniency, exception, etc. We should be asking ourselves, “Okay, who else deserves that but maybe hasn't asked?” Because if we're waiting for people to ask, then we're actively promoting bias and injustice in exactly the way that a lot of us don't want to.
Something you recently read and enjoyed: The Art of Insubordination by Todd Kashdan is fun and really helpful for how to powerfully and gracefully speak truth to power.
Favorite activity to do with your kids: They currently love doing aerial silks. It is so fun and empowering for them. They feel really, really confident getting to climb high, do something beautiful, and topple down great heights in a safe way.
Best piece of advice for working moms: Oh, my God—lower your standards for yourself as a mom. I am so sorry to hear how many of my friends, students, and colleagues criticize themselves for how they're failing as moms. It's such a favor to your kids, and especially your daughters, if you don't try to be perfect. I just want to acknowledge for all working parents, and especially working moms—this stuff is just hard and there are days that we're going to suck at it.
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