How to persuade people to change

RobertCialdiniPersuasion skills for a Change Manager

There are two basic ways to get people to do what you want: tell them and ask them. Actually, telling people is incredibly effective and works more often that you might expect. Tell is really the tool of the manager. I remember when I first became a manager (actually I received the badge of being a manager, it is not the same as doing management) the first question I had for my manager was: ‘how do I get people to do things?’ to which his simple answer was ‘just tell them’; it was my first lesson in effective communication! Unfortunately, a change manager is not a line manager so the tell option is not so effective and the ask option is much more likely to be used. How can a change manager ask people to change? The answer must be in the change manager’s ability to persuade people to change. Based on an article in the HBR by Robert Cialdini here are six Principles of Persuasion that can extend the persuasive powers of a change manager.

Six Principles of Persuasion to Change

1. Liking

It seems obvious, but if people like you they are more likely to say Yes! People will like you because they sense that you like them or you have things in common.

A change manager needs to have empathy with people affected by a change so that he/she can see their problems as common problems which they can solve together. It helps to talk to people to find common ground. It always amazes me how I can meet a complete stranger and quickly find things in common as we talk and explore our worlds. Of course being nice to people always helps; seeking to be genuine with effective communication about the change (upsides and downsides) and plain speaking helps to set a contract for collaboration.

2. Reciprocity

If you help someone, they will help you. People like to return favours. The change manager needs to see what they can do for people going through change, either as a group or as individuals. Setting an environment of cooperative and collaborative work through the change sets the atmosphere of exchange. Benefits for those affected by change should be an important part of reciprocity. Identifying ‘what’s in it for me’ to those who need persuading is an important part of  benefit management.

3. Social proof

People will do things they see other people doing; especially if those people seem similar to them (peer group). A change manager can identify one or two key individuals in a group that set the behaviour patterns for the group — sometimes called a maven. If you can persuade these individuals to change their behaviour then others will follow. This can help to make persuasion more effective.

4. Commitment and consistency

People want to appear to be consistent in their peer group. If they make a public commitment to the change they will want to follow through — a bit like a contract. Getting people to a commitment for change has been discussed before. When you have reached commitment a change manager should get individuals to publicly commit through a pledge or similar mechanism. The commitment is part of the communications plan and would represent a significant milestone in development of readiness to change.

5. Authority

People are surprisingly open to persuasion by other people they consider have authority (such as senior managers) or technical competence. More surprising is that many senior managers are unaware of their role in influencing change! A change manager should include communication from senior managers as part of the communications plan to bring this influence to bear; it can be especially helpful in managing resistance. More subtly, the change manager can increase their ability to persuade people to change if they can demonstrate technical competence in change. By presenting the change process from a position of strength based on knowledge people will be more likely to believe in the process and commit to it. Qualifications are an important part of establishing credible technical competence; see our Certificate in Managing Change.

6. Scarcity

People value things that appear to be scarce. Hence the emphasis on ‘last chance’ or ‘offer ends tomorrow’ in advertising. The same can be used with benefits from the change; for both those affected by the change and the organisation. for instance: ‘if we don’t do this change in the next six months then we will not achieve key benefits and the business will be less able to deal with future necessary changes’. The benefits are time limited and thus very scarce in the future.


Like most good advice based on solid research it often sounds trite and obvious. I challenge you to look at your own change experience and see just how many of these six points you have been using effectively. How many are you explicitly planning in your communications and benefits management for your next change? Are you using all the ammunition you have for successful change? Do you have training to help you follow through on these ideas?

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