persuasion techniques and principles for project managers

10 Techniques to Master the Art of Persuasion

One of the greatest challenges project managers face is not having direct authority over the members of their project teams. They must make requests and hold people to those requests, without formal authority. To succeed, they must develop and leverage persuasion techniques so that team members commit to the success of a project and are willing to do whatever it takes.

There are many theories, frameworks, and techniques in the art of persuasion. I will review a few with direct application to the palette of project management. We can consider persuasion from the perspectives of motivation – why people want to do something, and power – why people are obligated to do something. Let’s start with power.

The Five Power Types

The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines five types of power.

  1. Authority – the ability to issue commands.
  2. Reward power – the ability to control compensation, work assignments, and promotions 
  3. Punishment power – the ability to pressure or penalize.
  4. Expertise – the knowledge and experience that command respect and compliance.
  5. Referent power – the ability to influence via loyalty, respect, friendship, admiration, and other factors.

The first three types are typical of managers but not project managers. Project managers do not hire, fire or control compensation or bonuses.

Strong project managers may develop expertise, which can command respect, but this may not be the case in very technical or scientific domains.

Discounting the first four power types, we are left with referent power as the primary way in which a project manager can influence a team to deliver exceptional results.

Persuasion Modes, According to Aristotle

Let’s continue with motivation. Aristotle described four modes of persuasion: 

Ethos is an appeal to authority and aligns with the ‘Expertise Power,’ described by PMI.

Pathos is an appeal to emotion, which may employ metaphor, passion, imagination, vision and other tools.

Logos is an appeal based on logic and relies on facts and carefully presented information.

Kairos refers to the time and place in which the message is delivered.

Project managers spend most of their time operating in the mode of Logos, providing reports, presenting status, crafting metrics, and objectively communicating the facts of a project.

Project managers who are not subject matter experts may leverage Ethos by mastering the details of their projects, including many of the more technical aspects. This can go a long way toward winning the respect of team members.

Kairos is the central part of a communication plan and governs when and how to communicate with team members and stakeholders. Being wise about Kairos helps to get your message across in moments of crisis.

Pathos is often overlooked but can be strategically important. A little appeal to emotions at the right time and setting can motivate and inspire teams. Project managers should think about when to leverage Pathos to express authentic emotion and breathe life into their Logos, avoiding pure appeals to logic.

Robert Cialdini’s Six Principles of Persuasion

Let’s turn to the six principles of persuasion as outlined by Robert Cialdini, the bestselling author of the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and consider how they relate to project management.

Reciprocity

When you do something for your team members, they will feel obligated to return the favor. Doing things for your team must start well before you make a request. As stated previously, referent power takes time to develop! Think about how you can be of service to your team and you will establish a culture of reciprocity. When you need to make a special request, you will likely get a favorable reply.

You may be thinking “Charlotte should honor my request because she is a professional and she is assigned to my project!” This is true, to an extent. But Charlotte may be working on three other projects that she prioritizes higher and would prefer to minimize her commitment to your project. Reciprocity may persuade her to focus on your project despite the competing work demands.

Even without cultivating reciprocity, having a service mindset will be beneficial to your projects. Without thinking in terms of quid pro quo, your team will appreciate everything you do for them, which in turn will benefit your referent power.

Scarcity

Scarcity, as described by Cialdini, refers to increased demand for scarce products or services and is an intentional tactic. Think of the urgency created by a one-day sale or a limited-edition design. There is a similar principle at play in project management. Instead of applying to demand, it applies to time, cost, and quality, the three constraints of the project management triangle.

Your goal as a project manager should be to stimulate urgency and inertia in your project. Your planning and communication of the three constraints can help. When you schedule aggressively, you send the message that time is scarce and your team must work efficiently to meet project deadlines. When you set a high bar for quality, you give your team a goal to strive for.

Your communication can signal scarcity or abundance. Compare the statements “there is barely enough time to complete the testing” and “by maintaining the current pace we’ll easily complete the testing.” The first statement will stimulate urgency and the second will reduce it.

Keep in mind that creating too much scarcity can lead to unachievable goals and be damaging to morale. Similarly, if you exaggerate constraints your team may question your authenticity. It’s important to be judicious when employing scarcity as a persuasion technique.

Authority

The principle of authority draws its power to influence from expertise and reputation. As a project manager, you may lack specific subject matter expertise, as mentioned previously, but you can build enough understanding of the technical details of your projects to ask the right questions and make good decisions. 

The opposite approach would be a belief that project management is a neutral discipline that can be applied to any domain. There is some truth to this statement but a deeper understanding of the project content will make you a more incisive project manager and engender greater respect.

With education and experience, you can develop project management authority, irrespective of domain knowledge. When you form a new project team you should introduce yourself and share your professional experience, education, and credentials, such as PMP certification and others.

As you successfully complete projects in an organization, you will establish a reputation with stakeholders and team members as having the skills and ability to lead projects successfully. In turn, your stakeholders and team members will treat your arguments, decisions, and recommendations seriously.

Consistency

Consistency is the need for people to behave in accord with their previous actions or statements. When people say one thing and do another, it creates cognitive dissonance or internal conflict, and they seek to avoid it. People are motivated to behave consistently to maintain a reputation and be seen as reliable, trustworthy individuals.

As a project manager, you use consistency by asking for a public commitment to tasks, dates, and scope. Obtaining commitment is important at multiple levels in a project. At the most basic level, it means confirming task ownership and delivery dates by individuals in your team and must be done in a public setting so that other team members, and even stakeholders, are aware of those commitments.

At a higher level, project managers must obtain commitments for project plans and objectives from stakeholders and team members. This ensures that everyone involved in the project will act accordingly.

Liking

The principle of liking recognizes three important factors that impact persuasion.

  • We like people who are like us.
  • We like it when people compliment us.
  • We like people who collaborate with us toward shared objectives.

As project managers, we appreciate the same things and should strive to incorporate them in our daily work. Take time to get to know your team members and stakeholders on a personal level. Socialize with your team, when possible, and share common interests such as family, sports, or vacations.

Compliment team members on their work and accomplishments as a team. Let them know that you appreciate what they do and, especially when they go above and beyond.

Support your team with a service mindset and they will see you as a true collaborator, not simply as someone who makes demands.

Acting with these factors in mind will increase your ability to persuade and your referent power.

Consensus

The consensus principle states the simple fact that people tend to follow others. When you shop on Amazon you choose products that have many positive reviews. If you know that your neighbor contributed generously to the local school district foundation then you might be more likely to contribute generously. Humans are social and tend to look to their peers for cues to what is good and appropriate behavior.

At the heart of consensus is the idea of following norms. As a project manager, it is important to establish positive project norms and hold people to them. For example, you might establish a norm that people should join team meetings no later than five minutes after the scheduled start time. If you ensure that most team members follow the norm, then you reduce the chance that individuals will go against it.

There are many persuasion techniques, strategies, and theories in business. In this article, I’ve suggested several areas that can increase your persuasive abilities in project management. Probably many of them you have already used at some point. These soft tactics are useful for leading a successful project, growing your expert authority, increasing referent power. They will ensure that your teams and stakeholders are eager to work with you in the future

Illustration: Copyright © Oksana Drachkovska

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