Keys to success

increasing your influence as a project manager

Joy Gumz, CPA, CISA, PMP – Project Auditors, LLC.


Influencing is a critical interpersonal skill for project managers. All interactions with stakeholders involve influence. Successful project managers both recognize this and use a variety of influencing techniques. The selection of influencing techniques depends on the context and the individuals involved. Factors such as culture must also be considered. Ultimately, the project manager's influencing abilities impact stakeholder views of both the project and the project manager. This paper explores influence from several perspectives and offers suggestions regarding their application.


The Context – Why Influence is Important

The manager versus leader debate continues to rage. Some even view “manager” as a derogatory term. When the emotion of this debate is removed, the project manager (or project leader, if you prefer) still has to accomplish work through other people. The old transactional paradigm of pay in exchange for work accomplished is beginning to crack. Although the absence of adequate pay can demotivate team members, pay alone is generally not a motivator. The project manager must use additional skills to influence team members. These interpersonal or soft skills are critical to the success of both the project and the project manager.

Interpersonal skills are discussed in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)— Fourth Edition. Specifically, they are included in the Tools and Techniques for both the Project Human Resources Management and the Project Communications Management Knowledge Areas. Together, these address the interpersonal skills the project manager needs to manage all stakeholder relationships. Influencing is one of these skills. Muzio, Fisher, Thomas, and Peters (2007) investigated the roles of soft (micro-social) skills in project management and reiterated their importance.

A Brief History of Influence

Perloff (2008) discussed the critical role that the ancient Greeks played in developing influencing skills. Oratory and rhetoric skills were valued. To meet the training demand, the Sophists traveled around the country providing lessons on how to make convincing arguments. Their approach centered on the delivery of the argument; however, some considered this to be showmanship. In particular, Plato strongly disagreed with this approach. He felt the merits of the argument itself were the most important to convincing others, and this was the area on which to focus. Aristotle, student of Plato, believed a dual approach was needed. That is, a convincing argument depended on both its merits and delivery. In addition, a third important component was the trustworthiness of the person making the argument. Thus, according to Aristotle, the three legs of the successful argument are: logos (the logic of the argument), pathos (the emotional state of the audience), and ethos (the trustworthiness or credibility of the speaker).

To summarize, influence is a function of what you say, how you say it, and who you are. Fortunately, all three components involve skills that can be improved. Logos can be improved through detailed preparation ahead of the planned conversation. The focus is on the logic of the argument as well as the interests and needs of the other party. Pathos is a function of connecting with the other party. The focus is on communication skills and establishing rapport. Ethos is the long lead-time element. Trustworthiness is a cumulative assessment of one's actions, words, and behaviors over time, with emphasis on the most recent data; like reputation, it is difficult to develop and easy to lose.

The Influencing Process

Influence May Use a Power Base

French and Raven (1959) identified five primary sources of power: Reward, coercive, and legitimate powers are formal or positional sources (i.e., they result from holding a position in an organization). Expert and referent powers are both types of informal or personal power because they are attributed to an individual, not a position. Regardless of the source, power has the potential to bring about change. Influence can be the actual exercise of power. This is consistent with the original French and Raven (1959) work on power (Raven, 1993). A trivial example to illustrate the difference between power and influence is a project manager arranging his or her office furniture to have the maximum impact on others entering the office. This furniture arrangement is designed to communicate the power of the project manager; however, this is a latent or potential power until there is a visitor to the office. Only at that point is change possible (e.g., a change in attitude, resulting from the nonverbal status communication of office furniture).

Of course, this is a trivial example. Although a few project managers may obsess over office furniture placement, most think about the various sources of power and how to use them strategically and tactically to successfully achieve the project's objectives.

Two Different Approaches

The basic communication model has two primary participants—the sender and receiver. Most communications have an element of influence. Even a communication that merely recites factual information involves a sliver of influence to convince the receiver that the sender is trustworthy and that the message should be believed. This discussion thus far has involved actions the sender can undertake to prepare and transmit messages; however, what about the receiver? There are two approaches receivers use to process information; thus, there are two approaches senders can use to prepare and transmit the information. A critical element of influence is diagnosing and using the approach that is most likely to be used by the receiver in processing the message.

The first approach is direct, focusing on the logic of the argument. This is frequently called the central route to influence, because the receiver focuses on the key elements central to the argument. The receiver must have both the ability and the desire to dissect and process the message. Perfloff noted that this ability to dissect the message is not the same as intelligence. Even if the receiver has a preference for analysis, this central route to influence may not work if the receiver does not have the desire. This lack of desire may be due to factors such as time constraints or the perceived unimportance of the decision. For the central route, the message sender should emphasize the logic and strength of the argument because these are what the receiver will use.

The second approach is indirect, and the message receiver focuses on cues or factors other than the message content to make a decision. This is frequently called the “peripheral route to influence,” because the receiver uses cues peripheral to the message itself for input to the decision. The peripheral route is generally the default if either the receiver does not have the ability to process the message or the interest in doing so. It would be helpful to know what cues the receiver will use in the decision process. It may be as simple as the social attractiveness of the sender. For the peripheral route, the message sender could exhibit passion about the pending decision and use other nonverbal behaviors to emphasize its importance.

How does the project manager diagnose which route the receiver will use? First, past behavior may be an indicator of future performance. If the key stakeholder typically asks a lot of questions before making a decision, it is likely that person leans toward the central route; however, if the constraints of the particular communication are such that the central route is not feasible (e.g., the stakeholder is leaving for a meeting), factors such as the project manager's trustworthiness (ethos) may be a factor.

If the key stakeholder is typically not an “analyzer,” the project manager should assess what factors will influence the decision (to the extent possible). One possibility is how strong the project manager feels about the decision (pathos). Another possibility is to show the relationship to previous decisions and invoke precedence (logos, to some extent).

What should the project manager do if it is not possible to diagnose which route the receiver will use? In this case, plan to use all influencing elements in the hope that one (or more) lead to a favorable decision.

Complicating Factors


Northouse (2010) defined culture as “the learned beliefs, values, rules, norms, symbols, and traditions that are common to a group of people” (p. 336). Several authors have proposed models to describe cultural dimensions; the model developed by Hofstede (2001) is frequently cited by others. Hofstede's model has five cultural dimensions: (1) power distance, (2) uncertainty avoidance, (3) individualism versus collectivism, (4) masculinity versus femininity, and (5) long-term versus short-term orientation.

Power distribution is related to how power is concentrated—from a very centralized, hierarchical model to a decentralized, flat model. A key question for a project manager is “Who is the decision maker?” The uncertainty avoidance dimension addresses how ambiguity is addressed. For example, is there an attempt to reduce future uncertainties through extensive rules and guidelines? The individualism versus collectivism dimension involves how decisions are made. That is, do decisions focus on the needs and preferences of the individual decision maker or on the collective needs and preferences of a group?

The masculinity versus femininity dimension, in part, addresses how people behave according to the traditional roles of men and women. For example, as hunters/gatherers, men were expected to be aggressive and competitive. Some stakeholders still exhibit these behaviors. The long-term versus short-term orientation dimension addresses the preference for the timing of results and rewards. A stakeholder with a long-term orientation focuses on future rewards and is not as concerned with short-term results. In contrast, a stakeholder with a short-term orientation wants results now. An interesting side note is that individuals focused on saving “face” exhibit, in part, a short-term orientation behavior (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010).

Another prominent cultural model was developed as a part of the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) study (House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta, (2004). The GLOBE cultural model uses nine dimensions that appear to address Hofstede's model with greater detail. However, Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) noted that, although the GLOBE study used some common terms, the underlying definitions differed.

In the context of communication, culture becomes an additional paradigm through which the communicated message must pass. Stated differently, cultural differences between the sender and receiver can distort the message from its intended meaning. Because most messages include some intent to influence, these cultural differences can diminish our influence.


Personality is defined as the collective personal characteristics (traits) that distinguish an individual's behavior (Lussier & Achua, 2010). In this context, personality has the potential to impact the paradigms through which messages are both encoded and decoded. Similar to culture, there are several models that describe how various personalities interact. Three commercially available models are the DiSC® Model, the Skills Deployment Inventory (SDI®), and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®). Each model provides insights regarding how to effectively interact with other people, and these insights can help strengthen our communication effectiveness.

Are You Persuaded?

Persuasion and Influence

Persuasion is the process of using communication in an attempt to get others to voluntarily change their minds. As stated earlier, influence is the actual exercise of power to bring about change. Some consider persuasion and influence as synonyms, whereas others have a preference for one of the words. Cialdini (2007), a renowned professor in marketing and psychology, prefers influence, as in the national bestseller Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (The word “persuasion” appears only a few times after the title page.) Perloff, a renowned communications professor, prefers persuasion, as in The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century. (Similarly, the word “influence” is used sparingly in Perloff's book.) For this paper, we will use the terms interchangeably.

Forms of Influence and Tactical Approach

Influence can be upward, across an organization, or downward. Influence usually applies one or more power bases of the individual. Yukl (1998) identified nine forms of influence behavior: rational persuasion, inspirational appeals, exchange, consultation, ingratiation, personal appeals, coalition tactics, legitimating tactics, and pressure. Cialdini (2007) whittled these down to six: consistency, liking, reciprocation, social proof, authority, and scarcity (Cialdini, 2007). Cialdini's work, although useful, does not provide examples from the field of project management or within an organization. It also does not provide the detail guidance on matching culture to the influence approach used, which may be important to a project manager.

The first step in selecting the right approach is for the project manager to consider the person he or she is trying to influence. What is his or her culture and life stage? Eastern and Western cultures emphasize different influence styles and life stages (e.g., early vs. middle adulthood is as important as culture in selecting influence style) (Ralston, Hallinger, Egri, & Naothinsuhk, 2005).

The second step for the project manager is to determine which approach is likely to be successful. Ralston has identified 17 influence tactics. The authors have added an 18th, personal appeal, which is one of Yukl's original forms of influence. These 18 tactics are more specific, and may be more useful to the project manager than referring to Cialdini's six strategies. Tactics are categorized as hard, soft, or rational, based on how much freedom the person has to decide either to yield or to resist the influence attempt (Kipnis & Schmidt, 1985). Exhibits 1 and 2 summarize these influence tactics.

These tables purposely exclude tactics that, although recognized by researchers on influence, would be against PMI's Code of Ethics, such as ”Destructive Illegal Behaviors,“ including behaviors harmful to others or illegal (e.g., blackmailing, stealing valuable documents, or theft of intellectual property).

Hard Influence Tactics

Exhibit 1 – Hard Influence Tactics

Soft, Rational, and Non-categorized Influence Tactics

Exhibit 2 – Soft, Rational, and Non-categorized Influence Tactics

In our research, the authors found that the ‘exchange’ influence tactic was not categorized consistently and was seen by some as rational (Ralston et al., 2005), whereas others saw it as a hard tactic (Kovack, 2008). We also found that ‘manipulation’ was not categorized.

Attempts have been made to link Hostede's indices on power distance and individualism with whether a nationality would prefer to be approached with hard or soft tactics (Terpstra-Tong & Ralston, 2002); however, these attempts to use Hofstede's work may be an over-simplification. Terpstra-Tong and Ralston found that people in Hong Kong and the Chinese prefer hard tactics but in practice, the authors’ experiences differ. The Chinese and Hong Kong use guanxi extensively. Guanxi stands for any kind of relationship but can also mean a network of relationships (Khor, 2005). It is considered a key element of business success in Chinese societies, and could be viewed as a type of networking, a soft tactic. A colleague of the authors who works in Hong Kong has found that soft approaches are more successful in the organization she is working in. She observed that another person was asked to leave a project after trying to use hard influence tactics. The lesson to be learned here is: selecting the approach based on whether it is hard or soft may not be successful in complex multi-national organizations.

Rather than focusing on hard or soft approaches, selecting the influence approach based on culture may be more successful for the project manager. While the rational approach may work in U.S. culture, and is the most frequently used approach in non-U.S. cultures (Terpstra-Tong & Ralston, 2002), it may not be the most successful approach. The Arab culture has a preference for consultation. A consultative approach is likely to be more successful than a rational approach when working with Arabs. In addition, using humor to strengthen the personal relationship with the Arab executive or manager is effective; however, it is important to be careful in using the appropriate humor style that does not ridicule anyone (Al-Suwaidi, 2008). This advice has been confirmed by the authors of this paper, who have both worked in the Middle East.

Managers from the United States and the Netherlands view Good Soldier and Image Management as positive ways to exert influence. Conversely, they viewed the hard strategies (Information Control and Strong-Arm Coercion) negatively. Hong Kong managers held a negative view, albeit slight, of Image Management (Ralston, Vollmer, Srinvasan, Nicholson, Tang, & Wan, 2001).

Research has shown that different nationalities and subcultures have different perceptions on which influence tactics are acceptable. Savvy project managers will match their approach carefully. If the approach used is not met with success, it should be re-examined.

Steps to Influence Regardless of Culture

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “The aim of persuasion is not to confront other people, but to appreciate their point of view and try to move them generally in your direction.” (Humes, 1992) Two hundred and fifty years later, we see people have not changed much.

Franklin used the acronym TALKING to describe his approach:

Timing – It is not good enough to have the right message. You have to know the right time.

Appreciation — Anyone who wants someone else to accommodate his or her request should learn to appreciate the other one's problems and concerns.

Listening – learn to listen well enough to find out what you need and how best to sell it to the other person. Feed back his or her words, using them to sell the point.

Knowledge – Learn where the other person is coming from and how to get him or her to where you want to go.

Integrity – Never misrepresent your fundamental beliefs or motives

Need – Saying “I need you” can be persuasive. When you must ask for something, one way to convince someone is to show that person is uniquely qualified to give it to you. Everyone likes to feel special and unique. A project manager has to take care, when demonstrating need because in some cultures, this could be considered a sign of weakness.

Giving – Learn the value of giving. If you insist on everything, you may wind up with nothing.

If you are not sure of which influence tactic to use, Franklin's methods may be appropriate.

Some Persuasion Tactics

There are several tactics that communicators can use to persuade others. Some of these are also used by unscrupulous salespeople, and therefore may be met with some resistance.

The “foot in the door” technique uses small agreements as the stepping stone to larger, more difficult agreements. The idea is to get past the initial resistance with a relatively easy-to-make decision. Once the resistance to influence is lowered, the communicator makes the larger request. Studies have shown the likelihood of agreeing to the second request is higher for individuals who agreed with the first request. There is power in small agreements. One caveat is that there should be some elapsed time between the first and second requests. An example is a project manager seeking an agreement in principle with a key stakeholder before making specific requests.

The “door in the face” technique starts with a larger, perhaps unrealistic, request. When this request is denied, the communicator makes a smaller, more realistic request. This puts the second request in perspective, and often leads to agreement. An example is a project manager requesting ten people for a project team, and then “settling” for a smaller number. Often, the grantor of the request feels good about the tough bargaining that led to the reduced settlement.

The “wait, that is not all” technique uses additional items to induce the other party to agree to the request. In retail sales, this is sometimes called the sweetener. The premise is that the seller includes additional items at relatively low cost to induce the other party to accept. In the traditional car purchase, for example, the car salesman might include a “free” tank of gas or oil change to entice the purchaser to agree to the negotiated price. A project management example is an offer to include some (relatively inexpensive) scope items in exchange for an agreement to extend a due date.

The “you scratch my back and I will scratch your back” technique is based on the reciprocity principle. In this context, Party A does a favor for Party B. At some point in the future, Party A will ask Party B for a favor in return. The underlying principle is that we feel some obligation to return a favor, no matter how small. The favor can be as simple as paying for the business lunch with a colleague. A project management example is allowing team members some time off in anticipation that overtime work will be needed at some point in the future.

The books by Cialdini and Perloff that were mentioned in the beginning of this section described additional tactics that one could use in the attempt to influence or persuade. In addition, Perloff discussed ethical consideration regarding persuasion. Like power, persuasion and influence are neither ethical nor unethical. It depends on the intent of the person doing the persuading or influencing.

The PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct provides guidelines regarding honesty in communications and conduct. Specifically, the mandatory statement for honesty is:

We do not engage in or condone behavior that is designed to deceive others, including but not limited to, making misleading or false statements, stating half-truths, providing information out of context or withholding information that, if known, would render our statements as misleading or incomplete.

Deceit, dishonesty, and misleading others in an attempt to influence violate this Code. They also diminish our trustworthiness and credibility. The ethos leg of our three-leg argument stool crumbles.

Project Success

Persuasion skills may play a role in determining project success. Project parameters, including the traditional metrics of cost, schedule, and scope, are generally set at the beginning of a project. It is possible that the views of project success at the time of project completion change after time has elapsed. The Sydney Opera House is a classic example of this phenomenon.

Nelson (2005) evaluated approximately 72 IT projects retrospectively to compare the stakeholder views of project success at the time of project completion and at some point after the project completion. Nelson identified six project success parameters in two broad categories: process-related and outcome-related. The process-related outcome metrics were the triple constraint—time, cost, and product (scope). The outcome-related metrics were use, value, and learning—all measurable only at some time after the project completion.

Few projects are static from beginning to end (i.e., have no changes in the initial project parameters). Therefore, a translation of sorts must be done to compare the project results with the original parameters. Both this translation and the resulting interpretation can be influenced. project managers might seek to put things in perspective to facilitate an apples-to-apples comparison. The objective is to evaluate the project results in the broader context of changes in the environment. Of course, it helps if major changes were anticipated in the project risk plan.


There are several ways for a project manager to increase and leverage his or her influence. Foremost is to understand what influence (or persuasion) is and how it works. In particular, try to understand the approach the other party will use to process communication messages and tailor the argument to facilitate that approach. The two approaches discussed here were the central and peripheral routes. When in doubt, use techniques to facilitate both approaches.

Power remains an important consideration—both formal (or positional) power and informal (or personal) power. Strive to leverage your formal power and increase your informal power. Effective project managers use multiple sources of power.

Culture and personality can be complicating factors that create a variance between the influencing message as intended by the sender and the message as interpreted by the receiver. First, recognize that this variance may occur. Second, attempt to eliminate the variance by diagnosing the cultural or personality differences and using words and behaviors compatible with the receiver.

Finally, actively manage stakeholders. Help them understand the context of the communication (or pending decision). Help fill in gaps in understanding rather than assume they will automatically see your point of view. Help them see why you consider the project to be successful (or is on the path to success)—if indeed you believe it to be true. Otherwise, focus first making the project successful and keep the stakeholders informed.


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© 2012, William T. Craddock & Joy Gumz
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Marseille, France



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