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Section 1: Understanding influence and putting it into practice

This section will examine some of the theories behind what tends to persuade us at a general level and consider the approaches which have been demonstrated to influence or change our views. We will then explore a model which describes our basic thinking preferences as well as how we like to be communicated with.

What is influence?

Influence – a definition: Oxford Dictionary:
“[mass noun] the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself.”

Effective disability employment strategies in organisations and the APS more broadly have a significant role to play in supporting an effective and productive public sector. When successful, these strategies make organisations more effective, more in tune with the needs and concerns of the citizens it serves and arguably more efficient, innovative and flexible.

However, it is often seen as the role of human resource practitioners to solve the problem of disability employment and retention. Yet in many cases, these individuals do not hold senior decision-making roles. Human resource practitioners who successfully promote disability employment in their organisations generally do so through the strategic use of a variety of influencing skills and approaches, working in partnership with business areas and building support across the organisation, see Figure 2.

Influence often involves negotiation. To influence, we need to be able to offer value in terms of what that person is committed to, as well as ask for opportunities to demonstrate that value.

  • Influence is often about problem solving, working through perceived barriers to an effective and sustainable outcome.
  • Influencing in an APS environment generally involves influencing groups of people and teams. This is particularly the case for teams that may employ people with a disability. The more that people embrace the value of employing people with disability in their teams, the more the issue becomes one of mainstream management, rather than an add-on activity.
  • Influence in disability employment invariably involves us in managing change – changing perceptions, attitudes and in some cases work environments.
  • Finally, influencing to achieve better employment outcomes for people with disability is about leadership and role modelling – demonstrating how to support people with disability in the workplace to create a productive team, leading yourself, your own organisation and ultimately leading across the APS.

Figure 2: Influencing skills.

Influencing is a skill that we all have and like any skill it can be developed. Effective development occurs through understanding and appreciating:

  • The components of effective influence.
  • The context in which you influence.
  • The need for you to apply and practice your skill for it to further develop.

In the APS context, effective influencing is supported by three capabilities:

  • An ability to respond to and target particular forms of communication.
  • An understanding of the psychology of persuasion that sits behind our willingness to be influenced.
  • An ability to develop simple influencing strategies and carry them out.

These are shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Framework for influence (source: John Robinson Consulting Services 2012).

We will now explore each one of these three elements and how they apply to disability employment in the APS.

Principles of persuasion

There appear to be three crucial elements to effective influencing within an APS environment. The first of these is an understanding of and an ability to apply Principles of Persuasion.

Effective and sustained influence is difficult without an understanding of what works to persuade, motivate and influence human beings to do things. Fortunately we have over five decades of significant research to call on to assist us in this understanding.

Robert B. Cialdini is recognised as one of the most informed writers on influence. His book Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion was first published in 1984 and has continued to be updated since. Cialdini scoured research literature on persuasion and influence to identify six fundamental principles of influence that can be applied in the workplace:

  • The Principle of Liking – people like those who like them.
  • The Principle of Reciprocity – people repay in kind.
  • The Principle of Social Proof – people follow the lead of similar others.
  • The Principle of Consistency – people align with their clear commitments.
  • The Principle of Authority – people defer to experts.
  • The Principle of Scarcity – people want more of what they can have less of.

Principle 1: The principle of liking

The first principle confirms the need for those involved in facilitating disability employment to cultivate a network of individuals who respect and support them in their work.

The application: Uncover real similarities and offer genuine praise.

Research indicates that people are more influenced by those who they believe are similar to them and those that provide them with praise. In developing a network to support your work, spend some time getting to know your colleagues and identifying and surfacing the similarities you may have. It is likely that you and those you work with will have some experiences in common.

Praise is also an important factor in influence. The application in our context can be as simple as recognising a positive comment in relation to disability employment that may occur during a conversation or perhaps more formally recognising inroads made in employing a person with disability. Whatever the application, it is important that it be genuine.

Principle 2: The principle of reciprocity

The second principle confirms that individuals tend to provide support to those that they have received support from.

The application: Give what you want to receive.

So what do you have to give? What you primarily have is very valuable – information on disability employment, such as how it may best be achieved, and an understanding of the benefits that can be gained from the employment of people with disability. It is also likely that you are the custodian of the ‘rules and regulations’ that govern disability employment in your organisation. By providing something valuable (timely, clear and accurate information) to decision-makers in your organisation, you are setting up an opportunity for them to reciprocate your positive and helpful behaviour.

Principle 3: The Principle of social proof

The application: Use peer power whenever it’s available.

People tend to follow the lead of others whom they respect. This is why it is so important in disability employment to have visible senior management commitment to employment initiatives. It is also why it is necessary to effectively market every disability employment success, naming the managers and decision-makers involved (where appropriate).

Principle 4: The principle of consistency

The Application: Make commitments active, public and voluntary.

Research shows that a choice made actively, i.e. one that’s spoken out loud or written down or otherwise made explicit, is considerably more likely to direct someone’s future conduct than the same choice left unspoken. This is why formal commitments to employing people with disability are so important.

Principle 5: The principle of authority

The application: Expose your expertise. Don’t assume it is self-evident.

The use of an individual wearing white coats and carrying clipboards to signal ‘expert’ status is synonymous with popular advertising. This is because evidence tells us that a significant proportion of the population will respond positively to such ‘expert’ images. This is not to suggest that you rush out and buy a lab coat and clipboard. Your expertise is real and genuine. In your role, as indicated earlier, you are the custodian of valuable organisational information on disability employment – you are the expert in this area.

Principle 6: The principle of scarcity

The application: Highlight unique benefits and exclusive information.

Research shows that items and opportunities are seen to be more valuable as they become less available. Promote workplace awards for those teams which support people with disabilities and engender some cross-organisation competition for these awards. Ensure that prizes are highly valued and directly linked to the team effort which earned the award, such as additional resources, training or conference attendance, etc.

The application of the Principles

The Principles of Persuasion are most effective when used in combination; not necessarily all at once, but in a discrete combination, tailored to the context of the circumstances. Also, using one or two principles constantly is generally ineffective.

Targeted communication

“Effective influencers are multi-lingual: They use the language of objects and a variety of other languages to lead others to think or act in a certain way. As long as the purpose behind their use of those languages is an ethical purpose, designed to benefit someone or something beyond the influencer, then the influencers are acting with integrity. To effectively employ body language and paralanguage and silence and neurolinguistics and proxemics (the use of space) is to understand that different folks need different strokes. Your ability to use a wide range of tools is a tribute to your understanding of human dynamics.”

Marlene Caroselli, Influence: Key to the Door of Leadership

Ideally an APS workplace will reflect the broader world in its diversity and richness. This diversity however provides both a challenge to and an opportunity for influence.

Research on the brain has led to an understanding that each of us has a preferred way and mode of thinking that affects the way we take in and process information. The awareness of one’s own thinking style and the thinking styles of others, combined with the ability to act outside of one’s preferred thinking style, is known as Whole Brain Thinking.

Whole Brain Thinking uses colour as a metaphor for describing thinking preferences. In Figure 4, the brain is shown as a circle. The four quadrants represent areas in the brain, with the blue (A) and yellow (D) quadrants representing the left and right sides of the cerebral cortex respectively, and the green (B) and red (C) quadrants representing the left and right sides of the limbic brain. The theory behind the model developed by Ned Herrmann suggests that we each have preferences about which parts of the brain we use and this affects the way we like to receive information.

Using Whole Brain Thinking is about using the thinking preferences in each of the four quadrants. It enables you to take a comprehensive view of any situation and look at it from a variety of perspectives. The result—you have literally thought of everything. Figure 5 describes aspects of each thinking preference.

Figure 4: Whole Brain Thinking.1

  A – upper left B – lower left C – lower right D – upper right
Descriptors Logical; factual; rational; critical; analytical; quantitative; authoritarian; mathematical Technical reader; data collector; conservative; controlled; sequential; articulate; dominant; detailed Musical; spiritual; symbolic; talkative; emotional; intuitive (regarding people); reader (personal) Intuitive (regarding solutions); simultaneous; imaginative; synthesiser; holistic; artistic; spatial
Skills Problem solving; analytical; statistical; technical; scientific; financial Planning; regulatory; supervisory; administrative; organisational; implementation Expressing ideas; interpersonal; writing (correspondence); teaching; training Integrative; visualising; causing change; conceptualising; generating ideas; trusting intuition
Typical phrases used ‘Tools’; ‘hardware’; ‘key point’; ‘knowing the bottom line’; ‘take it apart’; ‘break it down’; ‘critical analysis’ ‘Establish habits’; ‘we have always done it this way’; ‘law and order’; ‘self discipline’; ‘by the book’; ‘play it safe’; ‘sequence’ ‘Team work’; ‘the family’; ‘interactive’; ‘participatory’; ‘human values’; ‘personal growth’; ‘human resources’; ‘develop teams’ ‘Play with an idea’; ‘the big picture’; ‘broad-based’; ‘synergistic’; ‘cutting edge’; ‘conceptual block busting’; ‘innovative’
Typical derogatory phrases (zingers) used by others ‘Number cruncher’; ‘power hungry’; ‘unemotional’; ‘calculating’; ‘uncaring’; ‘cold fish’; ‘nerd’ ‘Picky’; ‘can’t think for himself’; ‘unimaginative’; ‘one-track-mind’; ‘stick-in-the-mud’; ‘grinds out task’ ‘Bleeding heart’; ‘talk, talk, talk’; ‘touchy-feely’; ‘a push over’; ‘soft touch’; ‘gullible’; ‘sappy’ ‘Reckless’; ‘can’t focus’; ‘unrealistic’; ‘off-the-wall’; ‘dreams a lot’; ‘undisciplined’; ‘head in the clouds’

Whole Brain Thinking exercise

The application of Whole Brain Thinking first involves you establishing your dominant thinking preference. Be aware that we have a capacity to use all preferences, it’s just that we tend to find some easier to use than others and as such prefer to use them.

Observe the way you work and in particular the way you prefer to communicate. Which thinking preference does this most closely align with?

Observe the work patterns and communication preferences of someone that you seek to influence. What thinking preference does their behaviour most closely align with?

If you share a thinking preference it is likely (all other things being equal) that your communication will be effective and influential. If you do not share thinking preferences, things may be a little more challenging.

For example, when promoting disability employment, an individual with a strong red preference is likely to focus on:

  • The benefit employment provides to people with disability through their inclusion in the social fabric of the workplace and the nation more broadly.
  • The rights of people with disability to actively participate in employment.
  • The opportunity that disability employment provides for the development and sustainability of work teams.

While all of these points are valid they are unlikely to be persuasive to an individual with a strong blue preference. This individual prefers to respond to information that is factual, quantitative and rational. An influential blue argument for supporting disability employment in a workplace would include:

  • A well-constructed business case outlining the scale of the skills shortage in future years, the return on investment in terms of lower turnover and a cost benefit analysis.
  • Data on the cost of reasonable adjustments indicating that roughly 80% of adjustments cost less than $500 per person.
  • The statistics on attendance and productivity associated with workers with disability.
  • The stated policy framework and history surrounding disability employment in the APS and public sector more broadly.
  • Research relating to the positive impact diversity has on the performance of work areas.
  • Workplace examples where the employment of workers with disability has resulted in measurable improvements in team effectiveness and productivity.

Individuals with a strong green preference are likely to respond to arguments that:

  • Cite the appropriate regulations and rules that are in place to support disability employment.
  • Provide a clear process of recruitment and retention of workers with disability.
  • Clearly articulate any administrative arrangements associated with employing a worker with disability.
  • Detail risk and mitigation strategies associated with disability employment.

Those with a dominant yellow preference are likely to respond to propositions that:

  • Focus on the big picture of the employment of Australians with a disability.
  • Link other business initiatives in an organisation (or more broadly) to disability employment.
  • Include initiatives that have not been attempted before, particularly those that appear to be innovative.
  • Involve change to the status quo.

Crafting your communication and influencing around thinking preference is likely to result in you being more effective in mounting and supporting arguments for the implementation and ongoing support of disability employment initiatives.


When developing strategies to influence stakeholders, it is useful to draw on principles of social marketing. These recognise that logic or an appeal to ‘what is right’ is often not enough to influence behaviour. The twelve principles (or actions) of an effective social marketing approach include:

  • Take advantage of prior and existing successful campaigns – for example:
    • Draw on themes from other successful culture change efforts.
  • Target people most ready for action, i.e. those who are directly affected – for example:
    • Ask those who employ people with disabilities and those with disabled family members or friends to become champions, both officially and non-officially in the workplace.
  • Promote single, doable behaviours, one at a time – for example:
    • All jobs advertised include disability-friendly references.
    • Awareness training for all staff and the identification of disability champion at a senior level in the organisation.
  • Identify and remove barriers to attracting and retaining people with disabilities – for example:
    • Promote workplace discussion around issues of disclosure and real and perceived barriers (such as culture and work design).
    • Many of the As One initiatives target improving recruitment processes to enable more candidates with disability to enter the APS.
    • Bringing in a specialist consultant3 to provide human resource managers and line managers with a free assessment of the costs involved and the subsidies available to make reasonable adjustments.
  • Bring real benefits into the present – for example:
    • Cost benefit analysis, targeting the real average cost of a workplace adjustment versus cost of staff turnover. It is important to be able to use business language as part of the influencing strategy, presenting a disability employment strategy as a business case which includes measures such as return on investment and highlighting costs of turnover.
  • Highlight costs of competing behaviours – for example:
    • The cost of not doing anything.
    • The cost to the organisation’s reputation, particularly if the organisation provides front-line services to the public.
  • Promote a tangible object or service to help target audiences perform the behaviour – for example:
    • Assistance from a specialist to coordinate and support the workplace through business planning processes.
    • Consider setting voluntary targets for employment of people with disability.
  • Consider non-monetary incentives in the form of recognition and appreciation – for example:
    • Where appropriate, highlight good news stories that involve innovative approaches to supporting a person’s specific needs, while achieving positive outcomes for the group or team.
  • Have a little fun with messages – for example:
    • Source a short film that uses humour to demonstrate how some people feel uncomfortable when they interact with people with disability.
    • When phrases become overused or are associated with negative connotations, try some creativity to help get the message across. Try replacing the term ‘reasonable adjustment’ with ‘we will need to make sure that there is a fair fit for the person with a disability and the workplace’.
  • Use media campaigns to influence people at the point of decision making – for example:
    • Develop an internal marketing and awareness campaign which directly links to the organisation’s recruitment process and is reflected in the tools to support selection processes. Use the campaign livery in the public advertising of positions.
  • Get commitments and pledges – for example:
    • Link achievement of disability employment outcomes to the agency’s business planning and include key performance indicators for divisional or group managers.
  • Use ongoing internal actions and awareness campaigns to ensure that the approach is sustained. Many great initiatives falter after initial success as they are delivered as a once-only campaign or set of actions. Instead, one should aim for continued engagement and take steps to keep the process going. For example:
    • Keep up an ongoing stream of information.
    • Set up and support unofficial mentoring arrangements.
    • Encourage people to seek assistance in either supporting a person with a disability or working with a disability.
    • Develop a simple resource kit.
    • Develop a calendar of events and actively engage champions to ensure the issue is kept front-of-mind for all staff and managers.

1.The Whole Brain® Model is a trademark of Herrmann International, Inc. and is reproduced with written permission for display in this text. ©Copyright 2010 Herrmann International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

2. ©Copyright 2010 Herrmann International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

3 JobAccess is an information and advice service funded by the Australian Government. It offers help and workplace solutions for people with disability and their employers. JobAccess is an initiative of the Australian Government to support the employment of people with disability. It includes a comprehensive, easy to use website and a free telephone information and advice service where you can access confidential and expert advice on the employment of people with disability.

Last reviewed: 
16 May 2018