Marketing Aug 1, 2016

Under­stand­ing Pow­er Dynam­ics Will Make You More Persuasive

How pow­er­ful you feel affects the mes­sages you con­vey — and the ones you want to hear.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

David Dubois

Derek D. Rucker

Adam D. Galinsky

Per­sua­sion is a fun­da­men­tal com­po­nent of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, whether between brands and con­sumers, with­in orga­ni­za­tions, or in every­day discussions.

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So how can you be more persuasive?

One impor­tant fac­tor can be whether to stress com­pe­tence or warmth in a mes­sage. For mar­keters, this trans­lates to decid­ing whether to com­mu­ni­cate or adver­tise aspects of your firm’s exper­tise and effi­cien­cy or your firm’s sin­cer­i­ty and approachability.

But, when should you stress com­pe­tence ver­sus warmth? The answer can some­times depend on the feel­ing of pow­er expe­ri­enced by both the com­mu­ni­ca­tor and the audi­ence, accord­ing to research by Derek Ruck­er, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School.

The rela­tion­ship between audi­ence and com­mu­ni­ca­tor pow­er is dynam­ic. Our research stressed the impor­tance of know­ing both pieces of the puzzle.”

Ruck­er and his col­leagues found that audi­ences who felt pow­er­ful were more swayed by pitch­es that focused on com­pe­tence and skill­ful­ness, where­as those who felt pow­er­less were more per­suad­ed by pitch­es that empha­sized warmth and sin­cer­i­ty. This research chal­lenges a long-dis­cussed assump­tion that pow­er­ful peo­ple always hold sway and pow­er­less peo­ple are always eas­i­er to bend.

Learn more about Kellogg’s exec­u­tive edu­ca­tion pro­gram on strate­gic mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions in the dig­i­tal age here.

Pow­er and Persuasion

Ruck­er and his coau­thors—David Dubois of INSEAD and Adam Galin­sky of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty — explored the rela­tion­ship between pow­er and per­sua­sion in four exper­i­ments. The exper­i­ments rely on tech­niques to tem­porar­i­ly affect how pow­er­ful par­tic­i­pants feel in the moment. In one exper­i­ment, for instance, par­tic­i­pants were asked to write sen­tences using either pow­er­ful words (like author­i­ty” and dom­i­nates”) or pow­er­less ones (like obey” and sub­mits”). In anoth­er, par­tic­i­pants were told to recall an instance in which they felt either pow­er­ful or powerless.

After being placed into a state of low or high pow­er, par­tic­i­pants were assigned to be either com­mu­ni­ca­tors or audi­ence mem­bers. Com­mu­ni­ca­tors were tasked with per­suad­ing the audi­ence to, for exam­ple, use a new gym facil­i­ty or dine at a spe­cif­ic restau­rant. In mul­ti­ple exper­i­ments, the researchers had either high-pow­er com­mu­ni­ca­tors” or low-pow­er com­mu­ni­ca­tors” deliv­er mes­sages to high-pow­er audi­ences” or low-pow­er audiences.”

Across the exper­i­ments, the researchers observed two clear trends.

First, the pow­er of the com­mu­ni­ca­tor influ­enced the type of argu­ments they used. High-pow­er com­mu­ni­ca­tors grav­i­tat­ed toward more com­pe­tence-relat­ed argu­ments, where­as low-pow­er com­mu­ni­ca­tors used more warmth-relat­ed arguments.

Sec­ond, high-pow­er audi­ences were more per­suad­ed by mes­sages from high-pow­er com­mu­ni­ca­tors. And low-pow­er audi­ences were more per­suad­ed by mes­sages from low-pow­er communicators.

Match­ing Mindsets

Why did this happen?

When peo­ple feel pow­er­ful, they appear to care more about com­pe­tence, and they deem that as impor­tant,” Ruck­er says. So, high-pow­er com­mu­ni­ca­tors use com­pe­tence argu­ments more, and those argu­ments are more appeal­ing to high-pow­er audi­ences. Con­verse­ly, when peo­ple feel pow­er­less they appear to care more about warmth, and so low-pow­er com­mu­ni­ca­tors use warmth argu­ments more, and these argu­ments are more appeal­ing to low-pow­er audiences.”

In oth­er words, when a communicator’s per­spec­tive aligns well with that of her audi­ence, she is more like­ly to use argu­ments that mat­ter to them. And, of course, the oppo­site is true when the pow­er lev­els of the com­mu­ni­ca­tor and audi­ence are not aligned.

For instance, a per­son in a high-pow­er mind­set might talk about the com­pe­tence of a char­i­ty to a per­son in a low-pow­er mind­sest. The high-pow­er mind­set might lead the com­mu­ni­ca­tor to empha­size com­pe­tence,” Ruck­er says. But the per­son in the low-pow­er mind­set might think, They might be com­pe­tent to car­ry out their mis­sion, but can they be trust­ed?’ And the reverse is true. A per­son in a low-pow­er mind­set might say, This restau­rant is so friend­ly and invit­ing.’ But a per­son in a high-pow­er mind­set might think, That’s fine, but I’m inter­est­ed in the qual­i­ty of the food.’”

So a mis­match in the mind­sets of a com­mu­ni­ca­tor and an audi­ence can cre­ate an uni­tend­ed dis­con­nect between them, mak­ing it hard­er for the com­mu­ni­ca­tor to be persuassive.

What Dif­fer­ence Does It Make?

The research sug­gests that tai­lor­ing a mes­sage to the mind­set of an audi­ence can increase its impact.

Since feel­ings of pow­er, as opposed to actu­al social posi­tion, are often in flux, pay­ing atten­tion to the con­text around the message’s deliv­ery might be cru­cial. An appeal that nor­mal­ly would be per­fect for a giv­en audi­ence might fall flat if the audience’s feel­ing of pow­er has been altered by soci­etal or per­son­al events, such as a CEO who was recent­ly fired.

The research also sug­gests the impor­tance of choos­ing the right per­son to craft the mes­sage — because pow­er­ful mes­sen­gers might be inclined to frame an argu­ment in a way that is suit­able for pow­er­ful audi­ences, but not for low-pow­er audiences.

The rela­tion­ship between audi­ence and com­mu­ni­ca­tor pow­er is dynam­ic,” Ruck­er says. Our research stressed the impor­tance of know­ing both pieces of the puzzle.”

But Ruck­er is not ready to con­clude that match­ing is always effec­tive and mis­match­ing always inef­fec­tive. It is a ques­tion he hopes to research more in the future.

I’m a con­tex­tu­al­ist, so I’m very open-mind­ed to the idea that mis­match­es might some­times be ben­e­fi­cial,” he says. Maybe there are cas­es where hav­ing a mis­match is good, for exam­ple, when a mis­match caus­es peo­ple to pay atten­tion to infor­ma­tion they would have oth­er­wised ignored. I look for­ward to explor­ing this issue in greater depth.”

Featured Faculty

Derek D. Rucker

Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing, Professor of Marketing, Co-chair of Faculty Research

About the Writer

Theo Anderson is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.

About the Research

Dubois, David, Derek D. Rucker, and Adam D. Galinsky. 2016. “Dynamics of Communicator and Audience Power: The Persusiveness of Competence Versus Warmth.” Journal of Consumer Research.

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