How to collaborate effectively

Darryl HoweModern membership organisation practice often requires close collaboration with others to share ideas, resources and costs. Darryl Howes MSc sets out some tips from the science of influence and persuasion to help ease the path to co-operation.

When we need to work with organisations who are not our natural allies, it can be useful to revisit what science tells us about the topic of persuasion. This can inform the practice of membership body and professional association CEO’s, CFO’s, HR Directors and other senior leadership team members.


Over 30 years’ ago, a mid-career academic decided to take a sabbatical. But not in the form of a holiday.


In pursuit of his interest in how people are influenced, he set off to work under-cover in several occupations. These included industry sectors engaged in sales, marketing, recruiting and fundraising.


Now Professor of Psychology of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, what Robert Cialdini discovered from these practical contexts he formulated into six guiding principles. They were published in his 1984 seminal work, ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’.


Cialdini sets out the influence principles as follows:


Likeability – Being perceived as likeable by others is a big plus to relationships. The components of likeability are often cited in terms of infectious positivity, patience, empathy and keeping an open mind. We can think of public figures who are held in high regard through cultivation of their likeability.

When we take the initiative in providing personal information about ourselves; where we studied, our hobbies, family etc., negotiation roadblocks can be eased. Cialdini’s research shows that deadlocks were halved through this simple measure.


Consistency – People we interact with generally appreciate consistency of behaviour. If we continue to fit the internal model they have of us, there is more comfort and less conflict.

Our collaborative partners will also wish to behave in a way consistent with their own values and beliefs. Find out what they hold dear. Then frame opportunities to work together as putting their principles into practice.


Reciprocity – If we’ve ever received a gift in an unsolicited mailing from a life insurance company, this is the application of the principle of reciprocity. In short, if someone does a favour for us, we are minded to do the same for them. Anthropologists would point to this as an underlying factor in the advancement of the human species and an aid to co-operative practice.


Authority – A friend gives some of her spare time as a voluntary Special Constable in the UK Police Force. She often remarks on how people treat her differently when she is ‘in uniform’, as opposed to being in civilian clothes. Of course, there are many other forms of authority beyond what we wear – official titles for example or even the way we speak. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s work on how we present ourselves also links with this.

Another practical tip is to establish authority up front. Most meetings are pre-empted by an email exchange to set them up. Using this as an opportunity to highlight worthy achievements, prosocial behaviour, awards etc, can help to set the tone for subsequent engagement.


Scarcity – Known to all retailers worldwide, ‘Buy now while stocks last’ is a perfect example of scarcity as a tool of persuasion. Even a pub landlord calling time at the end of the day has the effect of bringing customers to the bar for last orders. How does this work? It is suggested that a declaration of scarcity imposes a loss of free choice. This causes rational decision making to be overridden in favour of less selective quick thinking.

Similarly, research indicates that when information is harder to access, we are more likely to believe that it is correct. We often think about what our negotiation partners need to know. But what, in addition, would they like to know?


Social Proof – Consensus wins out. As social beings, we have evolved to make use of the opinions of others rather than expend time and effort finding things out for ourselves. What others say and do is a useful shortcut to what we should also say and do. So, as people, we are persuaded by the actions of others. Examples abound within comparison websites and the rating devices used whenever we buy a good or service.

It also follows that we are more persuaded by people who are like us, or more accurately, who we perceive to be like us. So, part of building rapport with our collaboration partners should be to explore where common interests exist, in furtherance of establishing common ground.


It’s useful at this point to sound a warning: There are degrees of subtlety in the practical use of Cialdini’s discoveries. Their application needs to be nuanced.


We are not saying, for example, that scarcity works by demanding “If you don’t agree now, I’ll approach someone else next week!”. To put forward an ultimatum in this way would clearly be relationship threatening. People are also highly tuned-in to attempts at manipulation.


Because problems often present themselves as hard to manage ‘one-offs’, it’s easy to be convinced that the difficult situations before us are without precedent. One valuable advantage of the principles is they remind us of common themes. They can be used to shed light on the intractable and provide a route map to resolution.


Darryl Howes MSc is a social scientist with a commercial background. Informed by insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology and the burgeoning field of computational social science, he works with professional membership organisations, individuals, companies and not for profits.  Follow Darryl on Twitter @DarrylHowes and connect on LinkedIn here