Manager influence goes up when they are less certain


This counter-intuitive notion is the key conclusion of new research coming out of the Stanford Business School.  This research has important implications for senior managers as well as industries that sell expertise such as professional services, advertising agencies and recruiting firms.  

The researcher, Zakary Tormala, had subjects evaluate the appeal of a restaurant based on the assessment of two different reviewers.  Half the participants read the review by an expert (a professional food critic) while the other half read a review by an amateur.  Half of each group saw a review that was highly certain; the rest saw a review that was tentative.

Overall, while the confident amateur inspired subjects to give better ratings than the uncertain one, the less assured expert prompted higher ratings than the certain expert. The findings suggest people do not necessarily mistrust confident experts, but sometimes people are more persuaded by experts who are not confident.

What is behind this phenomenon?  Chock it up to a concept known as expectancy violations. People expect experts to be confident. Violations of that expectation surprises them, resulting in the individual taking greater notice and giving the opinion more credence. In the research, subjects reported being more surprised by the uncertain experts and the confident amateurs.

These findings do not suggest that CEOs should project uncertainly about their company’s prospect to become more influential. Having your audience take notice is not a substitute for ignoring a relevant message.  To be persuasive, managers must balance surprise with credibility. Being credible means a delivering message that is relevant to the core argument or issue.

Complementary research by Tormala also looked at how people view potential. Interestingly, the initial findings seem to show that people value high potential more than high achievement.  In one basketball study, people read the scouting report on a player and were asked to predict their salary level. Some subjects read the actual stats for the player’s first five years in the league while others read predictions for the first five years’ performance. The numbers were identical. On average, people gave the rookie over 20% more in salary in year six than the veteran.

These findings were similar to those found in the restaurant review study.   Proven achievement is very certain and predictable. At the same time, potential is uncertain and exciting.  The potential for multiple outcomes could lead to higher than expected results, and as a result, greater expectations for performance.

For managers and external experts, there are some key takeaways to build influence and trust:

  1. Foster a communication approach that emphasizes honesty, empathy and integrity;
  2. Adopt a more humble tone and style in place of the standard confidence-based rhetoric;
  3. Demonstrate analytical and process transparency underlying the opinion.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

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