Teaching Senior Leaders to Influence, Elizabeth Stevens

In this article, Dr. Stevens examines the application of influence parameters by executive coaches teaching senior leaders how to deploy influence in a business context. She outlines five key steps an executive coach should follow in order to teach most effectively.

Teaching Senior Leaders the Art and Science of Influence:
A Toolkit for Executive Coaches

Dr. Elizabeth Stevens


Improving relationships and developing influence skills is often reported as a top priority for executives seeking executive coaching (Grubb & Ting, 2006).   Although most executives typically do not lack the basics of these types of skills, few have the formal tools or know-how to sharpen and cultivate their abilities. Although some executive coaches offer influence training in their work, it is very difficult to find theory-based methods in the literature and in other resources available to executives, coaches and other practitioners. What follows in an easy-to-use and theory-based approach and toolkit for executives and coaches interested in exploring the art and science of influence for use at work.

This approach has been adapted from the general behavior change framework proposed by Rowland and van den Berg (2012) and is further informed by a simpler model by Wein (2012). Although this persuasion training approach uses the same categories as proposed by Rowland and van den Berg, the organization of how the categories are used has been altered to better fit the specific environment of influencing others in a corporate environment.

The Executive Persuasion Method

When a straightforward rational argument is not enough to convince others at work, it may be worthwhile to consider a more robust persuasion approach. The most effective influence techniques take thought and preparation, but the investment in time and effort can yield significant returns. Executives engaging in coaching are often looking for guidance grounded in science and this approach, called the Executive Persuasion Method, offers practical tools that have been extracted from years of academic research.

The Executive Persuasion Method can be broken down into 5 steps or phases and uses knowledge about the executive’s environment to develop an influence strategy. Science-based dimensions, also called parameters, guide the coach and executive towards a communication path that is most likely to yield a successful outcome.

Here is an overview of the 5 phases:

Phase 1: Coach educates executive about the process.

Phase 2: Coach and executive define outcome goals & identify the key players, or the individuals whose support would be most helpful for achieving the objectives.

Phase 3: Coach and executive jointly assess the political climate and determine the level of investigation necessary for successful influence (see level descriptions below).

Phase 4: Coach and executive choose and explore appropriate influence parameters from different levels.

Phase 5: Using parameter information, coach and executive discuss and implement the persuasion approach.

Phase 1: Education

During this phase the coach provides an overview of the approach and briefly discusses the theory, depth of investigation and the different types of parameters. Expectations are discussed and limitations are identified. It is communicated to the coachee that this approach provides the executive with tools to enhance his/her abilities to influence others and to improve the overall likelihood of success through the use of science-based tools, but it is not magic. During this time the coach also discusses with the executive the “art” side of the influence strategy. The art part includes executive polish, listening and observation skills as well as development of the specific attention skills necessary to put the method into practice.

Phase 2: Goals & Key Player Identification

In this phase the coach and the executive clearly identify the individuals the executive wants to persuade (board of directors, shareholders, coworkers, subordinates, etc…), and define what the ultimate goal of the influence is. The coach and executive discuss and identify the pathway necessary to achieve the ultimate goal and operationalize any behavior by the key players necessary to obtain the desired outcome. By understanding the pathway to goal attainment and by defining the behaviors from the key players it becomes possible to roadmap the overall influence strategy.

Phase 3: Assessment of Political Climate & Introduction to the Levels

The level of depth of investigation necessary depends on the level of political complexity of the organization. The more complex and political an organization is, the more desirable and necessary superior influencing skills become. Level 1 dimensions (parameters) are appropriate for organizations or influence situations that are clear-cut or in minimally political environments. For these types of problems a logical argument packaged in a credible way from a credible source is suitable. Level 2 parameters (to be used along with Level 1 parameters) are useful when the situation is not as straightforward and when there are concerns that influence might be harder won. In these cases it is still important to package the message in a convincing way but it also requires that the psychological social context also be considered to persuade the key players. Finally, level 3 parameters (paired with Level 1 and Level 2 parameters) are for use when persuasion is assessed to be difficult and the executive needs substantial help to convert his/her colleagues. For these circumstances the packaging of the message (level 1), the psychological social context (level 2) and the personal motivations of the key players (level 3) are all crucial to analyze and address.

In this phase the coach and executive should discuss the current political environment and identify what level is most appropriate for the objective. Once the level of depth has been determined, it is possible to identify which parameters will be most fruitful for exploration.

Phase 4: Description and Use of Influence Parameters

Description of Influence Parameters

    Level 1 – Informational Context & Executive Image:

Noise – refers to all the other messages and communication efforts from other people or groups that may distract the audience from focusing or accepting the executive’s message (Weaver & Shannon, 1963). It is useful to know what potential noise exists and to account for this when crafting the executive’s communication so that he/she can address or counter these other messages. Noise can also help to pinpoint when and where a message should be delivered.

Filters – Because individuals are overloaded with messages that the brain cannot fully process, information that is determined to be irrelevant is filtered out (Lavie, 2006). It is important when sending a message that it is not automatically disregarded. To do this, it is necessary that the audience perceive the information as important and relevant. Understanding the optimal time to deliver information may influence whether it is filtered or not.

Framing – is a technique that crafts and presents a message in a way as to make it more or less appealing. People respond differently to choices depending on whether it is presented as a loss or a gain. Positive frames evoke risk-aversion behavior, while negative frames encourage risk-taking behavior. See the work of Kahneman & Tversky (1984) for more.

Decision Path – refers to the series of decisions, thoughts, ideas that people go through to reach their final opinion or behavior (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Understanding this path can identify when/where in the process is optimal to intervene and influence final opinion/behavior.

Source & Channel Credibility / Executive Image (Polish) – this is a measure of the trustworthiness of a source. Does the message come directly from the executive or does someone or something else deliver it? How does the executive present him/herself? Do they appear to know what they are talking about? A message coming from a credible source is more likely to be accepted than a message coming from a non-credible source (Aronson, 2008).

Message Appeals – refers to the tone and type of the message. Is a pure rational, economic, business case presentation the most effective or should it be an emotional, personal one? Other types of messages include fear, humor, warmth, etc. Knowing how to package the message so that it is best received is an important factor to consider when influencing (Aronson, 2008).

    Level 2 – Social Context:

Group Membership – refers to the reference group an individual uses to define his or her identity (family men, young & ambitious, looking towards retirement, etc…). Understanding the norms and values of the group will help to clarify motivations that can be very useful for influence (Paulus, 1989).

Normative Factors – are social norms that form the rules and standards that guide the social behavior of a group (Cialdini & Trost, 1998). Normative factors examine whether an individual adheres to the group standards or not. Understanding the normative affiliation of an individual yields insight into whether that individual will value doing what the group wants or if they seek to stand out from the crowd.

Power Structures – can be formal (manager, superior) or informal (peers, respected mentor) and describe how decisions are made and obeyed. Understanding the power structures of an organization can be a useful tool for identifying sources and paths of influence (Raven, 1993).

Common Enemies / Friends – refers to enemies or friends shared by both the executive and the influence target. Emphasizing the shared relationship (either negative or positive) highlights the common interests of the executive and the target audience and enables a stronger connection that enables likeability and influence (Aronson & Cope, 1968).

Initiating Sets – are alliances who are already in agreement with the executive’s agenda and who can be key players in motivating others to get onboard. Knowing who these people are and actively engaging them in the process can be very useful (Martin & Hewstone, 2008).

    Level 3 – Motivation:

Values and Attitudes – can be predictors of behavior and of preferences.   This type of information can be useful for crafting a strategy that will align the executive’s message with the values and attitudes of the intended audience.

Internal Motivations – can be defined as the internal influences that direct behavior (Pink, 2010).What is the individual driven by? Internal motivation can include things like enjoying work or time with co-workers, wanting to achieve personal ambition, believing in the organization’s mission or a desire to pursue intellectual curiosity.

Personal Reward Structures – are the tangible incentives most appealing to an audience (money, time off, recognition). Knowing how target individuals are externally motivated can be a useful tool when crafting a communication strategy (Aronson, Wilson & Akert, 2004).

Propensity to Change – is a measure of how ready and open an audience is to change. Understanding this parameter is useful for assessing who is likely to be persuaded and who might be more difficult (Azjen, 1991).

The coach and executive should go through the parameter list and select the ones that appear most applicable to the current situation. Once the parameters are identified the coach and the executive should spend time considering each one. Investigation of the parameters might require creativity and active problem solving and can involve informal conversations, observing or listening to others or explicitly asking questions to find out. The executive should be thoughtful and methodical about how to collect this material. Although the parameters are based on science, gathering the information is an art. If necessary, it is recommended that the coach and executive talk through how to best do this depending on the individuals involved and the sensitivity of the information.

Phase 5: The Influence Strategy

In this final phase the coach and the executive put all the pieces together. The pathway model and key player identification from phase 2 provide the how and the who respectively, while the parameter information gathered from phase 4 provides the what, why, where and when to achieve the optimal influence strategy. It is during the execution phase that the art of influence again becomes central. Knowing how to use the influence roadmap outline and translate it into actual behaviors can take finesse and intent. If the executive is struggling in this phase, it may be helpful to switch the focus of the coaching sessions onto concrete actions for implementation.


The Executive Persuasion Method is a methodical approach for coaches and executives to work through to maximize the chances that an influence effort will be successful. This method can be tailored to fit any situation and provides science-backed tools for improving influence abilities.


Ajzen, I. (1 991 ). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179–211.

Aronson, E. (2008). The Social Animal (1 0th ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.

Aronson, E., & Cope, V. (1 968). My enemy’s enemy is my friend. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 34-38.

Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., Akert, R. M. (2004). Social Psychology (4th ed.). Prentice Hall.

Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1 998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity, and compliance. In D. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 1 51 -1 92). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Grubb, T. & Ting, S. (2006). Coaching Senior Leaders. In Ting, S. & Scisco, P. (Eds.) The CCL handbook of coaching: A guide for the leader coach (pp. 149-176). San Francisco:Wiley/Jossey-Bass.

Kahneman, D., and Tversky, A. 1 984. Choices, values, and frames. American Psychologist, 39, 341 -50.

Lavie, N. (2006). Attention and consciousness. In M. Velmans, & S. Schneider (Eds.), The Blackwell companion to consciousness. Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford, UK.

Martin, R. & Hewstone, M. (2008). Majority versus minority influence, message processing and attitude change: the source-context-elaboration model. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 40 pp. 237-326) Sand Diego CA: Elsevier.

Paulus, P. B. (1 989). The psychology of group influence. Erlbaum.

Pink, D. H. (201 0). Drive – The Surprising Truth about what motivates us. Canongate Books.

Raven, B. H. (1 993). The bases of power: origins and recent developments. Journal of social issues, 49, 227-251

Rowland, L. A. & van den Berg, G. (2012). In pursuit of a contextual diagnostic approach to behavior change interventions. Behavioural Dynamics Institute, London.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge. Yale University Press.

Weaver, W. & Shannon, C. E. (1 963) The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Univ. of Illinois Press.

Wein, T. (2012). The perfect and the possible: Seeking a frugal model of behavior change. Behavioural Dynamics Institute, London.


Mission & Vision

The goal of the BDI has been to assemble and assimilate the full extent of creative and scientific knowledge on group behaviour and the dynamics of change. Read more

About Our Research

BDI has worked on projects across the world. For a sample of projects which BDI has either led or consulted on, click here.


The BDI's global network of expert members share their research and their wealth of practical and theoretical knowledge and experience. Read more


The Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDI) was founded in 1989 and was formed out of the Behavioural Dynamics Working Group. Read more