Back in the 60s, there were some experiments done to see how likely people were to obey an authority figure, even if they were doing something they felt was wrong. The results were scary. Most people would continue to administer lethal electric shocks to another human if someone in a lab coat told them they had to.
In the book Influence: Science and Practice (5th Edition) the author talks about the different ways we perceive someone as being an authority. This perception causes you to obey them more than would be expected. The book lists three things that cause people to identify someone as an authority:
- Impressive Title
- Their Clothes
- Driving an Expensive Car
On one hand, knowing this can help make sure you aren’t getting sucked into something you want to avoid simply because your brain is identifying someone as an authority. For example, the VP of sales that takes you out to lunch in his BMW may not know more about helping your business than the sales person without a formal title who wears disheveled clothes and drives a 15 year old Nissan.
On the other hand, you can use these three things to your advantage when you need to persuade someone to join your point of view. Here are some suggestions:
- Title – Sometimes your boss is very happy to change your title if it lets you be more effective. I’ve seen all kinds of people made vice presidents who had no real authority within their company. The title was only to make customers feel like they were dealing with someone important.
- Clothes – The way you dress can send a lot of messages to people you interact with. When I’m dealing with clients, I usually try to dress just a bit more formally than what they will be wearing. If they are going to wear jeans, I’ll wear khakis. If they wear khakis, I may wear slacks and a tie.
- Car – Some companies provide their sales force with company vehicles that are calculated to make a good impression. I’ve seen arguments over whether it was ok to get an Audi since a Mercedes would probably impress clients a bit more. I don’t suggest buying a car you can’t afford, but even keeping your vehicle clean and maintained can help send a positive message. You don’t want to drive a vehicle that screams “my time is worth so little that breaking down once a month is cost effective”.