Four Characteristics of Highly Influential People

From the Lecture Series: Influence—Mastering Life's Most Powerful Skill

By Kenneth G. Brown, Ph.D., The University of Iowa

Some people are naturally influential, as if they were born with the gift of extraordinary charisma. But what exactly is it about an influential personality that persuades us to follow their lead? Let’s explore four main characteristics that regularly influence others in the real world.

The red figure of a person influences a crowd of people
(Image: Andrii Yalanskyi/Shutterstock)

There are many kinds of subtle cues that can influence your decision-making, such as incidental similarity, which allows people, in effect, to be more persuasive. The influential person who’s attempting to influence someone else possesses several important characteristics that play out in real-world situations, including attractiveness, trustworthiness, connection to group identity, and charisma.

When it comes to people, what does research say about our perceptions of beauty and how it relates to influence?

Rule One of Influence Characteristics: Be Attractive

A characteristic literally right in front of your eyes that you may not associate with influence is beauty and physical attractiveness. We often hear beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s true that people have different tastes and preferences for a wide variety of things, which is why people like different foods, cars, houses, cell phones, and clothing. When it comes to people, what does research say about our perceptions of beauty and how it relates to influence?

photo composite of lots of attractive faces
Across 67 studies, scientists found fairly high agreement about what constituted more and less physically attractive individuals. (Image: Por pathdoc/Shutterstock)

University of Texas professor Judy Langlois and her colleagues examined research results across hundreds of studies, testing to see whether perceptions of physical attractiveness varied across people and cultures, and whether judgments of attractiveness correlate with other judgments about people.

Research suggests that having symmetrical, proportionally balanced features leads to greater attractiveness, regardless of culture. Other features associated with beauty include large eyes, a small nose, and prominent cheekbones.

Across 67 studies, they found fairly high agreement about what constituted more and less physically attractive individuals. Agreement was even high across ethnicities and cultures, and for judgments of children, as well as adults. Research suggests that having characteristics like symmetrical, proportionally balanced features leads to greater attractiveness, regardless of culture. Other features associated with beauty include large eyes, a small nose, and prominent cheekbones.

Langlois and her colleagues also examined studies measuring how people treat more or less attractive people. What they found is that attractive children and adults are treated more favorably than the unattractive. They receive more attention, cooperation, and care from other people. These results have important ramifications for influence. Attractive agents have an advantage over other people as the targets of their influence will, without consciously deciding to do so, think positively of them and be more likely to cooperate. An attractive agent is more likely to be persuasive.

Learn more about characteristics of an influential agent

Groom your hair and skin so that they’re neat, and smile a lot. Both neatness and smiling are associated with attractiveness and will help you be perceived as positive in other ways.

It’s hard to change fundamental elements of your appearance, such as the bone structure of your face. But you can do a few little things to look more attractive: groom your hair and skin so that they’re neat, and smile a lot. Both neatness and smiling are associated with attractiveness and will help you be perceived as positive in other ways. How you look isn’t all that matters. There are certainly examples of average looking, or even below-average looking, leaders who win over a company full, or even a country full, of people. What have these agents done over time to build credibility and trust with their targets of influence?

This is a transcript from the video series Influence: Mastering Life’s Most Powerful Skill. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Rule Two: Confidence, Caring, and Integrity

First, influence agents have ability, skills, and competencies that allow them to do things effectively. In other words, trustworthy people are competent. Second, trustworthy people have benevolence; they intend to help you and show that they care. Third, they have integrity; they abide by a set of principles that are clear and sensible. Trustworthy people are consistent in how they behave. If you want to be seen as trustworthy, lay the groundwork for future success as an agent of influence, by practicing the three Cs. You should strive to be competent, caring, and consistent.

This model allows us to move beyond initial impressions and offers specific suggestions about what you can do to develop a reputation for trustworthiness. Any agent who wishes to influence other people can work to correct misperceptions that occur as a result of facial features or other factors outside the agent’s control. For example, imagine the day you start a new job. Your boss comes up and says, “You look a lot like my ex-husband. It really bothers me.” For reasons that have nothing to do with you, you’re starting off in a hole, or to use a budgeting analogy, you’re starting off with a trust deficit that may make it hard to influence. Develop trust by remembering the three Cs. Work hard to build knowledge, be competent in your work, look after your boss’ interests, and be caring. And demonstrate concern for fairness, being consistent in how you make decisions. If you pursue these vigorously, you can increase your trustworthiness and the chance that your boss will trust you and maybe give you a promotion in the future. By building your trustworthiness, you create greater opportunity to wield influence successfully in your work place.

Looks and behavior can influence how you are perceived, including whether people will trust you. But there’s an additional important characteristic. Imagine your favorite sports team, and picture someone you’ve never met wearing that team’s cap or jersey. What do you think about that person? Probably a pretty nice person, smart, sociable, certainly has good judgment. It’s funny how the mere label of “we’re on the same team” can influence judgments. There’s a long history of research in social psychology about the powerful effect that being placed on the same team can have on us.

Learn more about how to shape the perception others have of you

Group Identity in The Real Lord of The Flies

One of the most famous of these experiments will sound like it came straight out of William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies. Muzafer Sherif, when he was on faculty at the University of Oklahoma, took 22 boys, age 11 and 12, to a summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The boys were split into two camps, the Rattlers and the Eagles, and over two weeks went through three phases of an experiment. In the first phase of the experiment, lasting just under a week, the teams worked independently, and the relationship among the boys was developed and studied. In the second phase, the groups were introduced to each other and asked to compete in a series of contests that included baseball, tug of war, and touch football. In the third phase, the groups were brought together and given tasks that they had to collaborate on to achieve.

Just as in Lord of the Flies, things got a little crazy in the second phase. A variety of conflicts emerged between the two groups. At one point the Eagles stole and burned the Rattlers’ flag, and each team raided the other’s cabins and sabotaged the other group, even cutting canoes adrift.

What happened? Just as in Lord of the Flies, things got a little crazy in the second phase when a variety of conflicts emerged between the two groups. At one point the Eagles stole and burned the Rattlers’ flag. Each team raided the other’s cabins and sabotaged the other group, even cutting canoes adrift. As relationships became even more tense, the groups stopped wanting to have anything to do with each other. They would yell and curse at the others whenever they were in sight. The experimenters’ reports indicate that on multiple occasions the boys had to be separated from each other, including a food fight where rolls and mashed potatoes became weapons. After the contests were over, the boys were asked to rate characteristics of the members of each group. They rated members of their own group favorably—as brave and friendly. And the other group, those members were rated unfavorably—they’re sneaky and stinkers.

To think that people would treat others differently based on groupings created by a coin flip sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what happened.

Fortunately, the third phase of Sherif’s experiment showed that people can overcome intergroup hostility and can cooperate with so-called outsiders. Let’s focus for a minute on the power of group identification. In the Robbers Cave experiment, there was a prolonged process in which groups formed, got to know each other, and then competed with another similarly cohesive group. This situation happens more often in sports, but it occurs less often when people are working together in the same organization or attending the same school. In these settings there typically isn’t overt competition between groups. Does the general process of bias toward the in-group and against the out-group also occur in other settings? In terms of influence, is someone on your own team more likely to be trusted and listened to than someone on the other team? The answer is a definitive yes. Here the work of famous social psychologist, Henri Tajfel, comes into play.

 Henri Tajfel
Henri Tajfel and his colleagues were interested in whether more neutral situations might lead to the same kinds of intergroup conflict. (Image: By European Association of Social Psychologies/Public domain)

Tajfel and his colleagues were interested in whether more neutral situations might lead to the same kinds of intergroup conflict. Rather than inducing competition, Tajfel would simply group people together arbitrarily. In some experiments he grouped them according to whether they over or under estimated the number of dots flashed on a screen. At the extreme, Tajfel and a colleague, Michael Billig, grouped people by flip of a coin. To think that people would treat others differently based on groupings created by a coin flip sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what happened. Participants in Tajfel’s studies described members of their own group more favorably than members of the other group, and they were more generous to members of their own group, as compared to members of the opposite group.

Rule Three: Increasing Trust Through Group Identity

How does this relate to influence? What this suggests is that mere sense of shared group membership can increase liking and trust. The agents who are most influential are those that have some overlap in group membership with their targets. This plays out in the real world. Consider what every athlete, athletic coach, or university president does upon being selected by a new team. He puts on the proper uniform. Think back to the last press conference you saw with a new team member, whether it was a basketball player drafted or a university president hired: that new team member almost certainly wore a jersey, a hat or a tie of the new team. This was the case when football coach Rich Rodriguez was hired from West Virginia to coach the Michigan Wolverines. He was wearing the right tie, all maize and blue, but Rodriguez’s story shows that there’s a bit more to successful influence than wearing the right clothes; you have to talk the talk as well. At his opening press conference, he failed at convincing others he was part of the team. When he was asked by a reporter, “Do you have to be a Michigan man to be the Michigan coach?” Rodriguez replied, “Gosh, I hope not. They hired me.”

In the book Three and Out, author John Bacon describes Rodriguez’s troubled three years at University of Michigan. The scene was described as the start of a rocky relationship with some of the school’s big athletic donors. A Michigan man is an idea that people in Ann Arbor talk about, an idea about being someone with pride, and courage, and a love for the team. Not all of the former Michigan coaches had played at Michigan, so being a Michigan man wasn’t really just about where you went to school. If Rodriguez had done a little more research and learned some about the team and the meaning of this phrase, he might have answered the question differently.

A much better answer to this question, one that would have put Rodriguez squarely on the team and helped him through some of those difficult times would have been, “You don’t have to have played here at Michigan to coach here. Some of the best Michigan coaches didn’t play at Michigan, but like each of them, I will strive to live up to the ideals of being a Michigan man. I’m honored by the opportunity to be part of that tradition of excellence.”

Research by Sherif, Tajfel, other social scientists, and the story of Rich Rodriguez, suggest that shared group membership matters. Agents who carefully manage perception that they are part of the team will be much better able to influence. Wearing the right clothing helps, but saying the right things makes a difference too.

Rule Four: Charisma

Let’s move to another agent characteristic that can have a huge impact on the success or failure of an influence attempt—charisma. Charisma focuses even more on saying the right things in the right way. It is often considered a magic quality of leadership that arouses loyalty and enthusiasm. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that with training, anyone can become more charismatic. A study by John Antonakis, Marika Fenley, and Sue Liechti, all from the University of Lausanne, compared managers who received charisma training to those who did not. While the groups were similar before training, the trained groups showed higher levels of charisma after training according to their colleagues back at work. If the training worked, what exactly did it include?

One of the authors hosted a five-hour training session with lots of discussion and practice. In addition, trainees were given feedback about the ways in which they were and were not charismatic. They were also given tips on charismatic speaking, which involves using metaphors and stories, setting high expectations, and having confidence. Charismatic speakers demonstrate passion with gestures and animated voice tone. Learners were given feedback and opportunities to practice both verbal and nonverbal behaviors, and as a result, they became more charismatic leaders at work. Charisma really isn’t some magical, inborn ability. It’s a skill that anyone can develop with feedback and targeted practice.

Not all of us have the time and resources to get hours of training and coaching that participants in the Antonakis study received, but not all is lost. Olivia Fox Cabane, a consultant and frequent trainer on the topic of charisma, published a book called The Charisma Myth. In the book, Cabane notes that people who are judged as charismatic are typically confident, passionate, and convey this through posture, gestures, and vocal tones. She argues that the path forward for all of us is clear: don’t try to act, just make yourself confident and passionate. But how do we do that?

According to Cabane, charisma begins in the mind. What your mind believes, your body manifests. As a result, she offers a series of exercises to help people become more confident. Much of that begins with ridding yourself of physical and psychological discomfort. To deal with physical discomfort, which can make you fidget and look anxious, Cabane argues that you should prevent it when possible. But, when discomfort does occur, you need to recognize and remedy it right away. This suggests if you are uncomfortable, you should act on it rather than assume that people won’t notice. Charismatic people take charge of situations, and then they change those situations so that they appear confident.

Suppose, for example, you’re starting a new sales job, and you’re meeting a potential customer in an informal setting, the local coffee shop. When you arrive at the coffee shop, you’re wearing your heavy coat. It’s initially cold when you sit, so you leave it on, but over time you become uncomfortable. While waiting and being polite for a good break in the conversation, your discomfort begins to show. Your discomfort undermines your ability to appear confident and connect with the person you’re talking to. You will be more comfortable and seem more competent if you apologetically interrupt and say, “Oh, I’m sorry. Do you mind if I take off my coat? It feels hot in here.”

The same idea should apply when you are cold, when your mouth is dry, or when the sun is in your eyes. If you take charge and do something to reduce your discomfort, you’ll prevent inadvertently giving off a series of nonverbal cues that undermine any sense that you’re charismatic. If you can prevent the appearance of nervousness, lack of confidence, and discomfort, then your potential customer sitting in that coffee shop will listen more carefully and be more likely to buy.

Combat Discomfort by Responsibility Transfer

For psychological discomfort, Cabane suggests an exercise called responsibility transfer. It’s a simple process that you can follow when you begin to get anxious. It asks you to first, sit comfortably and relaxed; second, take a deep breath, and then pick an entity: God, fate, a loved one, whatever fits you, and imagine in your mind that benevolent, caring presence. Lastly, imagine lifting the weight of everything you’re anxious about and placing it in the hands of that entity. Let’s return to the coffee shop where you’re meeting your new customer. Your discomfort might be misinterpreted by your customer as, “I’m nervous to be seen here with you in this conversation.” This misinterpretation of your inner state can seriously undermine your ability to make a favorable impression and close any subsequent deal. If you gather your thoughts for a minute, take a deep breath and do a responsibility transfer, you will be more ready so that there are no misunderstandings.

Learn more about how contextual cues can shape your attempts to influence others

Two Last Tips

Two more specific suggestions from Cabane’s book may help you be perceived as charismatic, maximize your chances of being an influential agent, and thus be more likely to influence the person you’re talking to.

First, the next time you meet someone new, make sure you’re both comfortable. Get the setting right so you can focus your attention on getting to know the person rather than worrying about being too hot, too cold, or having to go to the bathroom. Second, you can try one of Cabane’s training tools summarized in her book to improve your nonverbal behaviors. She suggests adopting the body language of someone who’s depressed, slumping your shoulders and hanging your head. Then, keeping that position, try to imagine being excited. You’ll find it quite difficult. Now do the opposite: put a smile on your face and raise your arms in the air as if you won the big game or the big jackpot. Stay in that position and just try to feel depressed. Doing this exercise a few times may help remind you of how the mind reads the body and allows it to guide mood. The use of a smile and great posture can actually help you feel more confident, and you could do that before heading into a meeting. If you do this, it may really give you that extra boost that will help you be persuasive and charismatic.

Common Questions About Agents of Influence

Q: What makes an influential person?

Influential people are highly aware of the effect that their words, body language, and actions have on others.

Q: What are the characteristics of an influential leader?

Influential leaders are extroverted, modest, adaptable, empathetic towards others, and authentic.

Q: How do you positively influence others?

If you want to positively influence others, you should be positive and upbeat, keep your emotions in check when responding to sensitive situations, and demonstrate to others that you want the best for them.

Q: Why are some people influential?

Influential people have high expectations for themselves and others. They approach every situation, even challenging ones, with an optimistic attitude.

This article was updated on August 26, 2019

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