New Zealand Law Society - Principles of influence: personal authority

Principles of influence: personal authority

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By Paul Sills

As part of their repertoire, mediation professionals use tools to guide parties toward settlement more efficiently than if the parties were left to their own devices. The added dynamic of having a third person in the room changes the nature of the conversation that the parties have regarding the issue in dispute. In these articles we have spent a lot of time looking at the skills that an experienced mediator can develop to assist in this conversation. But what about the mediator and the parties’ adviser’s personal authority? How does this impact upon the conflict resolution process and what tools help them establish their authority?

The parties come to rely on the mediator for his or her expertise to guide them during a mediation. The same can be said for their legal advisers. It is important therefore that the mediator can establish their personal authority and expertise in order to maximise the potential to assist the parties. However, many mediators do not take up this opportunity because they assume their expertise will be recognised automatically: because of their reputation or because they have worked with some of the advisers associated with the parties before.

However, if the mediator does not establish expertise and authority with each new engagement it is a lost opportunity and their experience can be overlooked. As a consequence their authority can be compromised. The same can, of course, occur for lawyers. As professionals, lawyers and mediators must make sure that we share our expertise and put ourselves “out there” sufficiently in order to establish a position of influence.

Dr Robert Cialdini, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (1984), established authority as one of the key principles of influence and developed three symbols which he says trigger the authority principle: titles, clothing and trappings.


When involved in an area that we are unskilled in, we turn to those who we see as credible for guidance. The parties turning to the mediator for guidance on how to resolve their conflict is an example of this. Titles are a factor in assessing credibility. For example, “founder”, “CEO” and “mediator” are titles that denote professionals in their fields and are thus deemed more influential by those around them.

When in a new environment or entering a new area of professionalism, authority may be established through titles associated with already successful entities or groups such as companies or successful barristers’ chambers or law firms. For example, the “PayPal Mafia” refers to the group of PayPal employees and founders who left the business following its sale to eBay in 2002. Some of these employees went on to found companies such as Yelp, LinkedIn and Tesla. When we hear statements such as “Tesla was co-founded by former PayPal founder Elon Musk”, we subconsciously attribute a certain level of respect for Elon Musk based on the references to his positions in business and history. As a result, Elon Musk can establish authority and therefore influence as a result of his prior successes and titles and can use this to create more opportunities for himself.

Attaining titles such as “founder”, “CEO”, etc is easier said than done. It is often an arduous and slow process, sometimes aided by opportunities obtained by pure luck. Many people do not attain such titles. However, being a figure of authority begins with our own sense of self achievement. If we are not successful in our own eyes, we will not be in the eyes of others. We must have faith in our own abilities and recognise every achievement, no matter how small, in order to keep growing and pushing beyond our limits to success. Self-belief and persistence will result in goals being met, titles being attained and reaching positions of authority.


Clothes are superficial cues that signal authority. How we present ourselves determines the first impressions formed by those around us. Accordingly, what we wear often affects how people treat and respond to us.

Dr Cialdini discusses an experiment that was conducted in 1955, where a man would cross the street against a traffic light (Lefkowitz, M, Blake, RR, & Mouton, JS, (1955), “Status factors in pedestrian violation of traffic signals”, The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51(3), 704–706). On half the occasions, the man was wearing a business suit and tie, and on the other occasions he was wearing work shirt and trousers. The study measured the number of times other pedestrians that were also waiting at the crossing would follow the man across the road, ignoring the instructions of the traffic light. Interestingly, three and a half times as many people jay-walked into traffic behind the man when he was dressed in the suit compared to when he was dressed in shirt and trousers.

This experiment demonstrates the significant impact that our clothing has on our ability to influence others. Here, the pedestrians at the crossing knew nothing of the man’s expertise. Instead, their varying levels of trust in him derived from what he was wearing.

Although it may seem superficial, we cannot escape or avoid the effects of our attire. First impressions based on these areas of non-verbal communication contribute heavily to how we are perceived. It is therefore important to consciously communicate who we want to be and what we want to achieve, not only through our actions but also by our presentation.


Trappings are accessories that can be used to establish authority and influence. A police badge is an obvious symbol of authority, but there are other, and more subtle, ways to make use of trappings.

In business, the law and conflict resolution, social media, a website and your reputation conveyed through word of mouth are all examples of trappings. The key is to establish and maintain a relevant, attractive and informative brand via these channels that all convey your personal authority and expertise. Whether this be through a website or through your chosen social media (typically LinkedIn for professionals), expanding beyond the confines of your office, city or even country is key to establishing influence through authority.

This is about putting yourself out there and not limiting yourself to what is in front of you. Fishing is a useful analogy to explore the effects of trappings. Using different accessories to create our personal brands is essentially ‘casting a net’ and then all the opportunities that we catch as a result can be pulled in. This is particularly relevant in mediation and in business. In order to establish yourself and grow your brand, it is advisable to use all the trappings available in order to expand your authority and influence.

While titles, clothing and trappings can be useful tools, it is also important to be aware of potential pitfalls – just because someone appears to be a figure of authority does not necessarily mean that they have the expertise and experience that titles, clothing and trapping symbolise. We must slow down our perception process in order to form our opinions on a person in a more controlled and methodical way. Just being aware of the effects of the symbols, as discussed in this article, is helpful. The next article in this series will focus on scarcity and consistency as principles of influence.

Paul Sills is an Auckland barrister and mediator, specialising in commercial and civil litigation. He is an AMINZ Mediation Panel member.

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