Influence VS Persuasion in Project Management

The Horse Story


For several years I have been telling my horse joke every time I need to convince somebody about the power of one’s project management beliefs. Only when you believe in something can you sell it. I use this joke with my customers, colleagues, and peers. I try to give others my passion in telling the joke and I think I have shared it many times. However, I was not conscious about how I was influencing people when using that story over the years.

Many people remember me because of that joke; I think that means that I was able to influence them in some way. But let me tell it.

Let’s imagine a gypsy who wants to sell a horse, and the gypsy says to a man: “I want to sell you a horse.”The man answers him: “I don’t need any horse.”“Oh yes, you need it,” says the gypsy. “You have some children and a wife. This horse wakes up very early in the morning, does all the housework, goes to the supermarket to do your shopping, and when you come back in the evening the meals are cooked. This is a fantastic horse. You need to buy it.”The man says: “I don’t believe you, but I’ll buy that horse.”Two months later the gypsy and the man meet each other again, and the man says to the gypsy: “That is an awful horse. It bothers my neighbors at 3:00 a.m. It kicks my children every day. I hate that horse. Please take away that horse.”The gypsy man smiles and says, “Continue talking about the horse that way and you will not be able to sell it again.”

When I analyzed my story over the years, I discovered that I was influencing project managers’ and executives’ behaviors in my talks and presentations. Although the horse story is an example of persuasion, I always use it to demonstrate to project managers that they need to believe in their projects to be able to get the buy-in from executives. Every project is a “horse” you need to believe in, because if not, you cannot sell it to your customer or to the rest of the project stakeholders.

Persuasion consists of moving other people to voluntarily accept your point of view. Influence is the ability to exert power on somebody else. People who influence do not want to change attitudes, but people who persuade try to change them. I have become well known worldwide because of my positive attitude managing projects. What I learned is that every one of us influences people every day, but we are often not conscious of it. Remember, if you want to influence people, if you want to sell an idea or proposal to somebody, you need to prepare yourself (and the horse) if you want to be able to sell it.


There are several definitions of influence. One is a power affecting a person, thing, or course of events, especially a power that operates without any direct or apparent effort. Influence may be also defined as the power to sway or affect based on prestige, wealth, ability, or position. Another definition is a determining factor, such as the positions of the stars and planets at the time of one’s birth, which many believe affects an individual’s tendencies and characteristics. A project manager needs to achieve results by influencing team members and stakeholders, and needs to develop that skill to be successful

Influence versus Persuasion

Is the gypsy a persuader or an influencer? Persuasion is important but dangerous. If you persuade someone the wrong way, you lose influence. If the gypsy tries to sell a bad horse, he will lose his influence. We have all been victims of salespeople, colleagues, or bosses who use great persuasion techniques to make us do something we later regret. (Such as buying a horse that does housework!) And next time we see that person, we know not to trust him. The gypsy, despite being less than trustworthy, still teaches a valuable lesson and that ultimately has influence. This book shows how you can persuade and build influence at the same time. Instead of avoiding you, people will want to work with you more. But you must persuade them the right way.

Influencers play for much higher stakes than persuaders. Influencers do not want to be successful only one time. They want to build commitment that lasts. This means that influencers think and act very differently from persuaders. Persuaders start and finish with their own needs. They want to sell their product or plant their idea in another person’s head. Communication tends to be one way: Persuaders do most of the talking as they extol the virtues of the product or idea they want to push. Influencers still have goals to achieve but think differently about how to get there. They see the world through other people’s eyes, and adapt their message and behavior accordingly. The ideal outcome is not simply to persuade someone; it is to build an alliance of mutual trust and respect. Achieving this takes a lot of time, effort, and skill. But it is a great investment that yields rich dividends over a long period. What are the differences between influence and persuasion? See Table below:

Persuasion is the here-and-now skill we have to learn. Influence is our investment in the future. As a project manager regularly dealing with people, it pays to learn influence and persuasion.

Characteristics of Persuasion versus Influence 
TransactionalCreating and maintaining a relationship
Win–loseWin–win situation
One-off eventPermanent
Zero-sum gameOne plus one equals two
Short-term goalsLong-term goals
Me versus you“We” instead of “I”
See my needs onlySee each other’s needs
Kills trustBuilds trust

Basics of Influence

I would like to share with you four ways of influential thinking for project managers (Figure I.1): be ambitious, walk in other people’s shoes, develop commitment, and start at the end.

1. Be ambitious—Lack of ambition is a recipe for a quiet life in the backwaters of underachievement. For many project managers, the greatest barrier to success is in their heads. They accept low expectations for themselves. Low expectations are always self-fulfilling. Ambitious project managers have high expectations of themselves and others. They reach for the stars. Even if they fail and only reach the moon, they will be far ahead of others whose expectations reach no further than next year’s beach vacation. Unambitious project managers have never changed the world. Ambitious people are not satisfied with the status quo. They want to change things and make things happen.Ambition that is all “me, me, me” is not influential. It leads to conflict and fails to build networks of trust and support among your team and other project stakeholders. Ambition that is “we, we, we” is influential. It stretches people and teams, and builds commitment and camaraderie. The mindset of ambition is focused on opportunity and positive attitude.

Figure I.1: Basics.

2. Walk in other people’s shoes—I have seen some project managers who think they are the center of the universe. Influencers may also think that they are the center of the universe, but they do not always show it. So you need to work hard to see

the world through the eyes of each person you want to influence. As a project manager I was always asking myself difficult questions:
a. Why should this person want to talk to me?
b. Why should this person want to follow or support me?
c. What does he or she want? What does he or she not want? How can I use that to my advantage?
d. How can I find out more about this person?
e. What other choices do I have? Why should he prefer my way?

Walking in other people’s shoes is not about being nice to other people or even agreeing with them. It is about understanding them. Once we understand someone we can start to play his/her tune. The core skill for walking in other people’s shoes is very simple: listen to them but listen actively.

3. Develop commitment—Commitment is a mind-set central to the world of influence, not control. A control mind-set likes hierarchy: power comes from position. This makes it very limiting: the control mind-set does not reach beyond the barriers of the hierarchy to make things happen outside a limited range of control. The controlling mind-set is enabled by the organization but also limited by it. The controlling mind-set thinks that commitment is a one-way street: anyone lower in the organization must show commitment to people higher in the organization. Teamwork for a controlling manager means “my way or no way”: if you do not obey, then you are not a good team player.
A commitment mind-set is not constrained by hierarchy or by the formal limitations of power. It builds a network of informal alliances that enables an influencer to achieve things far beyond the dreams of the controlling mind-set. Commitment is a two-way street based on mutual obligations. Building commitment takes time and skill. Influencers do not expect to build trustful partnerships overnight. These things take time. But once built, such partnerships can pay dividends for a lifetime.

4. Start at the end—Influential people start at the end. They work out the desired goal and then work back from there. They map the journey from the destination back to today. If we start from where we are, we may decide that our goal is not achievable. If we start at the end, the only question we should ask is, “How do we get there?” not “Can we get there?”

Day to day

Figure I.2: Day to day.

Starting at the end is a mind-set that consistently drives more effective behavior. It is focused on the future rather than the past, on action rather than analysis, and on outcome rather than on process. This mind-set in Figure I.2 shows some of the questions asked in common day-to-day situations:

Crisis: “How do we move forward?” not “What went wrong and who can I blame?”

Conflicts: “What are we arguing about and is it worth it?” not “How do I win?”

Meetings: “What will we achieve in this meeting?” not “What is the formal agenda?”

Project planning: “What is our goal?” not “What is the process and where is the risk log?”

Presentations: “What is my key message and for whom?” not “Can we prepare another 50 PowerPoint slides, just in case we get a question?

Starting at the end requires firmness about the goals but flexibility about the means. This flexibility makes it much easier to adapt to other people and to build commitment. People who can act only in control mode lack such flexibility; they hope that strict compliance with a process will yield the right outcome. They use the same map, whatever their journey may be. However hard they run, they never make progress; they simply cover the same course faster. Starting at the end ensures an influencer chooses a worthwhile destination.

Learn How to Influence and Persuade

I never found any recipe that allows you to create a magic potion called influence and persuasion. Instead, you can learn a range of skills and techniques. You do not have to learn them all at once. My best practice is to try one skill at a time. Each skill can make you a better influencer and a better persuader. Learn all of them, and you can acquire a sort of magic by which people are more willing to follow you. This book is a guide for you. I learned from experience more than anything else. So this book is the help you need to guide your experiences. It is written for practicing project managers and executives who need to cope with the daily reality of dealing with difficult team members, colleagues, executives, and other project stakeholders.

Each skill is mastered through continual trial and error. I illustrate both the failures and successes. The failures are important because readers can learn from them. If you can avoid the many pitfalls I fell into in the course of working on this book, then that will save you considerable pain. Each skill is illustrated with real-life examples. The good news is that you do not have to follow a script to be influential or persuasive. You can be yourself with your own unique style. But behind that style is a rigorous set of skills, structures, and ways of thinking that enable you to succeed.

Failing at Persuasion

In my experience with project managers I saw some project managers failing at persuasion. Some of the common mistakes they made are as follows:

  1. They attempt to make their case up front with a hard sell. Project managers strongly state their position at the outset, and then through a process of persistence, logic, and exuberance, they try to push the idea to a close. In reality, setting out a strong position at the start of a persuasion effort gives potential opponents something to grab on to—and fight against. In my opinion, effective persuaders do not begin the process by giving their colleagues a clear target to attack.

  2. They resist compromise. Too many project managers see compromise as surrender, but it is essential to constructive persuasion. Before people buy into a proposal, they want to see that the persuader is flexible enough to respond to their concerns. Compromises can often lead to better, more sustainable solutions. By not compromising, ineffective persuaders unconsciously send the message that they think persuasion is a one-way street. But persuasion is a process of give and take. To meaningfully persuade, we need not only to listen to others but also incorporate their perspectives into our own.

  3. They think the secret of persuasion lies in presenting great arguments. In persuading people to change their minds, great arguments matter. No doubt about it. But arguments, per se, are only one part of the equation. Other factors matter just as much, such as the persuader’s credibility and ability to create a mutually beneficial proposition, as well as connecting on the right emotional level with an audience and communicating through vivid language that makes arguments come alive.

  4. They assume persuasion is a one-shot effort. Persuasion is a process not an event. Rarely, if ever, is it possible to arrive at a shared solution on the first try. More often than not, persuasion involves listening to people, testing a position, and developing a new position that reflects input from the group. More testing, incorporating compromises, and then trying again. If this sounds like a slow and difficult process, that’s because it is. But the results are worth the effort.

Source: Bucero, Alfonso. ( © 2015). The influential project manager: winning over team members and stakeholders

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