Influence vs. Persuasion: A Critical Distinction for Leaders


Let’s begin with a little mental gymnastics. Take a moment to decide on your definition of the words “influence” and “persuasion.” Then, decide which of the following statements falls under your definition of Influence and which falls under Persuasion:

  1. Choosing words and phrases to communicate ideas that strike a responsive chord in a target audience
  2. Socializing ideas to bring all the issues to light and earn buy-in
  3. Giving others a voice in the decision-making process
  4. Learning what keeps a person or group of people up at night
  5. Providing assistance or resources without any expectation of reciprocity
  6. Brokering meaningful relationships between unconnected groups
  7. Using a decision-matrix to steer a conversation through a path of predictable choices
  8. Orchestrating environmental conditions in which to interact with others in order to optimize the likelihood of a desirable outcome
  9. Listening and paraphrasing back what was said
  10. Delivering bad news sooner than later
  11. Giving others credit whenever possible
  12. Maintaining a track record of consistent success in a particular area

The less distinction between your definitions of influence and persuasion the higher degree of difficulty you probably experienced trying to separate the above statements. From a purely semantic point of view, it’s not such a big deal to use these terms interchangeably. From a leadership perspective however, the distinction can be the difference between your team carrying you on their shoulders after a victory or having them stuff you in a locker before practice.

Based on my definitions, 2, 3, 5, 6, 11, & 12 are squarely under the influence umbrella. Items 1, 7, 8 fall under persuasion. The others can go either way depending upon the circumstances or timing of a situation.


The way I see it,

Persuasion is presenting a case in such a way as to sway the opinion of others, make people believe certain information, or motivate a decision. Marketing programs can formally teach persuasion techniques.

Influence is having a vision of the optimum outcome for a situation or organization and then, without using force or coercion, motivating people to work together toward making the vision a reality.

Persuasion can be used to spur someone to action or to make a decision without actually earning their sincere buy-in. With influence, dedicating time to win someone’s heart or earn mindshare is a prerequisite to the process of inspiring them to take action or make a particular decision.


In time-sensitive circumstances, positive persuasion techniques are a handy means for expediting results. However, for most leaders, influence is the preferred means to a productive end. This is because influence is based on a foundation of trust and credibility that has been solidified over time. If persuasion techniques are applied in situations best suited for influence, the persuader is often perceived as manipulative and any compliance is temporary at best.

Consider this: If someone doesn’t have significant influence with you, yet they convince you to do something, has the person persuaded you or did they simply facilitate a process by which you persuaded yourself?

Persuasion used indiscriminately can easily be described as the ability to “sell ice to Eskimos.” But, do the Eskimos trust you or buy from you again when they realize you’ve sold them something they don’t really need? How comfortable do you feel with that decision even a few short minutes after you make it? Chances are you have doubts. Because you don’t necessarily trust the person who persuaded you, you experience misgivings or “buyer’s remorse.” On the other hand, a strong leader who takes the time to reduce any uncertainty before encouraging others to act or make a decision can use persuasion techniques without eliciting such negative feelings.

Persuasion techniques, when applied with integrity and a sincere intention to make a positive contribution in an individual’s life or to the betterment of the group, are a powerful lever for moving the decision-making process along. In situations where we’ve made the proper investment in relationships, we can use persuasion techniques such as framing, fairness, and timing to show respect for the people who deem us influential.j0177969

If persuasion is the hammer you pull out the moment you see a nail, influence is the apprenticeship and training you go through long before you attempt to build a house. Influence grows out of well nurtured relationships. It’s the end-result of actions, behaviors, and intentions geared toward building trust, establishing credibility, and adding value. Persuasion is more of an “in the moment” skill. It’s the combination of charisma, talent, and technique that can get things done without preamble. Ironically, despite its expediency, persuasion is actually best received by people who have faith in the persuader’s degree of influence.

When trust is present, influence increases and persuasion is positive.

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Filed under Business, Influence, Leadership, Trust, Uncategorized

8 responses to “Influence vs. Persuasion: A Critical Distinction for Leaders

  1. Pingback: 10 Great Proactive Leadership Links: November 2-6 | Samuel Bacharach Blog

  2. Hi, Nicole

    Thanks for a very well-constructed mini-lecture on this important distinction. I have passed this on to my followers and will be revisiting this blog regularly. If this post is an indication of the quality, my time will be well-spent.

    I would comment that “persuasion” seems more about direct action in a specific situation than “influence”, which appears to be concerned with overall guidance and direction. At least, this is what I gathered from your operational definitions.

    Good stuff – thanks!


  3. Interesting Nicole. I like to say influence is about PEOPLE – Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical. I use the terms influence and persuasion interchangeably but I see your point. If you are correct then influence, or being influential, is more than just saying the right thing. It’s about who you are, everything about you which causes people to follow you. Celebrities are a good example because they can be influential despite lacking persuasive skills. By virtue of who they are people want to be with them, like them and do what they do. Thanks for provoking thought tonight.

    • nicoledefalco

      Brian, your PEOPLE acronym is terrific. It truly captures the essence of influence. I’m a firm believer that influence is an “every day” endeavor that requires constant care and nurturing. The ethics component is a defining characteristic of influence. Without trust and integrity, influence easily becomes self-serving manipulation. Thank you for sharing this great concept!

  4. Nicole, you’ve hit on a very interesting topic. I hadn’t given much thought to the distinction between persuasion and influence in a leadership context but now that you’ve pointed it out I can see a clear difference between the two. Whereas persuasion can be effectively used by anyone with a good enough story to tell, influence can be used only by leaders. Influence is one of the defining attributes of leaders. Great leaders seldom need to persuade, they need only explain.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

    • nicoledefalco

      Hi Doug, thank you for sharing your thoughts on the topic! I like your comment, “Great leaders seldom need to persuade, they need only explain.” I think many rely on persuasion as a “quick and easy” way to convince others to believe in or comply with an idea or action. Ultimately though, influence is really far less laborious than persuasion. It may take more time and energy upfront to establish trust and assuage the concerns of others. But, once the relationship has been established, then it’s just a matter of explaining the situation and people will be on-board almost immediately.

      Great comment!

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