How To Influence People: Understanding The Nine Spheres of Power

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By Murray Johannsen

Effective leaders know how to influence people. In most organizations, its not about authority, it’s about influence. Discover the power inherent in nine spheres of influence. This page contains:

  • Power Overview
  • Authority
  • Expertise
  • Punishment
  • Postive Reinforcement
  • Persuasion
  • Coaching
  • Relationships
  • Vision
  • Charisma


In politics, a sphere of influence is typically defined as the cultural, economic, military or political influence a state exerts over another state. Similarly, powerful leaders have a sphere of influence used on the influence people around them.

Written in 1959, French and Raven The Bases For Social Power is commonly cited in management texts as the model for how to influence people. However, they listed only five sources, which they referred to as:

  • Reward,
  • Coercive,
  • Legitimate (authority),
  • Referent (charisma) and
  • Expertise.

It’s been over 45 years since this classic article on how to influence was published and times change. For example, there is a great deal of research in both psychology and management that we can now draw on to better understand the nature of leader influence. Besides the five that used by French and Raven, I believe there are four more:

  • Coaching,
  • Vision,
  • Relationship, and
  • Persuasion.

And while reward and coercion are commons terms in how to influence, it would be more helpful to think in terms of behavioral modification (or operant conditioning) which uses two motivational consequences that leaders need to understand: positive reinforcement and punishment.


How To Influence With Authority


“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”.—Lord Acton, Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 1887


“When I make a mistake, I am an idiot. . . When my boss makes a mistake, he’s only human.” — Unknown

Authority is defined as a legitimate right to influence people based on one’s position inside an organization or nation. It works best in large bureaucratic organizations and is a major mechanism of political leadership.

It is usually a vertical relationship, a top-down influence mechanism associated with obedience, conformity and compliance. Typically, there is also a status difference.

For example, people follow a doctor’s instruction because that person has expertise but we do what a police officer says because the officer represents authority.

Influence By Coaching

“Coaches have to watch for what they don’t want to see and listen to what they don’t want to hear. “— John Madden Coaching (and by extension, mentoring and teaching) exert influence on people by providing new knowledge and new skills on how to influence people. Unfortunately, consultants are not coaches, neither are most executives.

Traditionally, managers and supervisors have never assumed the mantel of leadership required to function as a coach—telling someone what to do is not the same as showing someone how to do it. Neither do the vast majority of CEO’s.

I like to ask what people will take pride in. Contrary to what you see on the resumes, work activities don’t put a smile on people’s face. What brings the smile is the leader who mentored, taught and coached them to be better human beings.

The Sphere of Persuasion

“You can lead an organization through persuasion or formal edict. I have never found the arbitrary use of authority to control an organization either effective or, for that matter, personally interesting. If you cannot persuade your colleagues of the correctness of your decision, it is probably worthwhile to rethink your own.” — Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Long a key skill of great sales people throughout history, persuasion becomes a bulwark for the leadership when authority does not work. Technically, persuasion ends with someone saying, “I agree.”

But agreement doesn’t mean people will actually take action. Unfortunately, persuasive influence of people requires a fair amount of sales savvy and a fairly sophisticated understanding on attitude change and cognition.


Persuasive Humor. I am reminded of the story of how God called Noah in to build an ark so that he, his family, and all the species of the earth could survive the flood He would let loose in two weeks. Noah was shocked and said, “two weeks! God, do you know how long it takes to build an ark?” And God replied, “Noah, how good are you at swimming?”

The Motivational Sphere of Positive Reinforcement

“Reinforcements continue to be important, of course, long after an organism has learned how to do something, long after it has acquired behavior. They are necessary to maintain the behavior in strength.
B. F. Skinner, Harvard University, Harvard Educational Review, 1954
There are two types of reinforcement and two types of punishment to influence people according to a theory of psychology known as operant conditioning. Some refer to it more of a learning theory, while others think operant conditioning is a theory of motivation. It’s potential for influencing people lies in the fact that consequences work in both people and animals.

Practically speaking, negative reinforcement presents ethical issues so shrewd leaders focus on developing influence through the use of positive reinforcement to increase the likelihood of DESIRED BEHAVIOR.

The Motivational Sphere of Punishment


“You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.” — Al Capone (1899-1947), Chicago Mobster

Positive and negative punishment has a very narrow definition in operant conditioning. In this case, the definition is going to be expanded to include the threatened use of a punishment. One could make an argument that the threatened use of punishment (escape-avoidance) can reduce undesired behavior just as much as much psychological pain as its real use.

To say one will have to use punishment to change undesired behavior says something about human nature. Nasty bosses and individuals who make Fortune Magazines toughest boss list use this as a primarily influence technique.

Something best used when all other forms of leadership influence don’t work, it’s proper use is subject to legal statutes and ethical constraints to decrease UNDESIRED BEHAVIOR.


Punishment Humor. A seeing eye dog was trying to gets its master across the street but the light was not working. The dog tried once but oncoming traffic drove the two of them back to the curb. The dog tried a second time but the horns from a group of taxis drove them back again. They tried a third time, this time they were successful despite a the loud horns and the curses of drivers.
Once on the other side of the street, the dog’s master reached out for a biscuit to give it to the dog. An person who had observed the whole thing went over the the person and said, “You probably shouldn’t reward the dog for putting your life in danger by giving him a biscuit.” But the dog’s master replied, “Reward, hell. I am just trying to find which side is his head so I can kick his behind.”

Relationship Influence

He who mistrusts most should be trusted least. — Theognis of Megara, Greek poet


Your people won’t remember, and don’t really give a damn how much money you saved the company. — unknown

Not considered a sphere of influence by many scholars, it’s power lies in a both knowing how to develop, maintain and repair relationships. In many cultures, such as in Latin American and Asia, business leaders place a greater emphasis on relationship development than is commonly done in America. Typically, business does not begin until a sound relationship is established. And doing business gets difficult when that relationship gets strained.

Assuming leaders devoted the time and effort to develop trust, rapport, credibility, and empathy; they have the foundation elements on how to influence people through reciprocity.


Relationship Humor. The doctor looked benignly at the woman who had come to him for an examination. “Mrs. Brown,” he said, “I have good news for you.” The woman said, ‘ I’m glad of that, doctor, but I’m Miss Brown.” Miss Brown,” said the doctor without changing expression, “I have bad news for you.”

Influence Through Expertise

“Why don’t you write books people can read?” — Nora Joyce to her husband James (1882-1941)



How to use expertise as a form of influence is somewhat of a paradox. There are experts with little influence and ignorant dolts who seem to speak the gospel.

Experts are people whom we think have valuable information. Often they are people who know how to make the right decision or solve that intractable problem. It helps to have depth of knowledge to be perceived as an expert, and this is an important part of the success doctors, lawyers and consultants experience.

How to influence influence with expertise lies partly in the psychological theory known as attribution theory. But too often, we accept false beliefs and false arguments as truth.


Expertise Humor. The man told his doctor that he wasn’t able to do all the things around the house that he used to do. When the examination was complete, he said, “Now, Doc, I can take it. Tell me in plain English what is wrong with me.” “Well, in plain English,” the doctor replied, “you’re just lazy.” “Okay,” said the man. “Now give me the medical term so I can tell my wife.”

Influence Through Vision

In 1929, days after the stock market crash, the Harvard Economic Society reassured its subscribers: “A severe depression is outside the range of probability”.

“In a survey in March 2001, 95% of American economists said there would not be a recession, even though one had already started.” — American’s Vulnerable Economy, The Economist, November 15, 2007

Few leaders know how to influence with vision to motivate people and themselves. Those that do can accomplish great events. People that have it seem to harness an inner strength that keeps pushing them forward on a path no matter how difficult.

The visionary leader also understands how to influence people through the use of expectations. Setting positive and negative expectations exert tremendous influence, but few leaders understand how to use them properly.

The Charismatic Sphere of Influence

I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it. Charismatic leadership is one of the most powerful methods of how to influence people, but also one of the most elusive. It’s difficult to develop, but well worth the effort.

It’s been associated with religious prophets, great preachers, famous teachers and those who get tagged with the title of transformational leaders.

One basis for it’s influence lies in an understanding of the nature of the psychological mechanism of identification. We tend to identify with individuals and their causes resonate with ours.


A leaders use of influence is like singing—if one only belts out only note there’s no song. But If you have nine notes, the song sounds like real music.

Each of the nine methods of how to influence can be turned into a skill. Just because you don’t have it today, doesn’t mean you can’t develop it in the future.


French, J.R.P., & Raven, B. (1959). ‘The bases of social power,’ in D. Cartwright (ed.) Studies in Social Power. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.


One thought on “How To Influence People: Understanding The Nine Spheres of Power

    Sandra Woodruff said:
    February 6, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    as People learn new things everyday

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