The Fifth Law of Influence

Ethical influence is consensual and often bilateral

Clearly, not all influence attempts are ethical.  There are scoundrels among us—tyrannical bosses, conniving politicians, deceptive salespeople, backstabbing partners, and other villains of all stripes.  Their ethos is that the end justifies the means.  Among the unethical means they use to influence others are coercing, compelling, extorting, bribing, bullying, lying, defrauding, oppressing, intimidating, threatening, manipulating, badgering, stealing, and swindling. 

Every act of influence is an attempt to persuade another to agree with you or go along with what you want.  But some influencers don’t want to take “no” for an answer, so they resort to various forms of threats, intimidation, or manipulation to impose their will on others.  By anyone’s definition of right and wrong, these means of influence are unethical.

So an important law of ethical influence is that influence is consensual.  In essence, the person being influenced consents to be influenced, either directly (“I agree.  That seems like the best approach.”) or indirectly by doing what is asked or acting in accordance with the influencer’s wishes.  Consent means voluntary agreement, which implies that the person being influenced has the right to say “no,” to refuse to agree, or to act contrary to the influencer’s wishes without penalty, loss, or retribution.

Here is a crucial difference between influencing and exercising authority.  When leaders influence others, they inspire them through their words or actions, or they solicit cooperation by explaining why something should be done, why a path should be taken, or why their initiative is important.  Or they galvanize others through an ideal—a vision of a desirable outcome—or through teamwork, a concerted group effort toward a shared goal.  Managers can influence as leaders do, but they also have role authority by virtue of their positions, and they have the right to exercise managerial authority by assigning tasks, making assignments, setting goals, and reviewing performance.  When you work for an organization in which you have a manager, you grant your manager the authority to exercise managerial prerogatives as part of your employment contract.  Your consent is implied—and in some cases may be stated explicitly.  Most managers exercise their authority in an ethical manner.  Those who don’t are among the scoundrels I spoke about earlier.

Children have an implied contract with their parents:  I will do what you tell me to do and, in exchange, you will take care of me and my needs.  As they grow and become more independent, children test that authority and in their teen years may rebel against it, which is a natural part of becoming a functional adult.  Consent is generally given when the people being influenced believe that the influencer is acting their best interests or at least in the common interest.  The consent to be influenced is usually withdrawn when people don’t believe that’s the case.  Conniving politicians generally lose votes when people see that they’re not behaving in the public interest.  People abandon tyrannical bosses when they have the option to do so, and they refuse the con’s guile when they recognize they’re being taken.

Here’s the important point:  if you want to be effective at influencing others, you should always behave ethically; otherwise, sooner or later, you will lose their consent.  Further, when someone you are trying to influence does not go along with what you want, don’t resort to unethical means to force them to agree.  They have the right to say “no.”  You can try a different influence technique.  That’s okay.  So is returning later and trying to influence them again.  Influence is often a process, rather than an event.  But resorting to threats, intimidation, or manipulation is not okay, not if you want to be influential with them in the long run.

Finally, ethical influence is often bilateral, which means that influence flows both ways.  While you are trying to influence others, they may also try to influence you, and in ethical interactions, that’s not only okay, it’s expected.  Being open to influence is part of the social contract you implicitly have with others.  To gain their cooperation, you need to be cooperative, too. 

Ethical influence is not an act of coercion; it’s an act of consent and cooperation.

Photo credits: man with axe: Photo 3090498 © Lightkeeper |; business team: File ID 46521710 | © Rmarmion |

Terry Bacon