Don’t Underestimate Personal Influence at Work

Topic(s): decision making, Judgment
Publication: Research in Organizational Behaviour (2013)
Article: Underestimating Our Influence Over Others at Work
Authors: V.K. Bohns, F.J. Flynn
Reviewed by: Arlene Coelho

Research has explored various influences that impact employees in the workplace. A few of these influences include power, motivation, leadership, peers, and money. However, the current paper focuses on a new dimension of influence at work – the self. The researchers (Bohns & Flynn, 2013) suggest that few individuals realize how much they influence their employees, colleagues, and even their supervisors. This has serious organizational implications.


Drawing on existing literature, the ‘overestimation theory’ suggests that certain people are not only aware of the influence they have on others, but in fact they tend to overestimate it. This behavior is often seen in individuals who hold high positions and whose influence is based on their authority in the formal structure of an organization. This overestimation appears to occur primarily to boost self-esteem. People need to feel influential, so they overestimate their influence on others.

However, there also exists the ‘underestimation theory,’ which suggests that individuals discount the social influence they have on others, and therefore underestimate how strongly others’ behavior and attitudes are related to their own behavior. In social environments with lots of interpersonal interaction, people tend to underestimate, rather than overestimate, the influence they have on others. A corporate environment is one such example. Think of how employees in lower ranks of the organization influence higher ups merely by conforming to a manager’s leadership style. Yet, both parties remain largely unaware of the fact that this bottom-up influence occurs.

In an office environment people look to peers or colleagues for cues on how to behave and fit in. If an employees are too shy or embarrassed to ask questions, they look for an answer in the behaviors of their peers. In this way, colleagues influence each other, yet are completely unaware of it. Likewise, managers influence employees’ personal lives when they expect employees to work late or keep demanding work hours, infringing on family time. Based on expectations and experiences, employees may also influence their managers’ style of leading. Thus, there appears to be a crisscross of influence at work. However, research says that as individuals, we are not completely aware of the extent to which we influence others within this social setup.


The current paper suggests three consequences of being unaware of the influence we have on others at work:

Organizational Change: If individuals continually underestimate their influence on others, they are less likely to feel empowered enough to catalyze change within an organization.

Performance Appraisal: Employee performance should be judged relative to manager behavior, in addition to other criteria. Employee’s performance can largely depend on a manager’s attitudes and values. If an evaluator is unaware of the effects of that influence, this important aspect can easily be misinterpreted.

Whistle-Blowing: Individuals who underestimate their influence on others will not blow the whistle on dangerous or unethical activities. Employees who believe they can trigger real change are more likely to point out illegal or unproductive actions when they see them occur.


Being aware of the influence we have on those around us greatly helps both the organization and the individual, allowing us to become more confident about leading change and more likely to stand up for what we believe in, regardless of our position in an organization’s hierarchy.

Bohns, V. K. & Flynn, F. J. (2013). Underestimating our influence over others at work. Research in Organizational Behavior, 33, 97-112.