Personal Influence at Work

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

Research so far has concentrated on the existence of various influences that impact an individual in the workplace. To name a few: power, motivation, leadership, managers and even peers are known to have a substantial influence on employees. The current paper however, focuses on a new dimension of influence at work – ‘the self’. Authors V. K. Bohns and F. J. Flynn suggest that few individuals realize how much they influence their subordinates, fellow colleagues, and even 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 influence they have on others socially, and therefore underestimate how strongly others’ behaviors 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 employee is too shy or embarrassed to ask a question, they look for an answer in the behaviors of their peers. Thus 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 subordinates too, influence their managers’ style of leading. Thus, there appears to be a criss-cross of influence at work. Research, however, points out 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:

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


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


  1. 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.