AN ANALYSIS OF UPWARD INFLUENCE STRATEGIES USING SPEECH ACT
THEORY AND FACE THREATENING ACTS
Asha Kaul, Ph.D
Indian Institute of Management
Charlotte Brammer, Ph.D.
Department of Management and Marketing, University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0225 USA
Phone: 205/348-8929 or 205/408-4145
The paper is a maiden attempt at applying SAT and FTA to UI.
A more extensive literature review on UI was used for a paper presented in a conference at the annual
convention of ABC 2003 in New Mexico. That version of the paper was published on the convention
The manuscript is original and is based on a study of transcripts of dialogues in a multi- national FMCG
company that has made inroads in India.
This study borrows from sociolinguistic research, specifically Speech Act Theory (SAT),
as a way to analyze and explain how UI strategies are performed. Based on SAT and
considerations of FACE, as explained by Brown and Levinson (1978/1987), we have
attempted to provide an explanation for the choice of strategies used by members within
the organization. Through qualitative discourse analysis, we suggest that for effective
upward influencing, professional communicators need to consider the verbalization of UI
AN ANALYSIS OF UPWARD INFLUENCE STRATEGIES USING SPEECH ACT
THEORY AND FACE THREATENING ACTS
Drake and Moberg made an early attempt to position workplace influence at the
discourse level . They state that most of the analysis on influencing focused on
rewards or exchange of resources. By emphasizing the importance of linguistic forms in
influencing patterns in dyads, these researchers argue that specific linguistic forms have a
“sedative” and “palliative” effect on persuading. Language, as viewed by the authors, is
not just a medium, but rather it is a resource on which speakers can draw to increase the
likelihood of persuasion. Other studies on discourse between leader and follower note the
mutual building of language and discourse patterns, thus suggesting that influencing is an
ongoing two-way process , .
Existing literature on content analysis focuses on the importance, the feasibility, and the
desirability of the influence request . Yukl et al., in a study conducted on 195 MBA
students, found that the importance of the request (context) and the element of
“enjoyability” to the recipient (content) were higher than type of strategy used or the
power of the agent on the target . Beyond these studies, however, the literature in UI
research has not focused on linguistic analysis.
This study borrows from sociolinguistic research, specifically Speech Act Theory (SAT),
as a way to analyze and explain how UI strategies are performed. This performative view
of language, with emphasis on linguistic action and relevance to the situation , rather
than comprehension, may contribute to greater understanding of how effective UI
strategies are constructed. After reviewing relevant UI research, we discuss SAT and
define key terms before using SAT to explain how UI is enacted in workplace
UI strategies have been the subject of extensive research. The pioneering and hence
frequently referenced work of Kipnis et al.  was based on a questionnaire that they
developed to measure influence behavior and objectives. The questionnaire was
administered to night students who were asked to describe their methods of influencing
subordinates, peers, and superiors. In the initial stage, the students reported 14 tactics -
explanation, direct requests, clandestine acts, exchange, personal negative actions,
coalition, persistence, demand, weak ask, gathering evidence, training, self presentation,
administrative sanctions, and reward. Revising this initial study, Kipnis and Schmidt
developed the Profiles of Organizational Influence Scale with a 27item sub-scale
measuring six tactic categories—rationality/ reason, ingratiation, exchange/ bargaining,
assertiveness, coalition, and upward appeal . These six general categories or collective
strategies subsumed the original 14 categories. Considerable research has measured the
appropriateness of these six UI strategies.
Other types of research questions have been generated using the original questionnaire
employed for measuring these six strategies , . Research indicates that REASON is
the most direct of all strategies . As a rational tactic, it involves the presentation of
facts and figures to persuade through logic , .
INGRATIATION is an informal or nonperformance specific exchange . This strategy
takes into account interpersonal attraction, impression management, flattery, and creation
of good will , , . One major reason for choosing this particular strategy could
be to create a favorable impression, that is, to begin a process by which the agent
exercises control over or manipulates the reactions of others , , . The
influence tactic of favor rendering has often also been labeled as a form of ingratiation
, . The agent in this case renders favors with the purpose of ingratiating himself
with the target , . Some of the tactics that researchers would like to group under
this category are “friendliness,” “liking,” and self-presentation strategies [21, p. 257].
An envisaged reward determines the choice and use of EXCHANGE STRATEGY. Exchange
of benefits or favors , exchanging resources, or even proposing to make voluntary
sacrifices are important exchange tactics. Another example of exchange/bargaining tactic
could be indebtedness, a situation that reminds the receiver of promises for exchange of
obligations requiring persuasion .
ASSERTIVENESS strategy is generally referred to as the “hard” tactic in which overt and
direct strategies are used for upward influencing. Employees who are in complete
command of the situation and who have a strong internal locus of control, technical
expertise, and information are more likely to use this strategy. Falbe and Yukl refer to
this strategy as “pressure” tactic . Demanding, threatening, issuing directives or
challenges, persisting or “wearing down” the superior , , are all part of the
Working with coworkers and developing support among them would encourage
COALITION STRATEGY, where more emphasis is laid on numbers, majority opinion, and
the ability to associate with the prevailing opinion. In most of his works, Schilit refers to
this tactic as “group support” , .
In UPWARD APPEAL, the manager appeals to the "boss's boss" to get the desired objective.
The agent convinces the target of the acceptance of the proposal by higher authorities.
This strategy is normally used as a last resort, in cases where all other influencing tactics
have failed. It is normally understood as a secondary tactic, as the superior, in the initial
stages, resists all other efforts on the part of the agent , .
In their exclusive study of UI strategies, Schriesheim and Hinkin questioned the content
validity of the scale proposed by Kipnis et al. , as they felt that certain aspects of
upward influence had been neglected . In turn, they proposed a shorter 18 items
instrument that would measure all six strategies in upward influence categories.
Yukl and Falbe , and Yukl and Tracey  replicated the work of Kipnis et al. .
Their objective in conducting research along similar lines was two-fold: (a) to determine
if the major findings of the Kipnis et al. study could be replicated with differences in
methodology; and (b) to extend the research to incorporate additional strategies. Using an
open-ended coding system in which their data comprised descriptions of influence
incidents, these researchers added two more strategies, i.e., inspirational appeals  and
consultation tactics , to the already existing list of six postulated by Kipnis and his
According to Yukl and Falbe, the INSPIRATIONAL APPEAL is used to arouse enthusiasm by
appealing to the emotions or values of the recipient . This tactic has also been called
the “allurement” tactic . This tactic presupposes that the target will eventually benefit
by providing happiness to and complying with the wishes of other members within the
CONSULTATION TACTICS indicate involvement of the recipient in the decision making
process as a way of securing commitment at a later stage . This strategy involves
getting advice from the supervisors in the initial phases so as to involve them in decisions
about new work procedures at a later stage .
In brief, literature on UI has looked at a variety of strategies that use language to
influence behavior. Paradoxically, all these strategies assess influence through survey
instruments, measures that imply verbalization, but which do not rely upon actual
linguistic data. Moreover, the studies have focused on the strategies themselves rather
than on the how the strategies are created through language. SAT provides a way to
analyze how the strategies are enacted.
Speech Act Theory
SAT, as postulated by Austin  and developed by Searle , demonstrates that
utterances have the power to do things. Not only do speech acts represent ideas, but they
also accomplish tasks, such as requesting – Please close the door; and commanding – Get
out! , that would not otherwise be done as effectively (if at all). For speech act
theoreticians, “speaking a language is engaging in a (highly complex) rule-governed form
of behavior” [32, p. 12]. SAT provides a way of talking in terms of the surface
grammatical structure; the context in which such structures are made; intentions,
attitudes, and expectations of the participants; and the unspoken rules and conventions
that apply when messages are sent and received. Familiarity with these rules and
conventions may help professional communicators be more successful in their UI.
Searle postulates that when a person makes an utterance, it is primarily to perform a
speech act . Each speech act has at least two parts, (1) LOCUTIONARY ACTS, the act of
speaking or creating an utterance, and (2) ILLOCUTIONARY ACTS, the act that is performed
through the force of the utterance, such as apologizing, stating, ordering, etc. A speech act
may also have a third aspect, PERLOCUTIONARY ACTS, the act of evoking some effects on
the audience through and limited by the circumstances of a specific illocutionary act.
Searle focused primarily on illocutionary acts, and these acts hold the most promise for
articulating linguistic explanations for UI.
According to Searle , illocutionary acts can be classified into five categories:
(1) REPRESENTATIVES—Speakers are committed in varying degrees to the
truth of the propositions they utter, e.g., swearing, believing, and
(2) DIRECTIVES—Speakers try to get hearers to do something, e.g.,
commanding, requesting, influencing, and urging.
(3) COMMISSIVES—The act commits the speaker to varying degrees of action
e.g., vowing, promising, and undertaking.
(4) DECLARATIONS—Speakers alter states of affairs by performing such acts
as I pronounce you man and wife.
(5) EXPRESSIVES—Speakers express attitudes or emotions, e.g.,
congratulating, apologizing, and thanking.
Searle postulates two types of rules – regulative and constitutive, which help in gauging
the intent of the sender and in differentiating between the different types of speech acts
. Regulative acts conform to social conventions and “govern preexisting form of
behaviour” [34, p. 193]. Examples of this rule could be table manners or etiquette.
Constitutive rules also conform to social conventions; however, they differ from
regulative rules in that they define and create forms of behavior. For example, in the
statement I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings, the uttered apology is the behavior,
assuming appropriateness conditions are met. As per the rules of Searle, all speech acts
are governed by constitutive rules that define the conditions which must exist in order for
the speech act to take place. To perform a speech act correctly, familiarity with the
“appropriateness” or “felicity” conditions is essential. Any violations recorded or
observed therein are indicative of erratic behavior on the part of the doer. Thus, in the
case of the uttered apology, the apology must be appropriate, in that the speaker has hurt
the hearer’s feelings, and that the speaker is sincere in making or offering the apology.
These would comprise knowledge that users of the language share in understanding the
context. Searle proposes that these appropriateness conditions be labeled as
preparatory/essential/sincerity conditions . For example, the illocutionary act of
making a statement carries the following appropriateness conditions:
“ 1. speaker believes p (where p is the proposition)
2. speaker has evidence for the truth of p (or reasons for believing p)
3. it is not obvious to both speaker and addressee that the addressee knows
p (or does not need to be reminded of p)
4. speaker has some reason for wanting addressee to know p (or to
remember p)” [35, p. 82].
If the illocutionary act is performance of UI, then the appropriateness or felicity
conditions for that specific act must be met. If not, the UI is not likely to succeed.
From a linguist’s perspective, these appropriateness conditions are more basic in
understanding an utterance than probably the explicit verbal construct. Going beyond the
lexical and the syntactical format of the words and sentences in order to understand them
in the context in which they occur is COMMUNICATIVE COMPETENCE . While SAT is
usually applied to single utterances, it could be expanded to incorporate multi-sentence
constructs as would be evidenced in arguing, influencing, persuading etc. . Viewing
the speech act of influencing as a communication process would entail:
(1) Familiarity with felicity conditions
(2) Act of making utterances
(3) Receptivity of the audience
The speaker’s ability to create appropriate speech acts for UI, what is here termed,
INFLUENCING COMPETENCE, can be ascertained only when a desired response is framed.
According to Brown and Levinson, “people cooperate (and assume each other’s
cooperation) in maintaining face in interaction” [37, p. 61]. In other words, people tend to
be “polite,” rather than offensive, when interacting with each other so as to show their
willingness to respect the face of others and to preserve their own face. This may be
especially true when they have a vested interest to do so, as for example in a professional
context. FACE, one’s “public self-image,” has two aspects:
(1) POSITIVE FACE, “the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least
some others;” and
(2) NEGATIVE FACE, “the want of every ‘competent adult member’ that his actions be
unimpeded by others.” [37, p. 62]
Affronts to face or FACE-THREATENING ACTS (FTA), however, are unavoidable in some
situations. For example, the power differential that is intrinsic to the workplace threatens
negative face. The effects of FTA, as felicity conditions for both the speaker and the
listener, must be considered in workplace interactions, perhaps especially in UI
interactions. Failure to mitigate FTA toward superiors could lead to ineffective UI or
Morand argues that power is embedded in speech used in everyday interaction between
superiors and subordinates . Politeness, used to demonstrate regard and consideration
for others, is sensitive to power distribution in the organization. Authority and equality
can be measured in terms of politeness used everyday in face-to-face interaction. In an
extension of that research, Morand demonstrates through a laboratory study that power
can be communicated through specific linguistic gestures, which are used differently by
superiors and subordinates in the course of the interaction .
According to Smeltzer, a model can be used for announcing organization-wide change
within a SAT framework, a model that takes into account the change and organizational
dynamics that influence the communication strategy, including the message, the channel,
and the timing . Inaccurate rumors about change and employees learning about
change from a source other than management were two factors that differentiated
between effective and ineffective strategies. Moreover, he found that timing was an
important criterion in transmitting messages and that employees reacted negatively to
overly positive statements.
Responding to negative messages , or hostile questions , albeit politely, to lessen
the social threat of refusing, is facilitated with an understanding and application of the six
UI strategies based on propositional and sincerity conditions. The authors stress that
familiarity with these strategies can aid in either declining to respond or responding
amicably to hostile questions. SAT provides both insight into discussing these
conventions and a practical method of analyzing individual messages.
Using SAT to Explore UI
SAT and its concept of linguistic action can be useful in explicating how UI occurs.
In the tradition of ordinary language, as in communication, the intent/motive of the
speaker is fundamental in understanding any utterance. Let us consider the utterance
Let’s go made by a subordinate to his superior. Whether it is understood as a request, a
command, or some other illocutionary act, the propositional content remains the same;
the speaker refers to a present or future action to be undertaken by the hearer, i.e., to go
somewhere with the speaker. However, an understanding of the felicity conditions and
the intent of the speaker reveal that if the utterance is made by a subordinate to a superior,
it cannot be a command and, hence, must be viewed as a request or possibly as an
agreement. What changes the understanding of the utterance is the intent of the speaker
and the appropriateness conditions. In using SAT to explicate the performance of UI, it is
necessary to state the CONSTITUTIVE RULES, rules that link illocutionary force with
corresponding illocutionary acts [43, p. 238]. The propositional rule remains the same for
all UI strategies discussed below, viz. speaker refers to a present or future action to be
undertaken by hearer.
The constitutive rules for UI could be designed as shown in fig. 1.
FIG. 1. Constitutive rules for UI. Modulated from adaptation of Searle’s
Constitutive Rules for the Speech Act of Requesting, as presented in [34, p. 194].
Propositional Content Rule
speaker (s) refers to a present or future
action to be undertaken by hearer (h)
Need for Action
s perceives that there is a reason for
influencing and subsequent action to be
taken along utterances with overt or covert
Need for Influencing
It should not be evident that h was intending
to carry out the act prior to influencing act of
s believes and is convinced of the ability of
h to perform the task