As a leader, one of your most important skills is to influence and persuade others. But how confident are you with that power, and how often do you rely on it?

It turns out that people have more influence over others than they realize. Vanessa Bohns, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University, writes in Harvard Business Review about how people "persistently underestimate" and doubt their own influence.

"We tend to have a lot of misconceptions about influence--how much of it we have, the best way to wield it. Fortunately, the reality is more encouraging than we imagine," Bohns writes. "The power of a simple, direct request is much greater than we realize."

In a set of experiments Bohns conducted with Stanford organizational behavior professor Frank Flynn, they found that most participants doubted their own power over others. Bohns and Flynn asked each subject to estimate how many people he or she would need to meet before one person would agree to do one of three things: fill out a questionnaire, make a charity donation, or let the participant borrow their cellphone.

After the participants went out in the field and approached strangers to do one of these three things, Bohns and Flynn found that the strangers were twice as likely to accommodate the requests than the participants expected. (Interestingly, in a separate study Bohns found that people are just as receptive to accommodate someone when the request is for an unethical task.)

Bohns says the findings show how influencing others isn't as hard as people think. "In fact, in many cases, a simple request or suggestion would be enough to do the trick," she writes.

Your company relies on you and your employees' ability to persuade people--you need to persuade non-customers to become customers, persuade talented employees to stay, and persuade existing clients to buy more of your product or service. But as noted in the study above, most people doubt their power to influence. This poses a big problem, because no one gets what they don't ask for. And in business, no one is going to give you something--a promotion, a new lead on profitable clients--unless you ask.

"What this all adds up to is untapped potential: to influence others, to effect change, to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. We don't venture to transcend our formal roles. We fail to benefit from others' cooperation," Bohns says.

To help your employees realize their power, you need to show them how important persuasion is to your business. Maybe most importantly, you need to show them how easy it is to be influential. Many people think the power of persuasion is reserved for world leaders and politicians, but the fact is that a little bit of pressure goes a long way. 

Bohn says that the power of "social pressure forces compliance." In other research, Bohn found that even a simple request puts pressure on the person you asked and they are more likely to say "yes" than they are to say "no."

"[People] don't realize that the social pressure to comply with a request is very, very strong," he writes.

In another study, Bohn found that if someone said "no" to something you asked before, they are more likely to say "yes" to another request. The lesson of all of these studies is that everyone has the power to influence, it's just a matter of wielding it.

"Our words have surprising impact," he writes. "Like it or not, we all have a powerful tool for making change: simple direct language."