Winter 2009 Bulletin: Influencing Others - What Gets in Your Way?
Friday, January 30, 2009
Here's what we heard when we talked to some of our clients. All heartily agreed that influence is an essential skill in today's work environment, yet many were ambivalent about exerting it, and uncertain about how to be more effective.
You don't have to look far to find books on the subject. Social behavioral scientists, psychologists and business thought-leaders have produced a large body of research and techniques designed to help one be a better influencer. Considering the number of requests we get for influence training, we know there's a strong interest and business need at all levels of an organization. As we listened to our clients' stories about their own influence challenges, we learned a few things about what people really think.
Our discussions surfaced two interesting trends:
- "Influence" is often considered a bad word, and
- Beliefs about the act of influencing discourage people from developing it as a skill.
We decided that if any training about influence is to be truly effective, we need to bring these ideas to light and examine the potential roadblocks they present.
Let's start with the first: "Influence" is a bad word.
When asked what they'd like most to learn in a workshop about influence, several people cringed.
"You may want to think about calling the workshop something other than 'influence.'"
"Why is that?" we wanted to know.
"It sounds suspect… like you're going to teach people how to manipulate me."
Indeed, "influence" conjures up images of people who don't hold your best interests at heart (or those childhood friends your parents didn't want you to hang out with!). Although "influence" is commonly used in the workplace as a legitimate practice, for many it connotes manipulation or coercion. Certainly, most of us have either witnessed or experienced "influence" of this nature. (How many times have you asked yourself with caution, "What's he trying to get me to do?")
We believe influence can be a positive and productive activity that is necessary in today's work environment. RGA defines influence as the ability to get things done through and with others without force or exercise of authority. Essentially, it's a collaborative approach. As companies push decision making down and rely on cross-functional project teams to execute its objectives, all members in an organization will likely need to enlist others to get work done. By reframing influence as a values-centered activity to achieve important objectives, people can learn to get work done in ways that encourage co-operation rather than manipulation. This means exerting influence that is transparent in intent, respectful of others' interests, and focused on meeting important goals. In our workshops we teach participants how to develop this stance to working with members throughout the work context.
Here's the second trend we noticed during our conversations with clients. When describing what it took to be an effective influencer, people provided a wide range of definitions. "Bottom line, you really have to be good at sales," one person said. "And I don't have it." Lacking this "it" factor - the ability to sell - this person assumes her success at influencing will less than optimal. Here are a few other things we heard:
"I'm really bad at debating." (Influence = ability to use logic to win an argument)
"I'm low on the totem pole." (Influence = positional power)
"I'm an introvert." (Influence = ability to be vocal, social, "out there in the spotlight")
Each of these statements reveals a different idea of what it means to influence well. As long as these assumptions are held as true, it's likely people will either try to develop the "it" factor they consider to be key, or hang on to the belief that they're simply not cut out to be successful at aligning others to execute.
We believe that the ability to influence is not dependent on a single ability or attribute. One's skill at influencing others is multi-determined, and most importantly, can be developed regardless of style, position or tenure. Some of the most masterful influencers we've worked with succeed without a high-ranking title or charismatic presence. They lead with their natural style and draw on resources that have greatest relevance to their objectives and audience. In essence, they develop their own "it" factor that engenders the trust and respect of others.
So what gets in your way when it comes to influence? If you find yourself attaching negative connotations to the word, or making assumptions about whether you have "it" or not, you could be, unknowingly, inhibiting your influence potential. The good news is that you can learn how to develop the skills to use influence as a values-centered activity to achieve organizational objectives, regardless of style, position or tenure.