Early in my communications leadership career, I believed a big part of my role was to persuade my leaders and others to see things my way. I would build a compelling business case and was certain my perspective was right. When my persuasion skills didn’t work, I leaned in harder and twisted more. I would take it personally if my recommendations, plans or ideas failed to convince others. I mean, why would you hire me for my expertise and then ignore it? This approach wasn’t getting me or my ideas anywhere.
Over the years, I came to learn I was way off the mark. That was not leading by influence. Far from it. With the gift of wisdom and experience, I now see that I needed a different mindset and approach.
What is Influence?
The definition of influence is the ability to impact the character, development, opinions, attitudes, or behaviors of others.
Effective leaders move people into action not through coercion or demanding compliance, but through expanding perspectives and evoking a desire and commitment to the vision or greater good. Some people call this being persuasive, but we prefer the term influence. Persuasive suggests we are arm-twisting people to get on board. Influence is more subtle and generative. It’s more powerful and sustainable.
Arguably it’s easier to influence our team if we are the leader, but what about influencing others where we have no formal or direct authority? The nature of working within organizations – which are complex systems – requires us to work with people up, down and across the organization. So much of our time is spent managing up, collaborating across functions, aligning disparate groups, garnering support and buy-in with people we don’t lead.
This is where our ability to lead by influence comes into play. But it’s not a matter of just switching it on as needed; we need to invest time and effort to set the stage and build influence. This blog offers three ways to do just that.
1. Build Relationships
We talk a lot about the importance of relational skills and how to build and humanize relationships. We do this because relationships are how we build trust and how the work gets done. The reality is that we are rarely influenced by people we don’t trust or don’t find credible. We might be manipulated or coerced…but not positively influenced. So, we need a depth of trust in those relationships to be influential.
“Dig Your Well Before You Are Thirsty.”
These wise words from author Harvey MacKay in his book by the same title nicely captures the concept that relationships must be in place well in advance of needing help or support. If we only start connecting with people when we are thirsty (when we want something), people will see through it, and they will be less likely to offer that support or help.
Building relationships take time and require intention and attention. Every interaction is an opportunity to build trust and credibility. This is how we make deposits in the goodwill bank so we can make withdrawals down the road when we need to influence someone or something.
We build relationships by getting to know people as people and helping them get to know us. We show up seeking to understand, seeing things from their perspective, learning what’s important to them, and demonstrating empathy and respect. We fuel strong relationships through positive collaboration, support transparency, and following through on our commitments. Above all, relationships are give and take and we need to err on the side of giving more than taking.
It’s not possible to invest the time to build relationships with everyone in the organization. In the book The First Ninety Days, author Michael Watkins suggests first identifying the key relationships between your group and others. He offers that customers and suppliers within and outside the company are a natural focal point for relationships building.
2. Adopt a Win/Win Mindset
“We’re not here to be right. We’re here to get it right.”
Like all things in leadership, we need to have the right mindset. So, what shapes the influencer mindset?
We believe it’s the difference between being right and getting it right.
The intention behind influencing towards getting it right is a win/win mindset. It’s about listening to understand with the goal of getting to great outcomes or better decisions that are beneficial for all parties. Influencing to get it right involves alignment and flexibility. It is open and generative.
Influencing to be right, on the other hand, is more sinister and can lead to manipulation and a game where there’s winners and losers and you are either right or wrong. The need to be right is ego driven. It may look like you’re on offence but, it’s a defensive mindset. It’s about protecting your idea and convincing people to see it your way. The right way. The only way.
When people sense they are being manipulated, they are unlikely to trust, be open or buy-in.
3. Ask Powerful Questions
Questions that drive insight, clarity and understanding are a powerful tool for any leader who wants to lead by influence.
When we use questions that start with What, Where and How, which seek to understand and learn, versus convince and persuade, we engage and activate the brain differently. We provoke insights, possibilities, and new ways of looking at things. Questions also unearth what’s driving people, what’s important to them, and what the barriers might be. They also establish rapport and help us gather information, perspectives and ideas. They allow people to be heard and to weigh in which fuels buy-in.
Yet, when we are trying to influence, we often use persuasive statements instead of questions. We state facts and opinions designed to persuade and the impact is these statements unwittingly exert pressure. They feel like you are arm twisting.
When influencing, we are looking to shift perspectives and get buy-in. It’s not about people bending to your will.
A persuasive statement sounds like…This decision benefits the team.
A powerful question sounds like…How do you think this decision benefits the team?
When people come to their own insights, they are far more likely to buy-in and support changes and decisions.
In a recent Coaching for Leaders Podcast called How to Influence Through Questions, speaker and author Kwame Christian of the American Negotiation Institute says that the secret to influencing is to be humble and collaborative, and to approach it from a place of serving and helping others. And we couldn’t agree more.
I learned how to influence the hard way. I also learned not to be attached to my recommendations, but to offer them freely without expectation. Overtime, my counsel was sought out and that’s became the measure of my influence and impact.
In our careers, we’re often called upon to lead by influence and that requires us to engage, inspire and build commitment towards what can be very challenging situations and impactful opportunities. Our commitment to building relationships, adopting a win/win mindset, and leaning into powerful questions will be the measure of our success.
When building relationships, how much do you give? How much do you take?
How are you able to keep your influence steered towards getting it right vs being right?
As you think about you leading by influence, what questions do you ask to shift perspective?