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Understanding Workplace Influence

May 2, 2017


A senior public official shared with me her role’s watchdog challenge given she is tasked with influencing the government of the day, its elected members and an entire bureaucracy to, as strictly as possible, follow legislation that is sometimes unpopular with the electorate. She admitted that influencing the behaviour of a nearly 10,000 person civil service was daunting, perhaps the greatest challenge of a very successful career of leading change and being at the forefront of important public policy decisions. “I do it the way I always have, by influencing others using  several means, but principally by having one conversation at a time”.


Author John Maxwell famously said “Leadership is influence”. At its core, formal and informal leaders seek to affect the behaviour, choices and points of view of others. In workplaces and beyond it is the thoughtful art and science of gaining commitment, securing compliance and surmounting resistance.


Managers have learned, as we have moved away from traditional and often dated command and control management styles attempting to gain worker obedience  by telling and directing, that the ability to influence through other means is now a must- have for leaders. It is a competency that is highly sought after, tested for and central to whether people are selected for formal leadership roles.


In his oft- cited and highly acclaimed best seller “Influence-The Psychology of Persuasion”, Robert Cialdini masterfully lays out the science of  his six “weapons of influence”. Those tactics have enabled everyone from hucksters to the most honourable and well intentioned among us to encourage others to act a certain way, think differently or buy something. Leaders and managers would do well to internalize his evidence based treatise that reminds us that employees are built to reciprocate, like things that are proven to be liked by others and are all heavily influenced by expertise, scarcity and most notably by people  they genuinely like and trust.


Harvard researcher, author and rock star TED presenter Amy Cuddy says “Trust is the conduit of influence” arguing and proving that leaders will only be influential once they are seen as credible and the only path towards leadership credibility is when people see you as trustworthy. She goes on to explain that the key to being trusted as a leader is achieved by being present, empathetic and by displaying higher order listening.


Refined listening ability is at the core of recent work by the evidence driven Center for Creative Leadership which urges leaders to “appeal to head, heart and hands.” I like this approach as it provides a checklist of sorts for influencing others. This CCL blog post reminds us that we will be more influential when we ensure that our message touches your intellect with facts and evidence, resonates with your ideals on an emotional level and invites a partnership or collective approach.


A very specific, step by step approach for influencing others one on one is masterfully laid out in Michael Pantalon's six questions that form the central argument of his book  “Instant Influence- How to Get Anyone to Do Anything-Fast”. The Yale University researcher’s six questions designed to influence behaviour in a matter of minutes is time tested, evidence based (one of the very few such recipes) and provides supervisors, coaches and managers with a powerful tool to influence a change in behaviour. I have used and witnessed this technique used with outstanding outcomes. It was designed to assist emergency room doctors influence a life saving change of behaviour in their patients in less than 7 minutes. Central to the method are the elements of respecting the person’s choices and absolutely focusing on the positive reasons why a person would want to think or act differently as opposed to hammering away (often with great futility) at points of resistance. The technique puts the “influencee” in a position to convince and influence themselves. The six questions are:

  1.  Why might you change?

  2.  How ready are you to change? (scale of 1 to 10)

  3.  Why didn’t you pick a lower number?

  4.  Imagine you’ve changed. What would the positive outcomes      be?

  5.  Why are those outcomes important to you?

  6.  What’s the next step, if any?

Pantalon’s technique is not foolproof and does rely, as all influence does, on an individual's openness to be influenced. It is influence we are talking about not coercion.


A leader’s openness to be influenced is an under explored area as outlined by organisational psychologist Roger Schwarz in an article in the Harvard Business Review.  He offers 4 levels of openness and transparency leaders operating in a more participative management landscape may want to contemplate. I worked for manager open to being influenced by her staff. She was known for letting us all know that she was open to being convinced and was transparent about what might compel her to be persuaded over to a certain point of view or action. The work was still left to me and my colleagues to do the influencing and make no mistake she was a tough nut to crack but she was brilliant in her strategy strengthen our capability and our confidence at influencing others.



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