Originally published on October 12, 2016
This is the 14th in a series of Blog posts on Executive Leadership.
The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority. — Ken Blanchard
Have you noticed that some of the LinkedIn postings have a logo that reads influencer next to the individual’s name? It is an indication of the way business has evolved. No longer are the real directions of business, industry, education, and other major enterprises directed by edicts from the powers on high—they are guided and nurtured through the influence of respected leaders who have proven records of vision, innovation, and success. Some of the
Influence is power, regardless of the profession, industry, or workplace where you exercise your plan to reach professional goals. Because influence is a far less threatening leadership quality than direct “bossing,” achieving more influence in the workplace is critical for success. Gaining influence in a leadership—or managerial—position can make you more respected and appreciated while having the positive effect of improving efficiency, effectiveness, and teamwork. When working with others—both internal and external to the organization—influence in a meeting can make your voice more likely to be heard and acknowledged, as well as your guidance followed.
Influence has countless benefits, is a lucrative asset in the business world, and can have innumerable advantages—but gaining influence, like learning a skill, takes time and effort. Fortunately, there are many strategies you can use to cultivate this characteristic. Jayson Demers, Founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, recommended seven methods by which leaders may build their influence. (Demers, 2015)
Build Trust with Your Co-Workers. Influence is most often and most easily carried through trust. Only when a co-worker trusts you will he or she be open to your influence. If you’re in a higher position in the company hierarchy, it’s possible to convey a demand or assign a taskthat must be carried out by your employee, but true influence suggests a free will component. If you assigned the same task but didn’t carry a higher authority, would your employee still listen to you and believe that the task is necessary to execute? This hypothetical may not be relevant to your situation, but regardless of your position in comparison to the positions of your co-workers, if you want a healthy and influential working relationship, you’re going to have to cultivate trust. The easiest way to do that is to be open and honest, no matter what. State your opinions, disclose your apprehensions, and don’t keep secrets. It’s as simple as that.
Cultivate Reliability Through Consistency. Inconsistency is the fastest way to ruin your reputation. Consistency, on the other hand, is slow but sure–if you execute your tasks effectively and on time, day after day, eventually people will come to rely on you. The same is true when you execute a consistent style of leadership, setting consistent expectations with your employees and giving consistent rewards for good work. People will come to rely on your behavior and expect you to be a consistent performer. That consistency is vital for building influence. Otherwise, you’ll have an air of unpredictability about you, and people won’t know whether to trust or impugn your suggestions. If you’re consistently motivated by the same principles, people will trust that your ideas are solid and reliable as an extension, and that will make it easier to get people on your side. Consistency is especially important when you’re in a lower position since it demonstrates a degree of dedication.
Be Assertive, Not Aggressive. Being assertive is the only way to get your ideas noticed, especially when you’re competing with others for visibility, such as in a meeting. However, there’s a difference between being assertive and being aggressive. You’ll need to present your thoughts and ideas with a high degree of confidence, indicating your convictions, but any excessive degree of confidence could be mistaken for needless arrogance, which will compromise your perceived authority. Tread carefully, especially when you’re unfamiliar with your audience or if you’re presenting your thoughts on an area outside of your expertise. This assertiveness should extend as a general quality to all your interactions, regardless of whether you’re speaking to employees above, below, or at your level, and regardless of the conversation format. Being assertive, so long as you truly believe in what you’re saying, is a way to cultivate a reputation of authority and earn the ability to influence your peers and employees.
Be Flexible. Flexibility is also important. While this may seem like it conflicts with the need to be assertive–after all, it’s difficult to assert yourself fully if you’re open to changing your opinion–being too stringent or adamant in your beliefs will work against you. In this case, people will come to see you as a stubborn, immovable monolith, incapable of believing in anyone other than yourself. This can decrease the respect people have for you and compromise your overall influence. Instead, work actively to show your flexibility while holding firm on your beliefs. Negotiations and compromises are often the best ways to do this. Stay rigid in your beliefs when someone contradicts you, but work with them to find a mutually acceptable solution. When people believe you to be flexible, they’ll be more likely to listen to you even if they’re stubborn in their own right.
Be Personal. A little personality goes a long way, especially when you’re trying to build influence in the workplace. This is especially important when you’re in a higher position, as a boss or a supervisor. If you isolate yourself or try to build your perceived authority by distancing yourself from the others, it might only serve to alienate you and put you in a position where you’re viewed with distrust or even resentment. Instead, go out of your way to have personal exchanges with your employees and co-workers. You don’t need to build friendships, but there’s no reason why you can’t get to know each other. Personal working relationships are important for cultivating a sense of team, and if people see you as another person on the team, they’ll be more receptive when you disclose your ideas or opinions. The key here is to seem imperfect, approachable, and human.
Focus on Actions Rather Than Argument. Trying to build influence through words is useless. Even a leader with perfect diction and a background in rhetorical strategy can’t hope to win the influence of his or her peers through speeches and arguments alone. If you’re going to build influence in the workplace, you need to speak through your actions, or at the very least have the actions and history to back up whatever it is you’re saying. Part of this comes into play when you build consistency. Working hard consistently and getting consistently good results shows people that you’re able to walk the walk. Demonstrating your ideas through real examples is the next step in this process. Instead of arguing about how your structure will work in theory, put it to the test. Show instead of tell.
Listen to Others. Finally, remember that influence is a two-way street. The more you believe in the people around you and incorporate their ideas into your vision, the more they’ll believe in your ideas and incorporate them into their work habits. If you want to build up this kind of relationship with your co-workers and employees, you first have to listen. Listen to everyone’s opinion, and encourage people to speak up, especially if they don’t often voice their opinions. Take time to respect and acknowledge everybody’s opinion, and let people know that you value them. Listening to others creates an atmosphere of mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual teamwork. If you’re spearheading the initiative to build this environment, they’ll come to see you as a leader, and your opinions will naturally be heard, acknowledged, and respected as a result.
Influence is an extraordinary asset in the professional world, but remember, your goal here should be to become more respected in the workplace, not to increase the likelihood of getting others to do your bidding. One is a respectable journey to greater prominence and productivity, while the other is simply a Machiavellian power trip.
Comparative Styles and Influence
How do you change minds? Do you shape opinions? Do you motivate others to act? In other words, are you and effective influence?
The ability to influence is one of the most essential skills for modern leaders at any level. It is not as simple as directive or dictatorial “leadership” because it is comprised of both art and science—a lot to synthesize, given that every organizational structure and personnel group may respond differently to different types of influencing actions. Because the world is flat, as Thomas Friedman wrote in his 2005 book, the interconnected, interdependent, increasingly global workplace underscores the necessity of effective influential leadership.
Table 3. Traditional vs. modern power structures.
In traditional hierarchical organizations, power is typically based on position. The higher you are on the organization chart, the more power you wield. There are clear, top-down rules where the person at the top calls the shots. The person with the power has the influence.
Today, organizations are moving toward flatter, matrixed and team-based models. The theory is that with change and complexity comes the need to be nimbler, more inclusive of diverse thought, and more collaborative. In this model, power is more about one’s ability to influence and get things done outside of traditional reporting lines. In other words, the person with the influence has the power.
To be an effective influencer, you need both substance and style—the key is achieving and maintaining balance. Without a solid foundation of credibility, even the most interpersonally adept leaders will fall short. On the flip side, highly credible people can struggle with influence if they don’t understand the interpersonal dynamics at play.
In exploring the levels of influence styles as suggested by Discovery Learning, Inc. (2016), five categories of influencing were created. Arranging them in a hierarchical format, working from the lowest opportunity for success to the highest, the result is illustrated below.
The “Influence Hierarchy.”
Each of these styles can be effective, depending upon the situation and people involved. A common mistake is to use a one-size-fits-all approach. Remember that influencing is highly situational.
Once you, as a leader, have established the level of influence that works best with your organization—and each organization differs—there are steps that may be taken to increase the reach and effectiveness of that influence. DLI (2016) provided five steps leaders may take to enhance their influence.
Understand your influencing style. It all begins with self-awareness. What’s your dominant style? Do you assert, convince, negotiate, bridge or inspire? Do you tend to apply the same approach to every situation and individual? Understanding your natural inclination is a good place to start. If you’re not sure, consider taking a quick assessment. The Influence Style Indicator by Discovery Learning is a good one.
Take stock of your situation. Who are the critical stakeholders you need to win over to achieve an objective or overcome an obstacle? What influencing style might be more effective as you interact with them? For example, if you’re dealing with a hard-nosed CFO, consider using a convincing approach, which is based in logic, data, and expertise. If you’re in a crisis situation where people are relying on you to be decisive and fast on your feet, an asserting style may be more effective. If you’re working cross-functionally and need to win the support of a peer, a bridging or negotiating style may be the way to go.
Identify your gaps. Once you understand your natural orientation and the appropriate styles to influence those around you, figure out where you’re on solid ground and where you need to shift gears and use a different approach to be more effective.
After identifying your gaps, find ways to develop in those areas. It might be a workshop, coach or internal role model who is particularly strong in the style you’re trying to develop. For an added bonus, find a learning partner – someone with whom you can role-play to gain confidence.
Begin with small steps – low-stakes situations where you can test out your new influencing approaches. Target a person or situation where you’d like to achieve a certain outcome, think through the influencing style that will work best in that situation, and give it a try. See what works and what doesn’t. As you build your capability and confidence, move on to higher-stakes scenarios.
Most people have heard the phrase “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Whether you are leading, following, and/or collaborating, in today’s business and organizational environment you need to influence others to be successful. Influence strategies can range from reliance on position to education, encouragement, and collaboration. The key is exploring which type of influencing leadership model works best for your organization, planning, and then implementing your influencing style of leadership.
Once you have determined and implemented the style of influential leadership appropriate for your organization, the next consideration is deciding what kind of results you desire from that influence. When examining the concept of transformational leadership—of which influence is a large part—a key component to success is influencing managers and employees in such a way that they step out of their comfort zone and consider creative and innovative processes, products, services, etc. that are in line with the organization’s mission, vision, and operating environment.
Next week will be the 15th post in the series: Leveraging Creativity and Innovation.
Demers, J. (2015). 7 ways to build