Career Skills

Increasing Your Personal Influence

By Julian Mercer

At one point or another, we’ve all experienced the frustration of not being heard, of not being invited to contribute, or of having our input dismissed without serious consideration. There are also those times when you can clearly see the best path or the solution to a problem, an important issue that needs to be addressed, or perhaps a flaw in a plan that is being formulated, but you can’t seem to get a word in edgewise.

In a work environment, if you’re not able to contribute, it’s easy to feel defeated, and even disrespected, which can result in counterproductive behaviors, such as disengagement or emotional responses that hamper your ability to influence others.

On the other hand, we all know the people we work with whose views we assign weight to, and those whose input is actively sought out. If you ask yourself why they are so influential, it usually comes down to a combination of two things — a track record of success, and their skill at communicating divergent or challenging ideas to a group in a persuasive and non-threatening way.

To be clear, this reflection is not about the type of influence that comes from having hierarchical authority, such as the ability of a manager or director to give direction to a subordinate. The focus is on personal influence, the type of influence that ensures that your ideas are heard and given weight, and that when cultivated, causes others to seek out your opinions and advice.

In our society, there are those who possess certain natural advantages, such a being tall, attractive, or having a strong voice and natural charisma that build confidence and can boost their ability to influence, at least initially. This reflection is not about leveraging those physical qualities, but about how you can cultivate influence through behaviors that can be learned and practiced by everyone.

There are five key skills or capabilities that, when combined with professional or technical knowledge, will cultivate influence in the workplace:

  • Strong communications skills
  • Understanding of context
  • Ability to see the big picture
  • Courage
  • Empathy

Improving at any one of these capacities will help, but to be truly influential, you need to be practiced at all five of them. The good news is that they can be learned, and will improve if you focus on employing them and learning from your performance.

So, let’s briefly look at each of these five capabilities, starting with communications.

Communications

Good communications skills are the foundation for influence. People need to understand your ideas and receive what you want them to hear. Anything that gets in the way of listening or comprehension will undermine your influence. Clarity with respect to your thoughts and how you deliver them are both important, whether it’s by written or oral communications.

There are several things you can do to enhance clarity and improve your delivery. The first is to get directly to the point and strip away anything that is not pertinent or that may distract the listener. Focus your communications on answering the five “Ws” — who, what, where, when, and why.

Its also important to deliver persuasively on the “why” of your communication, and here quality trumps quantity. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to deliver every single reason why your idea or solution is a good one — focus on the strongest reason(s) that you believe have the greatest business relevance and receptivity. In terms of influence, arguments don’t add up, they average out. Giving others weak supporting arguments to focus on will often encourage your listeners to challenge those weaker arguments, instead of acknowledging the stronger points. If you are forced to devote time to defending weak arguments, your own presentation will be undermined and lose the potential to influence. It only takes one good rationale to persuade.

Also remember that there is a natural resistance to divergent thinking or ideas that upset the status quo, especially if the divergent thoughts come across as a challenge to others. If you push too hard or personalize the communication, people will feel threatened. When a communication becomes charged with emotion, there is a tendency to take sides, put up walls and shut down unwanted input.

If you are coming at a problem with a new idea or from a different perspective, you should expect that you will get pushback. If you explain your reasoning and listen to the counter arguments and concerns, you can better understand how to address them effectively. You may hear something important that you had overlooked, and that can be addressed through an adjustment to your proposal. But don’t get drawn into a back-and-forth argument. If you’re patient and allow time for your ideas to sink in and for others to do their own mental calculus, you will often find that the collective thinking will come around to incorporate your input.

Context

Good communication is bolstered by context. Influencers are astute at reading their environment and learning about people, their interests and their motivations. They develop an understanding of the overall situation, the key players, the business culture and how things are normally done. If you want to impact a decision, work to gain understanding and context, so that you can frame your proposals and ideas around the strongest and most influential rationales, and target the individuals who are critical to getting consensus. Try to rub “with the grain,” instead of against it to the greatest extent possible. And understand that it may take incremental steps over time to change people’s thinking.

As a general practice, you can develop context in your day-to-day activities by cultivating curiosity, engaging broadly, and putting yourself in new and unfamiliar situations and environments. Test your assumptions about people and places before putting yourself in a make-or-break advocacy situation.

Breadth

Breadth concerns the ability to see the big picture and how things are related, which also requires context. When problem solving, it is often easy to focus narrowly on the specific problem or idea and lose track of the broader implications (i.e., not seeing the forest for the trees). Things may make technical sense but not business sense, or vice versa. Strong, resilient solutions require an understanding of the entire system and how it will be affected. That is one of the reasons why the best decisions and transformations typically occur at the seams of an organization, where people with different perspectives and business responsibilities come together.

To cultivate influence, you need to develop breadth, which you can do by careful preparation and research, by sounding out your ideas in advance and engaging broader communities in search of useful information and perspectives. That way you can anticipate the holes in your proposals, while working to set the stage for decision-making. Influencers are people who are good at “stitching the seams,” or building common ground amongst the key contributors and interested parties. The more “breadth” you have, the easier it will be for you to discern what seams need to be stitched.

Courage

Courage can be defined as sharing your ideas and making your best case despite the risk or fear of rejection or other negative consequences. It’s not about attacking others, but a willingness to engage, to take a stand for what you believe to be true, to espouse a position that others may not agree with, and to back that up with compelling facts and arguments.

Most decision-making groups have a fair number of participants who go along to get along, and are just trying to please their superiors. These individuals tend to back what seems like the most popular idea, and not necessarily the best proposal or approach. If you are pushing against the collective thinking, then the people you need to convince are the other “influencers” in the group, and that takes courage, since those are often the people whose positions give them influence over your job security and future. You have to trust that your boss or team leader is open to different ideas and points of view and will hear them out. Good bosses and leaders are, because they understand producing successful outcomes is what secures their own position and rewards for performance.

Courage is also about letting others share ownership of your ideas and proposals, letting them tweak your inputs, and accepting the risk that you might not get full credit. Credit-taking and credit-sharing are an entirely different topic, but as a general rule, if you are willing to share credit, you are more likely to be sought out as a collaborator and asked for your input, which are key benchmarks of influence.

Having the courage to make your case is important, but it’s also important to know when and how hard to push. Pick your battles and focus on only those ideas or issues that are truly critical. Make your case, but don’t argue it. If you get pushback, don’t pick a fight, criticize others or get defensive. Acknowledge the pushback and address the concerns that were raised. If you get shut down, try not to take it personally. Even if your ideas or concerns are not accepted in the decision at hand, if subsequent outcomes prove your judgment to be sound, then your inputs will be given greater weigh in the future, as long as you haven’t personalized the situation by criticizing the boss or the team, or letting your emotions get the better of you.

When you’re first starting out or working with a new group of problem-solvers, one way to build your influence is by focusing on filling in the gaps in the proposals of others or by calling out any important issues that have been overlooked as items that should be considered. By being “helpful” and contributing to the group’s success, you gain acceptance as a useful contributor, without disrupting the status quo or being marginalized as an outsider.

In a management or leadership context, courage is about making hard choices even when it might disappoint others. Lead by example and get comfortable saying no when the circumstances merit, so that yes means something. By setting the bar at a level that drives success, and ensuring that all the contributors benefit from that success, you will develop respect and loyalty, which are also key metrics of influence.

Empathy

Influence is also derived from strong working relationships. People will be more receptive to your input and ideas if you’re the type of person they respect and want to be around.

These types of personal relationships are cultivated through empathy. Invest the time to get to know your colleagues and what motivates them. Listen without judgment. Show an interest in their work and ask what you can do to help. Be a mentor and help others succeed. Generally, work on deepening your connections to the people you work with. The good will that generates will help ensure that you receive their attention and consideration when presenting your ideas.

Closing Notes

You may be thinking that this is a lot to do to become more influential as a person — and that is true. It’s not going to happen overnight. Influence is something you build over time, through a series of personal interactions and problem-solving situations. It may take a while to see results. Deviations from these behaviors may result in setbacks. But if you work on cultivating these five attributes, and reflect on what you can learn and improve on from each experience, then you will make real progress. You’ll know you’re getting there when your colleagues start to ask your opinions or use you as a sounding board for their ideas.

Julian Mercer

Julian Mercer is a management professional, consultant, teacher and occasional author with more than 30 years of experience working in the technology sector.

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