“You can learn all the knowledge in the world about the changes you want to make, but if you can’t influence other people, you will only have frustration to look forward to”
In his most recent book, Thank you for being late, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Thomas Friedman outlines 3 factors that, more than anything else, are shaping the world we live in today: Technological advancements, globalisation and climate change. By extension the world of work is changing too, at different paces for some, but changing nonetheless. We have access to almost anyone we would like to engage with, anywhere. The variety and quantity of actors are growing, as are the complexity and interconnectedness of markets and economies. From a peace and security perspective the same applies to a number of global challenges or ‘wicked problems’ like climate change, resource access issues or the evolving nature of conflict, extremism and crime. For example, my colleague Dr Christina Schori Liang recently wrote about the shift in Islamic State focus toward a “United Cyber Caliphate”[i].
The ability to lead and to influence others is no longer the prerogative of ‘the select few at the top’. It is a core capability, no matter what level you work at, and it is fundamental to purposefully engage with peers, superiors, reports and decision-makers within and outside our own organisations. Today, maybe more so than ever before, anyone at any level with the right mind-set, skills and tools can influence and mobilise people and achieve greater meaningful and lasting impact.
In fact, organisations are increasingly seeking the ability to lead and to influence the people they select and invest in.
What influence is and the importance of being able to exercise it
During one of our leadership courses a participant with a military background approached me at the start and, with genuine humility, said that during his 20+ years in the armed forces he had received numerous trainings in leadership and had accumulated rather a lot of practice. He therefore did not expect to learn all that much but was happy to participate and contribute. At the end of the programme, in front of his peers he stated:
“Having been seconded to a United Nations peacekeeping mission, I thought I would have much to learn about the technical aspects of the UN and the culture of the country where I was posted. I expected to be pretty good at the leadership side of things but soon found out that in this cross-professional civilian/military environment I wasn’t getting “Yes, sir” responses or even “What should I do?” questions but “Why should I do this?” I need to learn a different kind of leading…and fast. I have to be able to influence people and this is completely new for me.”
Much of the early research on the topic of influence focussed on charisma and while this is certainly a factor, it is by no means the only one. In fact, an over-reliance on charisma alone can actually lead to reduced influence[ii]. Most of us will have come across someone during our working lives who was highly charismatic yet who lacked the operational behaviours to sustain their influence over time.
Contemporary research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) concluded that the ability to influence was one of the top leadership capabilities required to be successful. CCL proposes a ‘Core Four’ of leadership capabilities essential to leading anyone, anywhere: Self-awareness, Communication, Influencing and Learning Agility[iii]. This is nothing new, social and behavioural science has been studying and recording the phenomenon of ‘persuasion’ since ancient Greece. Although, to become a great influencer was historically a somewhat risky endeavour. Those who became too good at it often ended up being removed by the political authorities, Socrates being a prime example. Thankfully, in today’s world of mass access to information on how to influence, this outcome is somewhat less likely.
Influence is not reserved for a gifted few. We can all learn to influence better.
In his now famous 2001 Harvard Business Review article Professor of Psychology Robert B. Cialdini referred to six principles of persuasion[iv]:
Liking: people like those who like them back
Reciprocity: people repay in kind e.g. give what you want to receive
Social proof: people follow the lead of similar others
Consistency: people wish to appear consistent to others
Authority: people defer to expertise
Scarcity: people want more of what they can have less of
These principles are all real but rarely occur in isolation. Whether we choose to do so intentionally or not, we all use many of them in varying combinations when interacting with other people. When artfully blended in genuine ways, they are highly effective. However, they can also be somewhat transactional and there is a crucial underlying factor that is not mentioned in this set of principles.
What I’m referring to is trust. Trust is exchanged between people much like a currency; it can be given, received and built up over time. Once lost however, trust is hard but not impossible to rebuild. It forms the basis of all human relationships and the extent to which you have influence is largely based on the extent to which people trust you and you are willing to trust them. In fact, the more challenging the circumstance, the more important this becomes. There are many ways to build trust but from a leadership point of view integrity is one worth highlighting. I define integrity as having well-formed moral principles and adhering to those principles through words and actions in ways that transcend difference. The ability to influence with integrity is also what differentiates influence from manipulation; a negative form of influence that puts the interests of the manipulator first in an unfair or deceptive manner. Attempting to manipulate people usually results in an erosion of trust while influencing with integrity is far more likely to increase trust and therefore lead to a deeper, longer-lasting, and often reciprocal, form of influence.
Common barriers to influence
There are a number of barriers and distractions to overcome to better focus your attention on influencing. Most of us will recognise these on some level and yet certain people seem better able to navigate these barriers than others. The reality is they have likely practised long & hard and made plenty of mistakes along the way to eventually learn how to overcome them.
Firstly, we tend to be pessimistic about our own ability to influence in the first place. The reality is that humans are socially conditioned to cooperate and therefore remember that this in effect means you have a head start, you’re rolling a boulder downhill, not uphill. If you start with the mind-set that you are able to influence and are genuine in your intent then you are already half way there.
Secondly, the pressures that many of us face in our day to day work can, if we are not purposeful, prevent us from making the time and effort to engage in influential behaviours. Time pressure, either through our own lack of planning, or by the volume of demands seemingly placed on us. Choosing and using our means of communication when we have so many methods and tools for communication, all of which (including face to face) can be used or misused. Cognitive load, the amount of things we are required to think about and cope with at any one time affects our ability to focus on engaging meaningfully with, and influencing others.
Thirdly, the wonderfully cross-cultural environment that many people are exposed to today also creates differences. It is an environment where the values linked to influence can be remarkably diverse e.g. between individualism and collectivism or high/low power distance or the level of importance placed on hierarchies. People who are more effective at influencing in cross-cultural (and incidentally also cross-professional) environments tend to do 3 things that are different:
Paying attention and learning to improve how you influence others is at the end of the day a choice. You can choose not to be influenced by this article of course, or you can choose to spend some time paying attention to whom and how you influence, how well it is working for you and those around you, and how you might benefit from getting even better at influencing. After all, it will set you apart.
[i] Liang, Christina Schori (2017). Unveiling the ‘United Cyber Caliphate’ and the Birth of the E-Terrorist. Georgetown Journal of International Affaires, 18 (3), 11 – 20.
[ii] Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Hofmans, J., Kaiser, R.B., & De Fruyt, F. (2018). The double-edged sword of leader charisma: Understanding the curvilinear relationship between charismatic personality and leader effectiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(1), 110-130.
[iii] Hallenbeck, George (2017). Lead 4 Success: Learn The Essentials Of True Leadership. Centre for Creative Leadership.
[iv] Cialdini, Robert B. (2001). Harnessing the Science of Persuasion. Harvard business review 79 (9), ?.
After reading this article by Peter Cunningham, you still want to learn more about influence and how to become a better leader? Make sure to register for the November Edition of the 'Lead and Influence with Impact' course!