One thing you learn quickly when you run a large organization is that positional power doesn’t actually carry the weight you think it might. When you need to catalyze resources from across the organization to achieve your strategic objectives, you can’t just be “the boss”—you must have influence.
Learning how to influence your peers—not to mention your customers—without relying on your place at the top of the org chart is something of an art. It’s an important one to master, as the ability to successfully influence can be the difference between moving closer to achieving your strategic objectives and struggling for the resources and attention you need to get things done.
However, it’s important to understand the line between influence and manipulation. The main difference between the two lies not in the techniques we use, but in how and why we use them.
The best analogy I can share with you is from Star Wars. Both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader used the Force, and both had a great deal of influence. Where these two differ significantly is in their intent. Darth Vader used the Force for deception and self-interest, to gain power. His intention was to fool and control people into doing and believing things for his own benefit—and no one else’s. Obi-Wan, on the other hand, used the Force for good; his interests were always in teaching, helping others and building strong relationships.
An effective leader should endeavor to be, like Obi-Wan, a positive influencer. By following five principles outlined here, you can improve your ability to persuade others to meet your objectives.
In each situation, think about why you want to influence someone. Clearly define how your desired outcome would benefit the other party, as well as your organization and yourself. A good practice is to consider the other party as a potential ally; this creates a good context for successful influencing, especially in a situation where you might feel nervous or unsure. It also helps ensure that you are not letting selfish motivators, like being “right”, get in the way of influencing.
Take a moment to understand the issue or opportunity from the other party’s perspective. Think less WIIFM (“What’s in it for me”) and more WIIFT (“What’s in it for them“). What are their needs? What organizational forces affect them? What common ground do you share? What drives them? Considering the perspective of the other party is not only key to successful influencing, it also helps solidify that you have more than your own interests at heart.
Trust is a key differentiator between influence and manipulation. When influencing others, you should be aiming for two things: to achieve an ideal outcome and to strengthen your relationship with the other party. Building trust by being respectful and honest in each interaction creates cumulative goodwill, which makes it easier to exert your influence going forward.
Be yourself. People can tell when you’re being disingenuous, so take a risk and be open and honest about what you are trying to accomplish. Consistently acting from a place of authenticity makes you more likeable, relatable and credible. And the degree to which the other party likes you correlates strongly with successful influencing.
The principle of reciprocity fits in nicely with the idea of strong ongoing relationships; you have to give as much as you take. And reciprocity in a longer-term relationship can play out over time. After all, I am more likely to do something for you now if I trust that you can do something for me down the road. If a relationship becomes unbalanced in this regard, it can become strained; continuing to push your influence where reciprocity isn’t strong verges on manipulation.
At root, influence comes down to how people see us as individuals, how well our ideas resonate with others and how well we frame our ideas in terms of others’ needs and problems. Strong influence can give you access to people’s hearts and minds—the ultimate resource in becoming most effective as a leader in your organization.
Mike Desjardins is a transformation specialist at Virtus, a strategic planning and leadership development consultancy based in Vancouver for entrepreneurial business as well as public companies.
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