Monday, April 19, 2010

Influence

It has often been said that leading from the top is one thing, but leading from within the pack is quite another.  For every organization there are only a handful of top positions; positions where there is an implied right to lead, or power to make decisions.  Those who find themselves in the middle or bottom of the hierarchy sometimes question their own ability to be leaders, or to have any influence on how the organization works.

The key word here is "influence".  It is true that not everyone can occupy the corner office.  But it is also true that everyone can find a way to be a leader, to have some "influence" on how things are done, and to make a difference.

What exactly is influence, and how does it become part of leadership from the middle?  Here are a few thoughts to chew on.

Influence, as Dr. Robert Cialdini of ASU says, is the "ultimate power tool".  Those who understand how to use influence can have a profound effect on their organization, regardless of their position.

Influence has gotten a bad rap because it is often seen as a process used to get people to do things that might not always be above board.  However, like any tool, it can be used to build up or to tear down.  Properly used, influence can help your organization, team, or work group achieve things that might not otherwise have been possible.

Having and applying influence depends on a number of underlying concepts.  Here are a few to consider:
  • Reciprocity - If you have done something for me, I feel some obligation to do something for you.  When we are negotiating, if you have moved back from your opening position (a position that was most beneficial to you) to a fall back position that is better for both of us, I feel inclined to move my position as well.  "No" is not a final answer.  When you get a "no", introduce a fallback position.
  • Scarcity - People are motivated to have what they can't have, or to move if there is a narrow window of opportunity.   Helping people understand that an opportunity is short-lived can help move things along.
  • Authority - We prefer to say "yes" to authority.  If you have expertise or a background that places you in the position of being an expert, start by exposing your weaknesses, then offer your background of experience and knowledge.  Present your strengths only after showing your weaknesses.  Your authority is strengthened by showing that you are aware of your shortcomings.
  • Consistency - People like to do things that are consistent with prior actions.  Sometimes this is a challenge, particularly when the prior actions may be taking the organization down the wrong path.  However, searching for ways to show consistency is important.  Even a change of direction can be seen as "consistent" under the right circumstances.  Also, get people to commit to actions in a public setting, get them to write down what they have agreed to do, and followup conversations and agreements in writing.
  • Consensus - People and organizations like to look at what others are doing.  Leaders often import practices that have succeeded for others.  And, organizations often follow trends in behaviors that their leaders see as positive.  You can help identify these trends, bring them to the attention of your peers and managers.  And, you can use your influence to help the organization choose the paths that are most advantageous.
  • Likeness - You are more influential if people feel that you are "like" them.  This may seem like a negative trait, but good or bad, it is true that people are generally more inclined to favor people who they see as similar to themselves - people who think like them, value the things they value, have goals that are consistent with their goals, and see the world in ways that are similar to their views.  This doesn't mean that you have to become like the person you are trying to influence, but if you search for the similarities and emphasize those as you work together, you will have a better chance of being influential with that person.
There is more to influence, but by now you probably are getting the idea that you can have influence on your peers and leaders without having to have a position of power from which to work. There is plenty of reading on the concept of influence.  Dr. Cialdini has written extensively on the subject, as have many others.

In addition to Cialdini's work, I can recommend Influencer - The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson and a host of co-authors.

Use your influence for good and positive change.  Help others use their influence to improve the organization and achieve goals that lead to success.  And, don't be afraid to use influence when it is taking you in the right direction.