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The unthinking acceptance of authority is becoming progressively less common in the world at large. It is particularly so in the Western industrial nations and in the world of work. The unthinking use of authority was never a particularly effective way of harnessing energy, independent thought and commitment anyway. It engenders inflexible obedience rather than personal creativity.
If people want to get others to do things but do them intelligently and with commitment, then they must rely on other strategies than the use of authority. Often, for example gaining co-operation from other departments, even the theoretical use of the authority of position is unavailable.
The possible strategies include persuasion (getting people to do things through the overwhelming force of your argument), manipulation (getting them to do things in response to implied, but false, promises or threats), coercion, or influencing. Influencing is helping the person or persons realise that there is real and genuine advantage to them in moving in the direction you want.
Persuasion, manipulation and coercion all create resistance in the long term. Once we have experienced them once from one person we are less open to them in the future. Thus as managers (and most others at work) need to gain the co-operation of others in the long term, there is a real incentive to learn influencing skills.
What are influencing skills?
The essence of influencing is to make a proposal to people that they will say "Yes" to and that also gets us what we want. We need to know enough about the person (people) and the situation to be able to formulate a "Yesable" proposal. It will not work to guess what people need and then sell the idea hard unless we are very lucky.
It is quite an intimate thing to show what is important to us because it leaves us feeling a bit vulnerable. We will not feel safe enough to do so unless we feel easy and in tune with a person. Thus the first task is to create a feeling of basic trust with the client(s). (We will use 'client' to mean 'the person we are attempting to influence' from now on).
The phases described form the mnemonic EDICT
Entry Building Trust
Diagnosis Understanding Client and Situation
Intervention Making "Yesable" Proposals
Contracting Reaching Clear Agreements
Transition Following through
These ideas describe what effective influencers do.
1) How to ENTER an influencing relationship?
People have a near universal need to be listened to, so almost anyone will respond positively to this. When we do not feel stressed and want to get closer to someone we naturally listen to them and try to establish common ground. This could be common interests, common experiences or a common need. These could be within or outside the business context. For effective influencing, common ground within the business context is usually most useful. For example both parties want to improve the efficiency of a particular process or both think customer service needs work.
Common ground provides the bridge for further sharing of thoughts and feelings.
If people are to feel relaxed and comfortable with us we need to respond to their style rather than try to impose our own. A crude but effective way at looking at style is to imagine four extremes, as in the diagram below.
One person (FRIEND type) may be friendly because her/his needs are social. This person will need (and offer) a few minutes social chat before getting down to the business. It will be important to her/him that you are comfortable. Another person (DIRECTOR type) may be brisk and business like because her/his needs are for results. This person will appreciate you coming to the point quickly and saying what you want to talk about and why.
A third person (PERSUADER type) may be enthusiastic about new ideas and possibilities. She/he will respond to similar enthusiasm and find detail boring. Finally, the person may be cautious (FACT FINDER type) and need to know that you are competent and have a legitimate reason for being there. This person is likely to need to interview you to establish this before being prepared to interact further. He/she will usually distrust generalities.
The implications of this are that we need to notice the clues people give of the style they feel comfortable with and be prepared to respond appropriately. In influencing, we often have to pay more attention to what our clients need than to what we need.
Finally, people rarely find ambiguity comfortable so it helps to have a simple agenda agreed early. I like "How would it be if I tell you briefly why I am here, hear what you think and then we discuss what if anything might happen next?" " This should take no more than an hour, is that still OK?"
Effective entry demands genuine relaxed interest in the other party. It requires, sensitivity to her/his needs and style and excellent listening. A simple clear agenda and common ground help also. When you have established entry both parties feel comfortable with each other and want to continue the relationship.
2) How to DIAGNOSE the client's situation and needs?
It helps to have some idea beforehand of the areas we want to diagnose. Simply making a list and working through this unobtrusively and flexibly can be enough. Diagnosis should include what is going on in the part of the organisation the person manages or works in. If we have gone in with an idea or a proposal we need to find out the client's reaction. It is most important to listen and not to defend our ideas or try to force them through. This will not work.
The skills required are listening, asking open but unthreatening questions, summarising to check understanding and avoiding premature judgements. Interviewers often say that they know all about a person and their suitability for a job in the first four minutes. This is clearly impossible and shows the prevalence of coming to premature judgements. It is important to diagnose the person and the situation. People have different needs and are often different from us or as we imagine someone ought to be in their role. When we know what is important to a person, we can present a proposal that meets her/his needs in a way she/he can say "Yes" to. This sort of diagnosis requires gentle listening, questioning and summarising and careful observation of what the person actually does. People may say "Risk taking is important to me" but if they never question an instruction or disagree with more senior people, then "Wanting a quiet life" is more like it.
The way you would present a proposal to clients with these two values would be quite different.
3) How to INTERVENE in a client system?
The intervention is an action that changes the client or her/his system. In essence the entry and diagnostic phases are also interventions as asking questions and listening to the answers changes the clients thinking.
The commonest form of an intervention is to make (or develop) a proposal to do something. The proposal should produce a benefit that the client values. Some proposals would involve doing some more diagnosis or setting up a meeting to involve more people. Others might require you to talk to someone else or spend time helping the client think about the situation. You develop the intervention by responding to the needs shown in the diagnosis.
You say "It seems to me that you are saying that the key issue is the poor quality of service your people are getting from X department"." You are also saying you want to involve your people gently in creating the solution". "How would it be if I met with your people and explored with them what they could do in a low key way to get a better service?" The process is tentative, not demanding. This increases the client's ownership of the solution and makes it more possible for her/him to improve it.
The problems people have in influencing are not at the intervention stage. Most of us have the technical expertise to formulate good proposals. The trouble is we jump to selling them rather than building a good relationship first and then finding out what people need.
4) How to reach clear agreement on an intervention? CONTRACTING
The intervention stage above will end with a "Yes" from the client. However, in order for the proposal actually to happen, you need to agree all sorts of details. There needs to be agreement about who will be there, when, where. You need to settle costs and budgets where outside money is involved. All those involved need to know what to expect, especially the influencer and client.
Contracting is about making sure things go professionally. It is terribly easy to neglect. If you find it is impossible to tie people down there is a good chance that you did not have a real agreement to the intervention. It sounded like "Yes" but was actually "Maybe".
5) How to follow through and keep the momentum going? TRANSITION
Let us suppose that the Intervention has worked and the identified problem is moving towards a solution. The influencer will now have less obvious need to spend time with the client but will be concerned that the momentum continues. You will want to get back in to do more influencing.
Transition is about keeping the ball moving. Some approaches are to build in follow up time in to the original contract. "Let's run a two-day workshop on X with the supervisors and have one hour follow-up meetings after their monthly meeting to see how they are doing?" Another is to arrange for follow up meetings with the client to discuss the situation and discover any other needs. If the client is pleased about the work she/he may be prepared to talk about it in other parts of the Company or even outside. The readers of this note will no doubt think of many other ways. We always want to leave the door open for further contact.
The work may have involved a group of people learning new things. You can maintain momentum by encouraging them to take turns listening to each other's experience of putting their learning into practice.
Influencing according to this model is quite straightforward. It even sounds rather simple. Although the principles are simple and it does work, in practice there are difficulties commonly experienced. I have found some ways around them.
Not enough time
When you are anxious and having only a short time with someone, it is tempting to sell hard. There is no time for 'luxurious' Entry and Diagnosis. Selling hard almost never gets you what you want. Spend your time building the relationship and doing enough diagnosis to be able to propose a further meeting.
Anxiety due to status difference will often push you into 'Selling' ideas. High status people have a great need to be listened to. Because they are used to having influence they respect influencers who take the diagnosis phase seriously. Most people find being asked for their opinion or advice quite irresistible.
Our anxiety to do a good job may cause us to stop paying attention to our client's needs and pay all our attention to our own. The influencing attempt will often fail. However, we can decide not to pay attention to our needs but to concentrate on our clients needs instead. We can also talk our anxiety out with an understanding friend. It is often a great relief to feel anxious without being criticised or judged. This is the opposite of feeling obliged to perform. Setting yourself not too ambitious but clear objectives also helps.
Ignoring Organisational Culture
Obliterating one's individuality to conform to the culture of an organisation is usually costly. Clumsily challenging it is not often effective either. Effective influencers know enough about how things are done in the organisation to appear to conform. If you know that top managers in the organisation reserved and rather formal you should respect that. There is no point in building obstacles.
Fear of being influential
Many people have been so thwarted in childhood and early life that it feels impossible to be influential at all. They have to live life in the victim role. It is possible slowly to give up this habit. Things that help include asking what is the worst that can happen if I take or do not take power in this situation. Another is deciding to be influential and do what is necessary whatever it feels like. It is much easier to work through these concerns with a supportive person who cares, supports and encourages you and lets you express the anxiety.
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