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The basics of influencing people

4 min read


The ability to influence others may be the most important thing leaders do. An organization I work with lists influence as one of its top leadership proficiencies. Their description, paraphrased:

“The ability to generate support from others to achieve desired business outcomes. Leaders who exhibit this competency apply it in a planned and strategic way, never randomly. They motivate people to want to follow them even when they don’t have to,”

When I ask leaders what influence means to them, they often say they want to win others over to their ideas or that they want employees to do things their way. This isn’t influence. It’s command and control, an outdated way of managing people that rarely moves people or an organization forward in our modern workplace.

Even seasoned executives can awaken to the fact that, to be more effective, they need to learn to influence others better. Whatever methods they were using may no longer be working, so they need examine some ineffective habits they’ve formed or look at the context they’re now in to decide the best way to influence in that particular situation.

Influence is where the leadership rubber meets the road for you. The ability to influence others needs to be a part of your leadership toolkit, because without it, you aren’t leading anyone. With ever-greater demands on you to compete in a global marketplace and manage change, you need to sharpen this skill.

Here are some basics that are foundational to the conversations you need to have to be able to influence:

Relationships: The old saying that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care is appropriate here. Expecting others to be influenced to your way of thinking simply because you’re smart or have credentials isn’t realistic. They need to trust you. They want to know that you have their best interests in mind every bit as much as your own interests and the greater good of the organization. This may not happen overnight, and may require you to moderate your self-interest to get to know what interests them.

Adaptation: Influencing others isn’t one-size-fits-all. It requires that you adapt your conversations and your communication style to the audience, whether one person or thousands. Consider what’s in it for them and how they want to hear what you have to say. We’ve had a few recent presidents who are examples of good influencers (Reagan and Clinton). You, too, can be a master of persuasion when you focus more on others and are flexible in how you present your case.

Inclusion and compromise: Include important stakeholders from the beginning as your thought process unfolds. This will assist with buy-in and avoiding errors down the road. Understand the principles you will stand on and what you might be willing to let go of in order to sway others. This takes reflection and thought. It also requires courage to take risks. If you decide that you only want things your way, you may suffer consequences. If you decide to compromise based on what they want, there may be issues. Consider what you will refuse to compromise on.

Work: It takes intentional and systematic effort to influence others. Make a plan for the work of building relationships, deciding who you need to influence and figuring out what matters to them; this might help with influencing them. Think about where you need to build coalitions and when it makes sense to talk to individuals before and after group meetings. This isn’t “politics” (with the negative connotation that suggests); it’s the real work of leadership. You are responsible for managing change, and this is how you do it.

As a leader, your ability to influence others will make or break you. Start with the foundations of influence, and the rest will follow with more ease.