Rebecca Houghton (main photo), author of Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership, is a leadership and talent expert and founder of BoldHR. In this guest post, Houghton says we all seek more influence at work and, adds, here’s how to get just that…
Influence is like the El Dorado of leadership – a secret treasure that we all seek. Mid-level leaders – the new B-Suite – need it more than most because of the unique position they hold in the social and cultural hierarchy of any organisation.
B-Suite leaders influence their teams to meet organisational goals, despite tough times like a pandemic. They influence up, to meet the needs of their team, even under pressure to do more with less. They influence their peers to negotiate complex outcomes. And lastly they have to influence themselves. Many B-Suite leaders are experiencing disengagement and burn-out – they’re even thinking about opting out of leadership altogether, so they have to exert influence internally as well. This is multidirectional influencing at its most extreme!
It’s one of the big differences between classic middle managers who typically exert authority downwards and struggle to exert influence in any other direction, and a B-Suite Leader, who influences in all four directions with seeming ease.
Here are the five golden rules for B-Suite leaders seeking greater influence.
Reframe your mindset
For the last fifty years, influencing techniques were synonymous with sales techniques, designed to put the unwitting buyer at the mercy of the informed salesperson. As a result, many of us cringe away from influencing for fear of being seen as that sleazy salesperson. Where that school of thought now misses the mark is that people are becoming more alert to being influenced and are far more selective about who they permit to influence them. As a result, the art of influence can no longer be an act of manipulation, but instead must be one of positive intent.
Stop being transactional
I’m sure you’ve watched Wolf of Wall Street, where flattery, favours and fear were the common currency of influence. Today, people are seeking a deeper exchange, often in terms of relationships and connection – so that favours become built on trust instead of on ‘deals’. Getting to know people’s needs, supporting them consistently and being transparent go a long way to building this.
Another important note to remember is that you can no longer pick and choose who to influence and who to ignore. Selecting people to influence because they are ‘useful’ to you is another sign of a transactional approach to influencing and in a more transparent and connected society, one that no longer serves us well. This is perfectly summed up by Stephen King who makes the point that we never know which lives we influence, or when, or why – and as leaders, that is especially true.
Make the time
Most B-Suite leaders that I work with make the mistake of failing to make time for deliberate influence. They believe that their point is so obvious that it doesn’t need raising. Or they believe it’s someone else’s job to get that outcome for them. Most commonly they wing it – placing faith in their powers of persuasion on the day.
These approaches are increasingly failing. Hybrid workplaces undermine our dependence on relationships to bolster our influence. Increasing levels of global and digital distraction means we now need to spell our point out repeatedly to gain attention and traction. And the pandemic has decreased our levels of trust and risk appetite, which means that people who were willing to go along with your idea in the past now need more from you before they will commit.
Don’t stereotype, make assumptions or project your own experiences onto someone else. Our brain loves to leap to conclusions about what others will and won’t do and it means that you miss the mark entirely when it comes to influencing – because you are not addressing them, you are addressing an assumed version of them.
Instead, ask questions and seek to truly understand their world, their perspective and their needs from every interaction so that when the time comes to exert some influence, you are confidently meeting their needs rather than just your own, and significantly increasing your chances of success.
We have to earn trust rather than ‘build’ it. Building trust suggests that you can ‘make’ it happen. You can’t – you can only invite it to evolve.
One powerful mechanism for this is transparency around your goals and priorities. Traditional influencing techniques often advised being opaque about your needs – for example, consultative sales techniques are about asking lots of questions to uncover a need that matches your solution. We’ve moved on from this and now need to be transparent from the outset. It’s a contemporary negotiation tactic that enables others to understand where you are coming from which increases both your chances of meeting in the middle.
Another mechanism is to support them before you ask them to support you. Author Henry Drummond once wrote that the people who influence us are the people who believe in us. This is not the ‘law of reciprocity’ approach made famous by Robert Cialdini- which is true if transactional – but rather means support given over a period of time as a two-way bond of trust, connection and understanding.
Influence has definitely changed in the last few years thanks to the disruptive norms we now operate in, and the impact that is having on our society and psychology. As a result, what used to be about persuasion, expertise and authority is now about trust, connection and understanding.
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