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John Milsom

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How to make stuff happen

A major component of a leader’s success can depend upon their influencing prowess. Influence can be defined as:  “the ability to affect another’s attitudes, beliefs or behaviours...without using coercion or formal position, and in such a way that influencees believe that they are acting in their own best interests” (Zucker, 1991). More simply though, we might define it as: “making stuff happen, by people who want to do it”.

The trends towards globalisation, ultra-connectivity and multi-channel communications have only increased the importance of good influencing skills. Further, nowadays it is not just leaders that need to be able to influence others – such skills are increasingly important at all levels. Organisations that support their employees in the development of these skills are therefore likely to stay ahead of the game.

So how do we influence others? There are two main approaches, which can be categorised broadly as ‘forcing’ and ‘non-forcing’ approaches. Research tells us that forcing styles (exerting pressure, applying sanctions) tend to be ineffective in the medium to long term – that is, their ability to impact on colleagues’ sustained compliance is poor. A deeper delve into the literature adds colour to this picture. Specifically, forcing styles can trigger a set of emotions in the recipient (fear, risk avoidance, hiding mistakes, reduced communication) that may lead to short term compliance, but low attitudinal (and therefore long term) shifts in behaviour. Let us be realistic here – forcing styles have their place, and amid a crisis when urgent action is required they may be the optimum influence strategy. But such an approach deployed in less intense contexts is unlikely to prove beneficial.

Non-forcing styles, on the other hand (such as consultation, rational persuasion) have been proven to be a more effective strategy in securing long term buy-in. This is where a leader’s deftness and flexibility come to the fore – i.e. individuals who are able to pick up on interpersonal cues, and respond to the situation in a fluid way, are more likely to tap into the drivers of the people they are trying to influence. These approaches work because they win over the individual (or team) psychologically, such that when the leader is not around to ‘force’ compliance, people still follow the path because they believe in it. In a world where organisational complexity is increasing, with matrix structures, virtual teams, and multiple-bosses, leaders who get out and about to understand and empathise with the drivers and pressures of different parts of the business will find it far easier to secure lasting impact and influence.

How, as talent specialists, can we support leaders to improve their ability to influence? Self-awareness is key here, that is, helping the leader (or potential leader) to understand their own impact upon others, and helping them learn the tools and language to tap into the energies, hopes and fears of those around them. This can be done in many ways, including coaching, mentoring and action learning.

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