Matters Column

Effectively influencing people without being in charge

March 15, 2013
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While much guidance is available to strengthen a manager’s ability to lead from a position of authority and control, the individuals whom they lead often become a “silent majority,” being given little attention, recognition or opportunity to contribute to the “greater good” because they are not allowed or encouraged to influence “from the bottom up.” 

We all must accomplish tasks to improve situations, processes or relationships. We all work with — and sometimes around or through — others. We all have thoughts and ideas that could improve a situation or streamline a process, that could enhance a relationship or include others within a solution, but not everyone is in a position to impose their will upon others through a management directive. 

In order to effectively influence others and make a difference in how we contribute to solutions and interact with people — without the benefit of being in charge, consider the following:

  • Recognize that it is your responsibility to sell an idea, not someone else’s responsibility to buy the concept. 

Good salespeople identify and relate to the needs of the buyer rather than focusing on their own needs. While making a sale will obviously benefit the seller, the buyer must recognize why he or she will benefit from making a “buying decision” before a sale will be finalized. To close the sale — be it of a product, a process or an idea — remain positive and upbeat, focusing on what you can do to “make things right” rather than on what others would have to do to make the conclusion possible. 

Until you truly “sell” change, you will only be an implementer of other’s directives rather than an initiator or innovator of ideas. 

  • Consider how change will affect “the whole” rather than focusing on how it might achieve your personal objectives. 

Most people are hesitant to abandon the status quo. If you want something done differently, you must convince others that the results of change are better than the comforts of staying the same.

It is difficult to impose change. We can move mountains, however, if every individual involved is able to take responsibility for a part or portion of the transition. If you wish to influence another’s actions, you must clearly demonstrate how the resultant change will positively affect that individual, the organization, their environment and their future rather than how it will elevate you or improve your position.

  • Present a realistic cost-benefit analysis of your idea. 

Whether it is a major corporate decision or a family vacation, be prepared to have a realistic discussion on the cost of change and of not changing and the benefits of change or of remaining the same. Implementing your idea means someone else’s was overlooked — someone will be opposed to your suggestion because their idea was not used — so it is critical that an objective analysis be clearly communicated to all involved. 

Whenever anything has changed in history, the benefits of change have outweighed the costs, but nothing happens unless or until that value proposition has been made. Nothing is impossible: It is your responsibility to convince all involved that an idea is fiscally viable if it is to become a practical reality.

  • Whether or not you are in full agreement with a decision, after all arguments that might have influenced the direction of change have been made and a conclusion has been reached, accept the final decision and adopt it as your own. 

Many ineffective influencers will “own” decisions with which they agree and blame others for making the ones they may not have wholeheartedly supported. Remember that you will not always “win” when influencing upwards, but you will gain tremendous credibility if, after all the discussions and debates, you own any solution that is not illegal, unethical or immoral. We can always live to fight another day tomorrow as long as we do not impale ourselves upon the sword of principle today. 

  • Rather than focusing on what has or has not happened, dream about what has yet to occur. 

Far too many individuals focus on what may have gone wrong and how to correct it, losing sight of what went right and how to build on it, as they struggle to bring ideas to fruition. When we tie ourselves to the possibility of failure, focusing on things that actually went wrong or simply trying to avoid pitfalls rather than implementing change, we cannot possibly realize unidentified success.

When we focus on “what did not happen,” it is difficult to implement what could still be done differently to alter results. When we are comfortable with what we do and with whom we associate, we will rarely seek to expand our circle of friends or alter our sphere of influence. When we accept “what is” we cannot realize “what could be” unless (and until) we acknowledge the possibility of something different — something better — that has yet to be discovered.

We invest tremendously in the acquisition of knowledge in an effort to make a difference — to matter, but until we learn to sell our ideas so that others want to “buy” them, we might as well pour our thoughts down an open drain.

We must leverage the power of opinion without assuming the position of power in order to effectively influence. We must look forward as we move toward new objectives, identifying obstacles that might stand in our way, rather than focusing on the troubled path we have already travelled. We must convince others to travel along the winding road with us, rather than expecting them to follow without hesitation, if we expect to influence change. 

Making yourself matter begins and ends with making others feel they matter more.

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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