What is influence
In its simplest terms, Influential people have the ability to persuade someone to behave in a way that they want, and it is fast becoming an essential part of the project management process.
It is essentially a communications process, which involves aligning the mindset of individuals in relation to a specific subject through effective communications.
This seems a little convoluted, but it gets to the heart of the subject. Most people we see as influential are excellent communicators, with a specific agenda, who tend to focus on an audience that already thinks in a similar way to the influencer. They are not trying to convince their opponents, just to strengthen their base and pick up a few undecideds along the way.
Why is being influential important
Most people would traditionally think that influence is only important for sales people and politicians, so how is it important for software engineers and project managers?
Well, unless you work for yourself, you need to get others to do work for you, and the more aligned you get make everyone’s thought processes on a given topic, the easier this will become.As leaders, it is not enough to have great ideas, to pull together efficient and effective plans if we can’t get others to take the actions we are proposing.
Key elements of influence
Being influential is therefore a communications process, so we can break it down into 3 key elements.
This might seem obvious, but your ability as a communicator is key. Being able to craft a compelling argument and being prepared to talk to people is essential. There is no point in having a great message and not being comfortable speaking in public or making new connections.
The ability to influence is contextual, so when trying to influence your network you need to make sure that you are trying to push a position that is relevant to both you and your audience, and that your message is focussed and consistent.
Who are you trying to influence
People hear what they want to hear and knowing your audience is an essential step in the communications process, but for influence, it’s doubly important.
Not only do you need to pick the right words and messages to resonate with your audience, but you also need to pick the right audience. you need to consider both who you need to influence ( i.e. those who are in a position to help you achieve your goals) but also they need to be open to influence.
For example, there will be people who are either stubborn or completely opposed to your position. Neither of these will be swayed, so you’re better off focussing your attention on people who are open to or neutral to your position.
How to be influential
Your first meeting or presentation isn’t the time to start thinking about how to influence your audience, there is a lot of groundwork to be done before then, so what are the essential foundations of influence?
Build Connections within groups you want to influence
Networking has always been essential for politicians and business leaders, and that’s because building an audience of people who like and respect you is the essence of communications. It is also the reason why social media is such an effective channel for marketing communications, as you can identify like minded people and focus your message specifically to them.
But influence is a two way street, and you will often find that the most influential people will workshop the ideas that they have in advance of becoming politically committed to an idea. When coming up with a new idea, managers will often socialise an idea to the stakeholder group and elicit feedback before building a more detailed proposal around an idea that they are pretty sure most of the cohort can get behind. Having an extended network makes this feedback process more effective as it allows more voices to be included in the initial idea.
Networking has other benefits as well. People tend to trust people they know and like more than those they don’t so by building personal relationships and being seen as likeable and affable, people are more likely to trust your message, which will make your message easy to swallow
Listening can help you be more influential
We have covered the importance of listening elsewhere, but as we have said above, it’s a lot easier to build support for an idea that your audience is naturally inclined to accept, especially if they have been involved in the creation of the idea.
Listening to your network will give a sense of key themes and positions within the group in general and this will give you some direction when it comes to crafting your initial idea, so you’ll be pushing an open door. But things can change, so it’s essential to be open to feedback, and to be prepared to consider changes in direction if the consensus opinion in the room starts to shift. In addition, your audience will be more likely to listen if they feel respected and valued.
Influential people are not rigid about their ideas, they allow them to evolve over time, as new information and feedback of ideas take hold.
This should be an essential skill for all managers, especially in the uncertain times we live in, but it’s not, and people tend to dig themselves into positions and become defensive when challenged. This comes in part from the traditional command and control approach, and reflects the fact that many business tools and philosophies taught since the 50’s are based on military strategies and approaches. But leadership involves getting people to want to do what you want to do and that means reflecting their opinions and experiences.
Ultimately a leader’s goal is to set a direction and ensure that the team stays focussed on the objective, not the mechanisms that achieve them, so let the project flex if it means a better outcome and more committed team members.
Be a credible expert voice
Credibility is important in being influential so context plays an important role in whether you can influence specific opinions. A scientist coming out to explain how a chemical reaction works at a conference is credible, but they may not enjoy the same success in getting a team to change its defensive formations in sport. You will need to develop this credibility over time, whether through your actions or through thought leadership based communications, such as posting on relevant social forums, publishing articles or talking at conferences.
It is also wise to focus on pushing ideas that fall within your sphere of credibility rather than pushing too far outside your wheelhouse. When you do need to extend yourself, there is nothing to stop you “borrowing” credibility, either by bringing in outside expertise or by promoting those within your team who do have the relevant expertise, which has the added benefit of cementing their support.
The one thing you can guarantee is tHt you’re going to face a lot of setbacks. You’re likely to have to change direction a few times and the process is not a simple one. No-one is an overnight success in leadership, and becoming influential is the same. You are likely to face resistance in breaking into the more powerful networks.you may have taken contradictory positions in the past and need to re-establish credibility in relation to a specific concept, so cultivating a resilient shell is important.
This should go without saying for all businesses and leaders but it often doesn’t. If you make a promise or commitment you need to follow through or people won’t trust what you say in the future.
Nothing more needs to be said here.
Good networkers do this instinctively but it can seem counterintuitive for beginners. Influence and networking are not about getting your own way, but about ensuring that everyone is able to achieve what they want within the context of the group. If you want people to support you, you need to be prepared to support them when they need you.
Good networking groups have this as a condition of membership, the question you should be focussing on is not “how can you help me” but ” how can I help you”. On the grand scale this might mean supporting a major project for a colleague, or it might just be supporting the personal objectives of a team member who’s looking to develop new skills within the context of a project.
You may even need to take a short term hit by stepping back from your goals if it means letting an influential colleague meet their goals now in return for support later. Influence is not about you, it’s about the collective meeting its goals for the good of the whole.
What’s in it for me
People are naturally insular and look at the world from their own personal perspective, and therefore, your messaging needs to be focussed on the benefits for the audience, not for yourself. This has two implications.
Firstly, it means using words that are relevant to the audience, not using jargon, buzz words or complex language when simple words everyone understands are available. If you have to explain what the word means, use a different one.
Secondly it means explaining the outcome of your idea in terms of how it benefits the audience. No-one outside of the Board cares that the EBITDA might increase by 2%, but they will care that their jobs are safe. People have neither the time nor the interest in working out the implications of ideas, so you need to spell it out for them.
There are no tricks to being truly influential, you need to put in the groundwork and build a network that you can trust and who trusts you to do what you say you will. You need to be prepared to support the goals and ambitions of those around you, and be conscious of the fact that you can’t convince everyone. Cement your support and look to bring the undecided floating voters to your side.
Finally, be patient and don’t take it personal when things don’t go your way, you can;t win them all!
If you want to know more about being influential, Dale Carnegie’s work is the obvious place to start.
If you’re focussed more on Negotiation and building consensus, Getting to Yes is a great recommendation