What makes a great influencer? What influences you? What have been your best and worst experiences of influencing other people? What have you found makes the difference?
Influence is sometimes described as the art or psychology of persuasion. It’s about creating a shift in a person or group’s beliefs, thinking, feelings, attitudes, actions or behaviour. We’re influencing all the time through our everyday social interactions but not always in the ways we would hope for. For example, as you read what I’m writing here, your own views about influencing will be affected at some level. It could strengthen your existing beliefs or create a shift, no matter how small. The art of influencing is at heart about enabling a shift in the direction that the influencer hopes for.
This implies at the outset that influence demands intentionality. It implies a deliberate act, a strategy or sorts, with a particular goal in mind. This intention is not always clear, however, even to the influencer. We’re not always sure what influences our own behaviour, even if we rationalise or post-rationalise it at a conscious level. So, for instance, I could tell and convince myself that I’m behaving or acting in a certain way because that explanation feels more personally or socially acceptable, even if deeper factors or motivations are at work at subconscious or unconscious levels.
Assuming for argument’s sake that I have a clear and conscious intention or goal in mind, what can I do to create a shift in another towards my desired direction? As a leader or manager, I could use my positional power to demand a change in action or behaviour. It could result in compliance to achieve reward or avoid punishment, or resistance as an effort to avoid the change. It’s unlikely, however, to change the other party’s underlying beliefs, values, attitudes etc. in the way that I may hope for, especially if I want to achieve transformational and sustainable change.
This is of course one of the critical challenges of change leadership: how to move a person or group to a psychological place where they choose freely to change without coercion or external pressure. It’s the same kind of challenge faced by trainers and marketeers: how to influence people’s attitudes, choices and behaviours without access to formal power or authority to ensure those changes happen. It begs interesting and important ethical questions, e.g. how to achieve a shift without unethically manipulating people or groups, especially those who are vulnerable.
In my experience, a key factor in influencing is understanding what matters most to other people. This is often the starting point for market research, surveying targeted populations to find out what they choose and why. If I understand what matters to you, what you value most, I can frame my product, service, idea, argument, language etc. in terms that will make it feel familiar, acceptable or attractive to you. In advertising, I may use people or images you consider iconic, admirable, inspiring or trustworthy to build a psychological bridge towards you – and to entice you to cross it.
The same principles apply to influencing in the workplace. Recognising that employee engagement influences talent retention and organisational performance, many organisations conduct staff surveys, pulse checks, focus groups etc. to understand how the organisation feels to those who work for it. Such surveys provide opportunity for leaders and staff to influence the organisational culture and climate and for staff to influence what leaders pay attention to. Some of the more sophisticated surveys check ‘what matters most to you’ alongside general satisfaction scores.
Many organisations also use a whole variety or initiatives including competency frameworks, performance management systems, reward and recognition strategies to identify, publicise, affirm and reinforce behaviours that leaders consider most valuable for the organisation. All of these processes aim at some level to influence perspectives, attitudes and actions. The leadership agenda involves not only understanding what matters most to staff but influencing what people will choose in order to align personal choices and decisions with what the organisation wants or needs.
So, what are the key factors that enable us to be effective influencers? Firstly, have a clear and explicit intention. If we have mixed or hidden motives, we lack integrity, others will pick it up intuitively and it will undermine trust. If you’re unsure what your true motives are, reflect on this honestly with a critical colleague or friend beforehand. Secondly, research and understand what matters most to other people. If we can tap into others’ language, culture, values and goals and address them well in what we propose, we are more likely to build bridges and achieve win-win solutions.
Thirdly, have a clear sense of what we want others to think, feel or do differently. This enables us to design and communicate messages clearly. I often ask myself before presentations or meetings, for instance: ‘What do I want people to think, feel and do as a result of what I do today?’ Fourthly, reward changes in ways that others value and appreciate. If we ask those we seek to influence, for instance: ‘How do you want to do this?’, ‘What would make this worthwhile for you?’ or ‘What would make a great outcome for you?’, it demonstrates humanity, relationship, humility and respect.
I had strange dreams about mirrors and reflections last night and woke early in the darkness. I lay there for a while, semi-conscious, daydreaming about the brightness of the moon and how it reflects the light of the sun. I prayed silently, instinctively, ‘Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, may my life reflect the light of God’. Then I woke up.
I do think there’s something profound about mirrors and reflection as psychological, cultural and spiritual phenomena. The recent fantasy film, Snow White and the Huntsman created a vivid portrayal of a tormented queen returning repeatedly to seek reassurance in the mirror of legend: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’
The queen’s sense of self, security and value were based on the response from the mirror. It’s as if she didn’t really know who she was, how she was, without reference to its external perspective. According to psychodynamic and social psychological theories, our sense of self is affected by the responses we evoke and encounter in others.
Take, for instance, a young child who gazes into its mother’s face. If it sees consistent expressions of warmth, attentiveness, affection and happiness, it may well develop the sense that ‘I am loved’ and, thereby, ‘I am loveable.’ If on the other hand the child consistently sees looks of disapproval, it may develop a negative sense of self.
Psychodynamic theorists (e.g. Winnicott) call this process ‘mirroring’.Just as a person knows what they look like by glancing in a mirror, a child sees something of itself, learns something about itself, its relationships and its place in the world, by observing what is mirrored in the face of others. It’s a process that continues throughout our lives.
This phenomenon has deep existential implications. Corinne Taylor in her paper, You are the fairest of them all, comments on what may happen if a mother lacks connection with the child and fails to offer mirroring: ‘Perhaps a mother with a rigid face gives the baby the sense of never having being at all.’* Its very existence may feel negated.
Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now draws spiritual parallels, inviting us to consider what we see in God’s face, his gaze, as we gaze at him in prayer. It’s as if God is the ultimate, absolute parent figure in whose face we are able to gain a true sense of who we actually are. A distorted image of God will create a distorted image of self.
Projection is a related psychological process whereby we project aspects of ourselves (often aspects we feel uncomfortable with) onto other people or even onto God. I may be aware of and focus on characteristics of others that I’m not aware of or deny in myself, even though others may recognise them as typical of me.
If I grow in awareness of my projections, I can grow in awareness of myself by noticing what I notice in others. It’s another form of mirroring. As a leader and coach, I can draw important lessons too: what do others see in my face; do my responses help others develop a truer and more-loved sense of self; do I reflect the light of God?
If you’re tempted to cut back on L&D when budgets are tight, think twice. ‘Isn’t it easier to cut staff training than to make cuts in other business areas?’ Easier, maybe; wiser, maybe not. Let me pose four inter-related reasons why business leaders should pause before letting the axe fall.
Consider your talent. Talented people are those who make a disproportionate contribution to your organisation’s success. They’re the ones who leave a big hole if they leave. They’re also the ones who will find it easiest to leave if you don’t invest in their learning and growth.
Consider what makes your business succeed. Whatever your business is and does, I can guarantee it will depend on knowledgeable, skilful people. Disinvest in people development and, over time, your knowledge and skills base will erode and your performance with it.
Consider engagement. Engaged people are those who put in discretionary effort, sell your business by their enthusiasm, inspire and motivate others to do their best. Such people love to learn and grow. Cut back on L&D and you risk losing the hearts of your most committed players.
Consider your customers. They look to your business with high expectations of high quality products or services, and high quality customer service. If customer experience is compromised by poor service from untrained or disheartened staff, you can wave goodbye to their cash.
But what are the corresponding demands on L&D? Is L&D as an investment of value per se? It does symbolise valuing and investing in people. Nevertheless, the onus lies on L&D professionals to ensure its value in terms of attraction, retention, development and business results.
I would be interested to hear of any examples from organisations where business leaders have chosen to continue or increase investment in L&D in hard economic times. For example, what were the drivers, what convinced you, how did you achieve it, what were the results?
It’s funny how a tasty bag of fish and chips can feel so desperately appealing when you’re trying to lose weight. There’s something about deprivation, about delayed gratification, that can intensify awareness and desire. Everyday things that were hardly noticed before, that were taken for granted in the midst of other distractions can become a focus of attention, of need, of longing.
It’s about breaking away from the ordinary, about disrupting routine experiences or patterns of behaviour in order to see, feel and experience them in a fresh light. It’s about learning to experience and appreciate familiar things anew, to encounter them again as if for the first time. It’s like learning to see and experience the world through the curious, excited eyes of a child.
I’m aware of how much of my life I spend on auto-pilot. It’s a normal and necessary psychological state that enables me to focus and to avoid sensory overload. At the same time, I risk becoming dulled to the world around me, to other people, to myself and to God. Perhaps this is why some resort to fasting-as-deprivation or extreme sports to feel the rush, to feel really alive again.
Sometimes it’s a surprise, a crisis, that jolts and awakes us. Sometimes it’s a startling insight that catches us unawares. It’s something or someone that shakes our cage, shifts our perspective, sometimes gradually and sometimes dramatically. It could be an unexpected opportunity or challenge, a change in circumstances that shifts the gestalt background into sharp foreground.
I was once sitting in a church service, bored to tears. I sat by a window and, as I gazed through it, I noticed a daddy long legs insect on the glass. I day dreamed of being kidnapped and held captive on an alien planet with no other earthly contact. I imagined how I would feel if I then found that insect, that fellow earth creature in my cell with me – how amazing and precious it would be.
It sounds random and bizarre but it felt like a moment of insight, a revelation from God, that really sparked my imagination. It reminded me of a friend whose young sister became terminally ill. In the midst of such tragic circumstances, the friend commented how, paradoxically, she had never seen her sister so alive. In facing imminent death, her sister was able to deeply value life.
Is this something that Jesus meant when he commented, ‘unless a seed falls to the ground and dies...’ or ‘unless you change and become like little children...’ and Paul, ‘what you sow does not come to life unless it dies’? They were talking about a mysterious way to know and experience eternal spiritual life, a vibrant quality of life that casts ordinary human experience into dark shadow.
I feel inspired to seek God more, to open myself more to his profound revelation, to walk more closely on the path he calls me to. I feel challenged to open my eyes, in Jesus’ words to ‘keep awake’, to notice the unnoticed, to value the unvalued and to be more thankful. And next time I eat a bag of tasty fish and chips, I will pause to savour, enjoy and appreciate every mouthful.