What am I evoking? What’s my contribution to what I’m experiencing? These can be great questions for coaches, facilitators and leaders. How often have you sat in a meeting, for instance, and thought, ‘I am so bored.’ It’s one of those moments where you can feel so much energy being drained out of you, so much oxygen being sucked out of your lungs, that it almost hurts physically. You’re desperate to get out but can’t think of a polite and convincing enough excuse to exit the room.
Or maybe you’re in conversation with a colleague, with a coach or in a training workshop and thinking, ‘This is such a waste of time. I’m not getting what I need from this.’ Such experiences can create a sense of life, of work, of relationships, of outcomes happening to us. It’s as if we are passive recipients at the mercy of others’ actions and behaviour. It can leave us feeling helpless, powerless and hopeless. And I’m wondering…is there another way of framing and stance-taking in this?
So here goes: ‘What’s your contribution to what you’re experiencing?’ ‘What do you need to receive and give your best?’ I often pose these questions when working with leadership teams. At first, I see puzzled faces but, when the penny drops, the difference can be transformational. It’s about disrupting normal personal and cultural patterns of belief and behaviour. It’s about challenging and supporting proactivity, ownership and influence. It’s about choosing. It’s about waking up.
There’s a skill in learning to engage, negotiate, contract and lean into the experience like this - and it takes practice: ‘I would find this more purposeful and worthwhile if….’ ‘I would like to focus our attention on X…’ ‘How about we do it this way instead…then I could bring something useful to it?’ ‘If we could break for 10 minutes, I could come at this with so much more energy.’ Take the initiative: Seize it. Shape it. Make it happen. What’s your contribution to what you’re experiencing?
What is it that makes certain individuals stand out from the crowd? How is it that some people resist peer pressure, seize the initiative and radically break the mould? Is this kind of personal leadership, the ability to think freely, move proactively and act autonomously, something we should seek to attract and nurture in organisations? Could it release fresh energy, inspiration and innovation? The relationship between an individual, group and organisation is complex. Organisations as groups often foster consistency, continuity and conformity. We test people during recruitment for their potential fit, we induct and orientate people into the existing culture and we performance manage people to deliver preconceived products and services.
It’s a brave organisation that recruits and develops social revolutionaries, people who will instinctively challenge the status quo, think laterally, refuse to accept time-honoured traditions and push for something new. For leaders who operate in a conventional management paradigm, it can feel threatening, confusing and chaotic. The risks can seem too high and too dangerous. I worked in one organisation where we recognised our culture had become too settled, too complacent, too safe. People often commented on its warm, supportive relational nature but it lacked its former edginess, struggled to deal with conflict and desperately needed to innovate. The challenge was how to introduce and sustain a shift without evoking defensiveness.
Social psychologists offer some valuable insights here, for instance in terms of social loafing and diffusion of responsibility where individuals are less likely to act independently or with the same degree of effort if they perceive themselves as part of a wider group where responsibility is shared. A challenge in this organisation was how to stimulate personal initiative and responsibility. Social conformity is another social psychological factor where people are likely to act consistently with the norms of a group if
it provides them with a sense of acceptance and belonging within that group, or the approval of a perceived authority figure. A challenge in this organisation was how to ensure that personal initiative and responsibility were valued and affirmed.
We took a four pronged approach. Firstly, we worked with the leadership team with a skilled external consultant known for his outspoken, courageous, challenging style to develop a more robust leadership culture, capable of open and honest conversations without fear that this would undermine relationships. This enabled the top team to model a new cultural style. Secondly, we introduced a simple behavioural framework that positively affirmed personal leadership in terms including personal initiative, personal responsibility, creative thinking and innovative practice. This framework was embedded into the organisation’s recruitment and performance development to attract, develop and reward these qualities and capabilities.
Thirdly, we held an annual ceremony where staff were invited to nominate peers for awards where they had seen positive examples of such qualities demonstrated in practice. The peer aspect helped raise awareness and reinforce personal leadership as a cultural quality valued and affirmed by the organisation and to capture real stories that illustrated what it looked like in practice. Fourthly, we created a new innovation post, appointed an innovation enthusiast and allocated a new budget to stimulate and enable creative thinking and innovation across the organisation. This created a culture shift and a tangible symbol of the leaders’commitment to move in this direction. A willingness to question the status quo became a cultural value.
A corresponding challenge was how to engender a spirit of personal leadership that took the wider system and relationships into account. If individuals only operated independently and didn’t take account of or responsibility for the implications of their decisions and actions on others, relationships would become strained, the organisation would become chaotic and it wouldn’t achieve its goals. To address this issue, we introduced the notion of shared leadership alongside personal leadership, emphasising and affirming the value of collaborative working alongside independent initiative. This too was reflected in the annual staff award ceremony and in recruitment, development and rewards. It was a matter of creative balance.
As a tool for developing greater personal and shared leadership, I have found the following questions can be helpful: Who are my cultural role models? Who have I seen demonstrate great personal leadership? What can I learn from them? What would it take to contribute my best in this situation? What will I do to make sure it happens? In the past 12 months, where have I shown personal initiative? When have I held back from saying what I really thought or felt for fear of disapproval? What are the impacts of my actions on others? How far do I take responsibility to help others manage the implications of my decisions? How can I work collaboratively to achieve better win-win solutions? What difference do I want my life to make here?
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.
Think of a great leader, leadership team or experience. A person, group or moment where you strongly noticed or felt the influence and impact of leadership. What made the difference?
I don't believe in the cult of the perfect leader, the person who lives and demonstrates perfect leadership qualities at all times and in all circumstances - except of course, God.
Nevertheless, I do know when I experience or exercise leadership. I have an intuitive sense that I'm being something, doing something, experiencing something that feels both 'me' and 'beyond me'.
I've noticed these moments most profoundly when certain qualities emerge at the same time. It's a kind of synergy that, in a particular moment and context, ignites a spark and something emerges:
*Identity. The intrinsic me. A sense of who I am, who I am in God, what I believe about myself, what others recognise in me, what my talents are, what I base my confidence in.
*Initiative. Personal proactivity. A sense of my own power, personal leadership, a willingness to be the first to step out and take a risk, a preparedness to take responsibility for action.
*Inspiration. How I motivate others. A sense of vision, imagination, a compelling idea, a grasp of opportunities and possibilities, an ability to help others believe in themselves, to release potential.
*Intuition. Deep insight. A sense of what's important, an awareness of my own feelings, an ability to tune into what isn't being said, an ability to notice and discern 'what's really going on here.'
*Influence. Inspiring others to follow. An awareness of what matters most to others, a commitment to role modelling, an ability to communicate, negotiate, convince and persuade.
*Inclusion. Valuing others' contribution. A sense of awareness of my own limitations, a recognition of others' gifts and talents, an ability to involve others and draw out their best.
*Intimacy. How I relate to others. A sense of empathy, a willingness to challenge and support, a preparedness to stand alongside others through good times and bad.
*Integrity. My values and behaviour. A sense of conscience, a moral compass, a determined commitment to ethical practice, a clear sense of parameters and boundaries.
*Innovation. Seeing and doing things differently. A sense of creativity, a willingness to be playful, experiment and take risks, an ability to reframe, to challenge the status quo, to enable paradigm shifts.
*Impact. A commitment to action. A sense of purpose, a desire to achieve change, the courage to get involved, a willingness to take decisions, an openness to experiment, evaluate and learn.
It's a dynamic combination of these elements that results in the exercise and experience of leadership, whether personal leadership or leadership as a team (where ‘I’ could be converted to ‘we’).
So I want to use this list as a checklist before God. How far does my attitude, outlook and approach reflect these qualities? What would it take for me to become more of a leader, more of the time?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.