Positional power and leadership authority may carry a lot of influence, but knowing how to leverage the art of influence can benefit anyone's role in an organization. The actual act of influencing is all but an afterthought.
Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson coined the phrase "everyone lives by selling something." While some of us dedicate our careers to sales specifically, all professionals are required to engage in influencing actions as their work calls for it. Sometimes we have to sell people on our ideas. Sometimes we have to get stakeholder buy-in to progress a certain project. We may not all go door to door speaking with potential customers, but we all navigate our professional environments using our individual influencing abilities in some capacity.
In my 25-year career in sales and professional services, I can attest to two things: Successful influencing doesn't look like influencing at all, and the best influencing doesn't always come from where you'd expect it. Some of the best influencing I've witnessed has not come from executive teams or sales directors, but rather the individual contributors throughout all levels of an organization who know and show who they are, and authentically build relationships rooted in creating mutually positive outcomes.
This dynamic is especially relevant in today's business landscape as organizations become less hierarchical – but if the best influencing is virtually invisible, how can we learn to do it, and how can we teach others to do it? Below are the three areas I believe can help build a foundation for successful influencing interactions.
A common misconception in influencing is that our goal is to get someone to see things our way. In reality, no one can be a successful influencer while vying to get others to think they are right. Rather, you have to come to all interactions with the mindset of identifying a winning outcome for all parties. When we veer away from this mentality, we can easily be perceived as trying to manipulate a situation in our own favor. Instead, we must prepare to influence through a spirit of partnership by establishing mutual trust and understanding. The best influencers go into conversations seeking to understand the other person's point of view and use well-chosen, open-ended questions as a way to respect this period of inquiry.
A critical component in successful influencing is tied to our ability to identify the real issues and engage in dialogue about possible solutions. Sometimes these solutions can be found through partnership with one another. Sometimes they can't, and when they can't, it's important that we don't try to fit a square peg solution into a round hole problem. It will be obvious if you've done this because the introduction of the proposed solution won't change the status of the original problem. The stakes for doing this part wrong can be hard to come back from, because you'll have wasted their time (and yours) and the relationship will suffer because of it. Here, your "talk" is only as strong as your "listen."
Lastly, our ability to influence rests on being able to engender positive interactions that are on the customers' terms. Choosing a selling or influencing style should not depend on your own interpersonal preferences, but on the behavioral style of the other person. Successful influencers are able to translate observations of their customers' body language, verbal style and work environment into actionable insight that they use to guide their interactions. By adapting their style to their customers' style, influencers can mirror the behavior their customer finds most comfortable, ensuring the message isn't brought down by the wrong delivery. Self-awareness development tools, like Insights Discovery, which evaluates psychometric data and leverages personality principles, can be very helpful resources to learn more about yourself and how your behavior is perceived by those around you.
Positional power and leadership authority yield a certain influencing heft, but leveraging the art of influence can benefit anyone's role in an organization, regardless of where they sit in the org chart. When you treat your stakeholders' agenda as your own and combine that with a solution mindset and interpersonal mastery, the conversations flow, the relationships solidify, and the actual act of influencing is all but an afterthought.