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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

Three Ways to Increase Your Influence


One of my favorite lines is that it’s important to understand the difference between what should be and what is.   Stop for a few moments and think about how often that line applies in real life.  You’ll hear someone say something like, “They should be doing that because…” and what comes after because is something like “it’s the right thing to do,” or “the answer’s obvious,” or “I’m in charge.”

I hear a fair amount of “They should be doing’s” in my work as an executive coach.  That’s because a big part of my job description is to give my clients a safe place to vent.   It doesn’t take long before venting turns into a non-productive rant so before it goes too far I’ll usually ask a question about the difference between what should be and what is.

The “what is” is what leaders (and all human beings for that matter) have to deal with.  You could argue that it “should be” this way or that way, but it’s not.  It is this way.  The next question might be “What do you want to do about it?” or “What are your options for changing it?”

Earlier this year, I was in a conversation with an executive who was pretty deeply into a “They should” vent that turned on how his peer level colleagues in a matrix organization responded to his positional authority.  (They didn’t, but they “should” have.)  When he took a break, I asked him “What’s the ratio of influence vs. authority in your job?”  He paused for a few moments and quietly said, “Well, it should be about 90% authority and 10% influence, but it is really more like 50/50 or maybe even less.”

From that point on, we were talking about a different challenge.  It went from the unsolvable one of what they should be doing because of his authority to what he could be doing to be more effective in influencing them.  My friend’s challenge was not unique.  Most leaders, no matter how great their positional power, have to learn how to influence others to actually get things done.

Here are three ways to increase your influence:

Learn:  To be influential, you have to learn how others answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”  Another way to frame that question is “Why should I care?”  Make it your mission to learn how your colleagues answer those questions for themselves.

Listen:  One of the best way to learn what others care most about is to ask them open ended questions like “What would make this year a huge success for you?” or “What’s supporting and what’s getting in the way of your goals?”  Yet another is “What could we do together that would make a difference?”  Ask the questions and listen to the answers.  You’ll start to see opportunities to influence how things turn out.

Like:  It’s all well and good to say it’s better to be respected than liked but the fact is people are more inclined to cooperate with people they like.  Again, it’s the difference between authority and influence.  Work to establish relationships that lead to everyone liking each other.  This doesn’t mean that you have to run for Homecoming King or Queen.  It just means practicing the everyday decencies that lead to pleasant relationships.  Doing small favors, offering sincere compliments for a job well done and saying thank you are good places to start.

What’s your take?  What have you learned so far about the difference between authority and influence?   How much does influence matter when leading in a matrix organization?  What tips and stories do you have to share?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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