IN YEARS PAST, a few senior executives would make all the major business decisions and it was the responsibility of people further down the hierarchy to carry them out. Legions of corporate foot-soldiers were hired, not to think and definitely not to decide, but rather to do what they were told. It was management by decree, and such methods were used to make many a fortune and to build empires.
However, the world has changed and success in today's business environment requires a significantly different approach.
Globalisation, technology and increased competition have turned things on their head. Decisions are taken further down in the organisation, and matrix management has replaced the command-and-control model. Multifunctional project teams are now the norm, made up of individuals with specialist skills working in different countries.
Conference calls, emails, and web-based meetings are now used to inform staff, make decisions and execute tasks remotely.
Whether determining strategic direction, planning a marketing campaign, or finalising a new hire, group effort and consensus have become the norm.
With this comes the need for employees at all levels - from chairman to the most junior recruit - to embrace new skills and methods. As Lawrence Bossidy, former chief executive of AlliedSignal, once said: “The days when you could yell and scream and beat people into good performance are over.”
Success at individual, departmental and corporate level now requires the ability to work in a cross-functional team, and that means being able to influence superiors, colleagues and subordinates, often without “official” authority.
Check the dictionary and you will find that influence is “the power or capacity to produce desired results”. Some people naturally possess this power, while others clearly struggle, mistakenly thinking that influence is about demanding, coercing or manipulating.
The difference between these groups has nothing to do with age, experience, education, race or culture, but rather the ability to use a certain set of skills and qualities. However, influencing others should not be viewed as an art reserved for the privileged few; it can become a science which, with practice, anyone can master. In fact, studies show that three characteristics make it possible to influence others: empathy, flexibility and coherence.
Empathy is being able to see things from another person's perspective. It is the ability to put yourself in their shoes while not necessarily agreeing with what they say. This requires an appreciation of someone else's needs, wants, motivations and decision-making process. It means you can recognise their guiding values and how their past experiences and obligations affect their relationship with you.
Empathy is also about understanding the way others do business and how they process information.
Achieving true empathy takes time. There are clues to note every time you are in contact with someone, but to truly understand them, you must keep listening - not only to the words, but also to how they are said. You must learn to probe for facts and feelings, because empathy is the first step towards influence.
The second characteristic that makes it possible to influence others is flexibility. This means being able to adapt to different people and contrasting situations. While you cannot change your fundamental character, you may need to display different modes of behaviour if you wish to influence others.
In a manufacturing company, the way to interact with a country manager who is pressed for time and focused on the bottom line will differ from how you talk to a detail-oriented systems engineer or a marketing manager in charge of a region-wide campaign.
Flexibility is about creating the right perception and impression using physical, verbal and psychological strategies to connect and build rapport.
The third characteristic necessary to influence others is coherence - a matter of creating impact and relevance, which lead to understanding. Being coherent goes beyond simply being clear and articulate. The key is to remember that every message must be tailored to the listener, and that every listener is different.
Coherence is about answering questions which are not always asked out loud. Why am I in this meeting? Why was I copied on this email? How does this affect me and what am I supposed to do?
Another aspect of coherence is persuasion. In an ideal world, if we wanted to effect change, we might just ask someone to do things differently. In most cases, though, people want reasons, so they can weigh things for themselves. Therefore, you need information and evidence to support a case, since words are often not enough.
Empathy, flexibility and coherence must be used together if you want to win support for your ideas and get people to embrace your initiatives. Saying that you can see an alternative point of view, or being convinced of the strength of your own argument is not enough.
You have to deliver a message in a way that creates impact and relevance for the audience, and convinces them of the need for change.
This means putting aside the hard-sell techniques and realising that attempts to force someone into agreeing to a proposal usually result in even greater resistance.
Sometimes, problems arise from a reluctance to compromise. However, it is important to remember that compromise is not surrender, and that all interaction is based on taking stock of the needs and concerns of others to create a shared solution.
Previously, clearer lines of authority existed between those who made decisions and those who implemented them. Today, the lines are blurred; people are asking what they should do and why they should do it.
With this has come the need for skills in influencing others. This takes time, energy and effort.
TIPS TO WIN
The principle of liking
Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has identified six principles of influence based on the pre-programmed psyche of human behaviour. By understanding and applying these, you will have a better chance of influencing others and getting the desired outcome. The first is the Principle of Liking - meaning we prefer to say yes to people we like or who appear similar to us. Mary Kay, Amway and other multi-level marketing organisations have been built on this concept, but it can be seen everywhere. For instance, managers can play up certain similarities to create a bond with a new hire, the head of another department, or even a new boss. A customer relationship manager will try to find shared interests or experiences as a way of building trust with a client. The key is to uncover real similarities with the person you are trying to influence. Make it clear that your attention and interest are on what the other person has to say by offering a smile and words of encouragement.
100 percent concentration
How good are you at listening? Most of us claim to be pretty good at it, but forget that hearing and listening are not the same thing. Take some time to consider this, and you will realise that you probably know just a handful of really good listeners. It is a skill that requires 100 percent concentration. Good listeners are confident, relaxed and genuinely interested in what is being said, and in the person saying it. They are not just waiting for certain information or the opportunity to start talking. That is because a good listener is interested in understanding other people and believes that this will help to build trust. Strong relationships are built on trust, which is tied to the ability to influence the outcome of any situation.
What about rapport?
Rapport is a concept of which most of us are aware, but may have trouble defining. In essence, it is simply reducing differences between two people at a subconscious level. It is about demonstrating to another person that you are more alike than not. Why build rapport? Because it is much easier to influence someone with whom you have established good rapport. One way to do this is by showing an appropriate degree of interest and attention. This can be done by asking a subtle question or two, assessing the response, and then reflecting that in your own tone of voice or subsequent comments. If, for example, the other person wants to focus on business topics, follow their lead.