Two types of tension to resolve

No matter the context for how we use the word influence, when we think of successful influencers we are usually referring to people who have the ability to get someone, over whom they have no control, to do something.  Sometimes this is referred to as persuasion. This, though, is just one tactic that can be used to influence someone.

We all have the ability to influence others to some degree or another.  In my discussions with clients, many of them high-performing, I have found that they have to really ponder before they are able to describe how they go about influencing.  This self-perception makes it harder for them to replicate their successes in new influence situations.  What I have discovered is that we spend less time on setting the climate to allow someone else to be influenced than we do on deploying influence tactics.

What is meant by influence?

The ultimate goal of influence is to create a situation in which both parties have agreement on, and a shared understanding of, a joint goal, and are motivated to work together to effectively reach that goal.  The ultimate outcome of influence is commitment, rather than compliance or resistance.  Commitment is a belief and acceptance of the influencer’s goal, a willingness to exert effort, and a desire to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship.  Commitment is not just an ideal, it has been shown to be the primary way that individuals are motivated and inspired to achieve a desired outcome. John Kotter, in his landmark book, “A Force for Change”, explained that the most effective leaders describe a compelling vision for the future, align people behind that vision through commitment and then motivate and inspire them to achieve the vision.  One can safely say that all leadership is based on influence achieved through having elicited commitment.

While achieving compliance is often expedient and requires less effort on the influencer’s part, it yields little long term willingness on the part of the influence target.  In fact requiring compliance can lead to resentment by those who have been “influenced”.  Resistance is the result of misapplied influence and is a clear signal that the influencer has used tactics that are irrelevant to the influence target.

It is important to note that successful and effective influencing does not involve trickery or deception. Influencing is not playing politics.  The goal of influencing others is not just for personal gain, it is to seek mutual benefit and build relationships that can serve you well in the future.  It is not about manipulation or blatantly using the power of position over another person, which is why the use of positional (hierarchical) power to get what you want is not really influencing at all.  When you effectively influence you create a new attitude, belief, or action in someone.  You want someone to fully commit to your cause and align their goals with your own.

In order to gain commitment it is essential that we set the climate with the influence target so that they are amenable to being influenced.

The influence challenge – how to get others into “the zone”

Imagine for the moment that you receive an email out of the blue from a manager in another department who you have not heard of requesting that you make a certain project a priority.  Increasing the project’s importance would entail you shifting resources, potentially a cumbersome effort.

What would be your reaction to this email?  You might comply with their request, especially if their department has clout and favor within the organization.  You might make the effort to dig a little to find out more, perhaps discussing it with your boss.  Odds are it would be placed lower in your priority list.  More likely a series of questions would run through your mind.  Who is this person?  What right do they have to ask this of me?  Do they and their department have credibility in the organization?  Are they in or out of favor?  If I do this for them what risks am I taking?  What return will I receive for my time investment?

For most of us, there is a natural skepticism when anyone whom we don’t know well asks us for something.  A request, by itself, is less likely to move you to take action.

To overcome skepticism and inaction requires effort by the influencer to achieve two outcomes: to reduce relationship anxiety, and to increase the desire to take action.  These are called Task tension and Relationship tension.

Task tension is the desire or motivation to accomplish a certain goal or task. Something needs to get done.  Task tension creates action – the higher the task tension, the greater the desire of the influence target to do what you are asking and therefore the greater the potential for successful influence.  Explaining to someone that their action is needed because the organization will suffer otherwise, or telling them that their action will be viewed favorably by senior management, are examples of raising task tension.

Relationship tension is the lack of trust and comfort people feel in an interaction or relationship.  High relationship tension causes people to not be as open and to hold back information and opinions. The higher the relationship tension, the lower the likelihood that influence will be successful.  Self disclosing about yourself and demonstrating that you see things from their point of view are examples of lowering relationship tension.

Mayhew Chart

This chart shows the tension dynamics.  To get your influence target in “the influence zone”, two strategies need to be undertaken.  One is to reduce relationship tension by  building relationships, developing trust and demonstrating empathy.  At the same time it is also desirable to increase task tension so that the influence target is compelled to honor your request.

Balancing relationship and task tension is less a linear process and more like a dance; your reaction depends on the action of others. When you feel their relationship tension rising, you take steps to reduce it. When you see task tension lagging, you take steps to increase it.

Establishing the right to influence – decreasing relationship tension

Influence does not easily occur without a history between the influencer and the person they are attempting to influence.  While you can create compliance by using power derived from authority, effective influence, that which is achieved through commitment, relies on developing an influence strategy that starts with reducing relationship tension.

Now, using the prior example, imagine that the manager from that other department had, prior to their request, met with you, introduced themselves, talked about their background, experience, the role of their department, the importance of cross-department synergy. Imagine also that, while doing so, he/she asked insightful questions about your role, listened intently and demonstrated an awareness of the challenges and business issues that you faced.  What if you had received the request after you had a meaningful conversation or two with this manager? Would it be easier for you to be willing to agree to their request?  If you answered “yes” you would not be alone.

Decreasing relationship tension, essential to earning the right to influence, is comprised of three sets of skills: building relationships, building trust and demonstrating empathy.

To be continued……..