Gaining Influence: A Critical Business Skill

One of the most frequent questions clients ask of executive coaches is, "How do I become better at influencing people who don't report to me?"

Getting others to do what you want when they're not in your span of control is as much an art as it is a critical business skill. The objects of influence can be colleagues, fellow members of a project team, even -- and especially -- your boss.

People are conditioned to rely on hierarchy and power to give them influence. Working in a corporate environment, they quickly learn that they can affect others' behavior by citing the name of someone above them. "I need you to do this because Charlie wants it." But many times a more effective way to achieve the desired outcome is to build relationships and establish credibility with people you wish to influence.

For example, I was recently coaching an executive who effectively reported to two bosses, one here and another overseas. Not surprisingly, his bosses often had conflicting views, and he needed to be able to reconcile their opinions in order to move forward. My client was able to do this because he took time up front to establish credibility with his bosses. They trusted him because he proved himself to them time after time. They understood that if he countered their opinion, he usually had a good reason for doing so.

Too often, people fail to take the time to establish relationships with colleagues they need to influence. Instead, they jump headlong into a task that requires others' cooperation without first getting to know those people -- and without allowing those people to get to know them. When requests go unheeded, they bring out the big gun -- Charlie.

It's much more effective to pave the way for future cooperation by building relationships that establish your credibility with others. If possible, take time to meet people face to face; if you're on an international team, make a phone call. In either case, begin to build credibility by sharing a story that illustrates your character so people can begin to know and trust you. I don't advocate e-mail for the initial steps in building relationships. The element of sharing is much deeper if people can connect real time, and comments made in e-mail messages can be misconstrued.

If you're newly promoted and suddenly become a peer of people who used to be your superiors, you have a greater challenge. Not only do you need to establish credibility with your new colleagues, but you also have to reintroduce yourself to them so they don't treat you like a junior person. In this instance the best step to gain credibility is to be in the role, and behave appropriately for your new position.

And, finally, learn to listen. People who are effective at gaining influence are good listeners. They pay attention to what others have to say and take into account others' needs and perspectives on an issue. As a result, they are able to accomplish what they want without ever having to invoke the name of Charlie.

Carolyn Ott is a member of WJM Associates' executive coaching faculty.

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