The Art of Influence
Harvard Management Communication Letter
A Newsletter from Harvard Business School Publishing Tools, Techniques, & Ideas for the Articulate Executive; Vol. 4, NO. 9 September 2001
Alan A. Vengel; 2001 Berrett–Koehler
Virtually everyone has experienced the challenge of getting things done through others, and the frustration of dealing with people who won’t cooperate. Who among us can’t relate to Gary, brand manager for a major food packager, who needs to convince senior management to give him a budget and staff for his brainchild – a promising but unproven idea to beef up sales for a languishing product line. Or Yolanda, the head of HR, who can’t finish the new employee handbook because the VP whose input she needs has ignored her repeated requests for documentation. Or Roberto, the sales director, who’s devised a new sales campaign and needs the expertise of a consulting firm his company has worked with in the past – but can’t afford to pay for this time around.
Situations like these demand the ability to get what you want without destroying goodwill. Today’s flatter, less hierarchical organizations require the ability to influence and persuade people who are not direct reports. Alan A. Vengel has been teaching the subtle art of influence for over 20 years. His book, The Influence Edge, offers a systematic approach for moving others to action at work, in personal relationships, and in everyday life.
To succeed in any influence situation, be aware that there are always two critical components: your own goal and the other person’s situation. Know exactly what you need and what the other person must do to ensure a positive outcome. Then, get into the mindset of the other person. What’s important to them? What challenges do they face? The book offers tips, case studies, exercises, and detailed worksheets to help you create a strategy that addresses each side of the equation – and the best approach to take.
Vengel discusses the difference between “push energy” and “pull energy” – and when to use each. Push energy is direct, forceful, and persuasive. It may cause people to resist or push back, but it can also yield excellent results if used properly. For instance, a direct, forceful approach can work well when a manager has a deadline and needs specific tasks accomplished within a specific time frame – no ifs, ands, or buts.
Pull energy, on the other hand, is inclusive and involving. It demands that you listen to and engage other people, moving with them and showing that you understand their needs. This approach can break down resistance, build support, and gain commitment in ways that push energy cannot. The key is to understand when to use each approach.
HMCL Asks: Alan A. Vengel
What advice would you give to traditional “command–and–control” managers who want to adopt a more indirect style of influence?
First, I’d tell them they don’t have to change their personality or themselves in any way. Their command–and–control style got them where they are – it’s a positive thing. What they need to do is be more flexible when approaching certain individuals and certain situations. And that means they need to be able to switch from a “push” to a “pull” mentality or mindset, which is a conscious choice. It’s just a matter of saying certain words and phrases that give others the impression that they are open and willing to listen.
These are classic questioning, listening, and disclosing types of behaviors, such as “How do you see this?” “What would be possible?” “How would that look?” These are very open questions that don’t try to lead the other person anywhere, but instead invite them to give you information. Then I would do some paraphrasing: “So basically, you’re saying this.” And then possibly some disclosure: “I’m not quite sure how to proceed. What would you suggest?” That’s giving control to the other person, even if just for a few minutes. And that can make all the difference in the world in creating the impression that you’re interested, inviting, open. Some people do it very naturally.
When you’re dealing with another command–and–control person, you don’t want to butt heads with them or set up a win/lose situation. Instead of trying to prove that you’re right or using the force of your personality to get your way, adopt the pull style of behavior and allow them to take some control. Let them know that you’re willing to share control, that you’re interested in their input, and that you validate and appreciate what they have to say. Always ask yourself this key question,:”Do I need to be right, or do I need to get what I want?”
But be aware of the situation and the context when you pick and choose your behaviors. In some companies with very competitive cultures, the indirect approach can be seen as a sign of weakness. If you’re seen as someone who’s always going into a listening, questioning mindset, you may be seen as somebody who doesn’t have a point of view, and therefore is discounted.