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Influencing Across the Organization

Chances are you rely on others for some aspect of your work. Whether it’s relying on your coworkers for information to complete a proposal, or relying on the finance department to provide you with the data to manage your sales region, or even if it’s relying on your customers to buy your product or service, it’s unlikely that you can achieve personal or organizational success on your own.

In traditional hierarchical, command-and-control organizations, individuals were often able to rely on their positional power and formal authority to pressure others into doing what they needed, regardless of the others’ point of view or will. While this may have had short-term benefits for those in power, it created a dynamic that led to disenfranchised employees with low morale, poor strategic thinking skills and a lack of trust in leadership. As organizations have become flatter and more matrixed, leaders across all levels of the organization must find other ways to motivate, influence, and make changes in the organization using their network.

The phrase influencing without authority is somewhat of a hot button in today’s business world. Being able to influence others without formal authority is a challenge that people see as the crux of many of their day-to-day frustrations. In matrix organizations, employees are often inundated with competing goals, deadlines, and battles for resources. It’s easy to get lost in this chaos and forget that everyone is ultimately working toward a common definition of organizational success. This applies to those with positional authority as well! Senior leaders and executives face many of the same struggles and must influence their colleagues and people across their network to drive business outcomes. Follow the five tactics below to jumpstart the process of becoming an effective influencer.

Tip 1: Bank Social Currency

To effectively influence without authority, you need to start before you get into a situation where you need to influence someone else. We refer to this as “Laying the Groundwork.” You should be setting yourself up for success every day by forming trusting relationships with colleagues, building your credibility within the organization, and by developing and nurturing your network.

Don’t wait until you need something to begin connecting with others. You should be reaching out to help people and accepting their requests to provide support on an ongoing basis. You can think of this as banking social currency.

In an informal survey taken by GP Strategies, three quarters of respondents said that they’d be more likely to do something for someone else if he/she had done something for them in the past. If you regularly help out others, you can cash in some of the currency that you’ve banked and use it to solicit support from them when the time comes. It’s important not to do this in a way that comes across as “I’ll only do this for you if you do something for me down the road.” That would compromise your goals; instead, do things thoughtfully and selflessly on a daily basis, and you’ll find that when you need assistance from those who don’t report to you they’ll be more likely to jump on board.

While you may be caught off guard at times, in general influencing without authority is not something that should happen spontaneously or “on the fly.” Every situation is different — there are unique contextual factors to consider such as budget, timelines, organizational politics, constraints, historical implications, external market pressures, technology, competitors, etc. Each of these factors, in isolation and combined to create a big picture, can impact the approach that you take when planning for an influencing conversation. For example, if you know your department’s budget is stretched thin but you still try to convince your manager to invest in a new idea without acknowledging or considering the budget, chances are that you will be turned down before you finish your argument. Thinking through each part of the context can help you formulate your point of view and the key points that you want to touch on when influencing without authority. In fact, at times it may even make you realize that your idea is not feasible within the grand scheme of things.

Tip 2: Do Your Homework

As you consider these situational factors you must also remember that you’re trying to influence other humans, each with their own perspective and approach. Every individual with whom you interact has individual goals related to his/her department or project assignments, individual preferences, needs, pet peeves, and motivators. This leads us to our third tip…

Tip 3: Follow the Platinum Rule

Since the beginning of time the “golden rule” seemed to be the mantra for living a noble life — treat others as you’d want to be treated. If you prefer kindness, integrity and respect, give the same to others. While this may ring true for more ethical, moral types of situations, when it comes to influencing without authority it can actually be detrimental. George Bernard Shaw has been quoted as saying: “Do not do unto others as you expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” George was onto something. The golden rule neglects to take into account people’s uniqueness in terms of innate needs and preferences, as well as the specifics of the situation and context. Over time, the golden rule has morphed into the platinum rule, which does account for these differences. The platinum rule asserts that we should treat others as they’d want to be treated — we’ll have greater success when we meet people where they are versus where we want them to be. This new rule has a couple of implications for influencing. First, you need to make sure that you’re communicating your thoughts, ideas, and perspectives in a way that meets the communication preferences of your audience. Ask yourself the following questions before planning your influencing approach:

  • Does my audience prefer a high-level overview or the details?
  • Do they prefer formal or informal interactions?
  • Do they prefer face-to-face communication or electronic?
  • Do they need lots of context or do they prefer I get to the point?
  • Do they require a lot of supporting data or do they want to hear the highlights?

By presenting information in a way that resonates with those you’re trying to influence without authority, you will set yourself up for success, as well as save yourself time and re-work in the long-term from having to reorganize or reframe your ideas. If you were to present information in a way that only works for you, you risk losing your audience before they even hear what you have to say, simply from the format of your presentation.

Second, the platinum rule encourages us to think of how to position our ideas in a way that shows how they meet others’ needs. That takes us to Tip #4.

Tip 4: Target the Benefits Bullseye

Whenever you’re trying to obtain buy-in for something, it’s best to position it in a way that shows how it is of benefit. GP Strategies leverages a model called the Benefits Bullseye, which encourages individuals to think of a range of benefits for any idea, assignment, or initiative.

Articulate how your idea benefits the customer, the broader organization, a specific team or department, and the individual with whom you’re talking. Depending on your audience, they may be more persuaded by hearing the benefits at particular levels. For example, your CEO or President might be most interested in hearing the organizational and customer benefits. The head of your department might want to hear how your idea will improve the department or make it more successful in some way. The VP of Marketing will likely want to focus on how it impacts the customer. By knowing the full range of benefits in depth, you can easily articulate these during conversations when you’re trying to influence without authority.

There is no question that when you can communicate how your idea will benefit the specific individual with whom you’re talking, your level of influence will increase. These benefits to the individual fall at the center of the model — in the bullseye. Many refer to this bullseye as the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). When people hear how something will lead to greater levels of satisfaction or make life easier for them in some way, they will be more inclined to support that thing — it’s human nature. The benefits do not always have to be life-changing. Some examples of individual benefits might be that a project will provide the person with exposure to a new technology, a new group within the organization, or to senior leadership. Perhaps an idea will allow for an individual to free up time to focus on things of greater interest. A new assignment might help an individual develop skills that will set him/her up for increased chances of promotion. When people hear that something will be of value to them they’re more likely to agree with it, whether you have the authority to force them to or not.

Tip 5: Tie it Back to the Business

Finally, whenever you can, link your influencing goals back to the business. Individuals have an innate need for significance and being involved in meaningful work. GP Strategies’ ongoing career research demonstrates that “meaningful work” — by which we mean the impact our work has on others or society at large — is one of the top three factors people look for in their careers.

Individuals will be more likely to buy-in when they see the impact that your idea or the assigned responsibility will have on the ongoing success of the organization. After all, if they are employees of the same organization they have a vested interest in ensuring its success.

By following the five tips above, you will set yourself up for success in situations where you have to influence without authority. Not only will you be able to drive ideas, initiatives, and points of view forward, but you’ll do so in a way that’s collaborative and inclusive, creating an empowered, engaged workforce. Collaboration and dialogue will get you win-wins and promote a culture where influencing becomes less of a requirement because helping and supporting others become the norm.

About the Authors

GP Strategies Corporation
GP Strategies is a global performance improvement solutions provider of sales and technical training, e-Learning solutions, management consulting and engineering services. GP Strategies' solutions improve the effectiveness of organizations by delivering innovative and superior training, consulting and business improvement services, customized to meet the specific needs of its clients. Clients include Fortune 500 companies, manufacturing, process and energy industries, and other commercial and government customers.

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