One of the biggest issues facing us as communication professionals is how to gain greater influence within our own organization. Our work is largely intangible, based on strengthening organizational communication links and working relationships at all levels, and so we are often vulnerable to the subjective views of corporate decision makers about our effectiveness.
The question is how do we increase our standing within the organization?
People can have good potential or may already be high performers, but they may be held back by the same problem – lack of influence. Recent research conducted by experts at the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland (reported in the MIT Sloan Management Review of summer 2013) examined the way managers can overcome a lack of influence within their medium-to-large organization. These techniques can also be used by anyone at any other level.
Lack of influence
Various factors can contribute to a person’s lack of influence, including their:
- Demographics – race, ethnicity, gender or age
- Poor reputation
The researchers concluded that lack of power or influence is caused by lack of one or more power sources:
- Critical resources
Merely possessing these three key resources sends a message of credibility to others. However, all three resources need to be present.
How much influence do you have?
The IMD researchers used a 5-point Likert scale (strongly agree [5 points] through to strongly disagree [1 point]) to ask 179 executives from 46 countries to answer the following questions to identify key elements of how to increase influence. You can do the same by answering the questions below and reviewing the topics in which you had your lowest scores, to identify potential areas you can work on to improve your standing:
- I have a proven track record in my unit/organization, which makes it easier for me to secure the resources I need to achieve my objectives.
- People would most likely mention my name when it comes to recognizing those who ‘fit’ and count in this unit/ organization.
- The competencies I have are quite rare in this unit/organization, and this greatly facilitates the discussions and negotiations I need to be part of.
- I am not so arrogant as to believe I have everything it takes to succeed in the unit/organization, but I am good at connecting to people who value the resources I have.
- Most people would say I am politically savvy: I know:
– What things people naturally care about or want in this unit/organization
– Which senior leaders can advance or block my cause
– How to connect with the real movers and shakers in this unit/organization.
- I don’t see myself as belonging to any network in particular; rather, I like to bring separate groups together and create forums where they can exchange ideas and information.
Executives who lack legitimacy with the boss or their own colleagues find it more difficult to be heard. Most bosses tend to treat their direct reports as being in their ‘in-group’ or in their ‘out-group.’ It is difficult to recover from being subconsciously or consciously cast into the out-group.
Working hard is not likely to help in gaining ground with the boss. How you can gain ground in your relationship is by refining your attitude and working on greater perceived compatibility with your boss.
You can gain legitimacy by meeting or exceeding your boss’s expectations, or by redefining their expectations. Accordingly, you can work to align more closely with your boss’s style and objectives. For example, you can find out:
- your boss’s goals and interests (professional and personal)
- preferences in daily interactions such as written (hard copy or email) versus verbal reporting
- their preferences on short summaries versus more depth in reporting
- preferred timing of contact and reporting (frequency, time of day), etc.
It is all too easy just to consider your own needs, but emotional intelligence would suggest you need to consider the type of support your boss needs to succeed.
Harness what Professor Robert Cialdini calls the principle of liking: people like those who like them. You can apply this to your boss by uncovering real similarities and offer genuine praise to them and to your colleagues. Even unlikeable people have their good points, so look for the positives.
Praise charms and disarms
Researchers have found that praise both charms and disarms. Sometimes praise doesn’t even have to be earned – people tend to feel warmly toward someone who flatters them generously, even if the comments are untrue (!). This makes them feel socially obliged to reciprocate. Positive comments about another person’s traits, attitude or performance reliably generates liking in return, as well as willing compliance with the wishes of the person offering the praise.
The same applies with people who work for you. You can create a bond with a recent recruit, another manager, or even a new boss. Informal chats during the day create an ideal opportunity to discover areas in common such as a hobby, an interest in sport or in current affairs. It is important to develop the bond early in your relationship because it creates an assumption of goodwill and trust in later dealings. It is much easier to build support for a new project when the people you are trying to persuade already like you.
Need for self-promotion
You need to develop your self-promotion so you are perceived to be more competent, and work to gain favor for yourself in various ways to create more positive perceptions of yourself. You can do this by giving compliments, by giving due recognition to others, showing respect, agreeing with ideas, being a good listener, expressing similar values to your boss.
In seeking to gain self-promotion, you need to avoid bragging. You can be subtle about this by finding ways to demonstrate your expertise and track record by, for instance, volunteering to help colleagues solve difficult problems.
Lack of resources
The capacity to control resources generates power for the individual because resources can be exchanged or held back to strengthen influence in a team or the larger organization. If you lack influence you often lack resources such as people, equipment and budgets because you don’t belong to the ‘in-group.’
The answer is to create obligations from others in a similar way to Cialdini’s principle of reciprocation. If you do things for others, they will feel obliged to reciprocate. In a similar way to the principle of liking, you can facilitate the desired behavior from fellow team members and others by taking the initiative to act in this way first. Demonstrate a sense of trust, cooperation or a pleasant attitude; you should model the behavior you want to see from others.
Help them by easing their burdens and doing them favors. As a communicator you can pay them special attention by discussing with them their operational problems and seeing how communication can help to resolve the problems. And when they thank you for your assistance, you can say something like, “Glad to help. I’m sure you would do the same if I needed help as well.”
You can also identify problems that no one else has noticed or that can be fixed by using your communication skills. Then work to your strengths; go ahead and offer solutions through your communication resources.
Overcoming a network deficit
Even if you have high legitimacy and control scarce resources, you may still be exposed unless you have a strong network of your own. Don’t just depend on your boss’s network; this might prove to be problematic. If you aren’t in your boss’s ‘in-group,’ you might be confronted by reluctant cooperation from their circle, and if the boss has a weak network you will also be held back.
Develop your own networks
So work to develop your own networks by building connections with central players in their current work environment and by generating links between current unconnected groups. Try to develop an alliance with key players who wield formal power as well as those who have informal relationships that can informally influence decision making. This is in reality a good stakeholder relations strategy
You can play a boundary-spanning role (a classic PR way to gain early intelligence and strengthen ties with stakeholders), by creating links with disconnected areas or groups. As a communicator, you can use your networking capability to reduce conflict and detect opportunities. This gives you earlier information on potential problems, issues or crises.
An alternative to boundary spanning is a ‘shotgun’ approach in bringing diverse groups together by creating forums in which ideas and information can be exchanged.
If you engage in these initiatives you will almost certainly improve your power and influence in your workplace.