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Influencing Skills for Leaders

Leaders who want people to be fully engaged in their vision can't use the same influencing tactics as sales people, who are generally self-interested.

The hugely popular book, Influence: Science and Practice, by Robert B. Caldini opens with a chapter entitled "The Weapons of Influence". This is an apt title because the influence tactics Caldini describes are manipulative. He portrays influence as a win-lose battle, hence the book's appeal for sales people.

The tactics Caldini discusses, such as giving people gifts in the hope of reciprocity or presenting a more expensive option before the one you really want to sell, induce unconscious compliance.

Conversely, emotionally intelligent leaders want emotionally intelligent followers, people who are fully aware of what they are getting into and why. Also, they aim to influence people to do what's best for the organization not to benefit themselves.

Such leaders recognize the need to flex their influencing style for different audiences. Influence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Leaders thus need to learn a range of influencing skills and know which approach to use for different prospective followers. One of the most common weaknesses across all executive levels is an overly narrow range of influencing styles.

There are two basic influencing styles: push and pull. Pushing relies mainly on one-way persuasion while pulling is more engaging and tailored to the other party's needs.

Push Influencing Style

Some would classify coercion and positional authority as push influencing styles but it's arguable that neither should count as leadership.

The push style that most leaders use is a business case. Logic and facts bolstered by strong conviction go a long way to getting (some) people on board. Despite its popularity, it's not the most emotionally intelligent approach because it treats people on the receiving end as if they were all the same.

This influencing style is the most popular because we like to think issues through for ourselves and have a chance to look brilliant in the eyes of our listeners, to be a hero. This leads us to develop arguments in isolation before the influence attempt begins.

However, even a compelling speech can backfire because those on the receiving end might resist simply because they don't like being talked at or because they feel disengaged. It's YOUR idea, not theirs.

Here's a good saying to keep in mind: You can't push people toward you, only away.

Pull Influencing Style

The best way to pull people toward your position is to tell them the problem or objective and then ask them questions such as:

• How would you approach this issue?

• What solutions do you think would work best?

• What are the pros and cons of your preferred approach?

• What do you see as the benefits of doing X?

• How could we overcome the obstacles (or risks) that you see?

This approach is engaging; it shows that you value and respect the other person's views. You could use a funnel approach: start with a broad question about how people would tackle an issue, follow up with questions designed to get them to see things differently and then narrow down to asking them what they think about your solution.

A mixed approach starts with your own ideas but quickly switches to inviting feedback and other suggestions.

What's Your Influencing Style?

We prefer influencing styles that are most congruent with our own personalities. Here are some common push styles: cite facts, offer a vision, provide meaning, point out benefits for people, cite opportunities to grow or appeal to people's emotions.

• Cite hard facts and evidence, drawing on past experience, in some detail – appeals to an audience that values facts and evidence but boring to other types.

• Paint a grand vision of a better future, focusing on large ideas and the big picture rather than detailed facts – appeals to fellow visionaries but may not seem sufficiently grounded in reality to factual types.

• Provide meaning, explaining the connection with related issues and the values of the audience, but may not work with those who want a hard business case.

• Stress benefits for people, emphasizing people-related values more than business benefits. Again, this approach works well for those who care about people but not those who are more task-oriented.

• Emphasize opportunities to learn and grow, the excitement of the new, the chance to break away from routine and the familiar. People who crave excitement and novelty will respond to this approach, not so those who live in the here-and-now.

• Appeal to people's emotional needs and feelings. This style will enthuse some people but not the logical, evidence-based thinkers.

To influence a large group, it's wise to prepare by finding out the predominant orientation of the majority, recognizing that you will likely need to use a mixture of styles.

Choosing an Approach

The key point is to avoid relying solely on your natural style because it might be a poor match for your audience's preferences.

To identify your audience's preferences and likely resistance, meet with them individually ahead of your presentation and ask for their advice on how best to influence the group. While you may get many different answers, the act of inviting input and advice will itself help to get each person on side to some extent.

To influence small groups or individuals where you expect resistance but need their full buy-in, try a pull approach. Present the problem or objective first and ask for suggestions. Research has shown that people are more committed to their own ideas, plans and decisions, so the more you can draw out of others, the more strongly committed they're likely to be.

Downside of the Pull Approach

The pull style is most effective if your questions are so skillful that your followers think the idea is theirs. Unfortunately, you then lose the chance to be a hero by being seen as a great problem solver, a genius. Hence it's important to be clear what's most important to you: gaining the commitment of followers or being seen as a hero.

This is where the question of humility comes in and whether you put the organization's needs first or your own.

In any case, the pull style is not easy to use. It can be hard work to set aside our natural inclination to push our own ideas onto others.


The pull style is also time-consuming but it has huge payoff potential because your audience is more likely to be committed if they're engaged in developing the solution or at least in tailoring it to their needs.

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