I just returned from a big company meeting where I joined a team to train a big group of new hires, nearly four hundred in all. The training went well. And the team of trainers got to talking about recent training sessions that hadn’t gone well. Influence training came up again and again.

There are a host of classes that are relatively likely to get high reviews–sales skills, presentation skills, critical thinking skills. Not that the subjects are necessarily easy to teach, but when the day is done, participants are grateful and it shows in their reviews. This is often not the case with influence. With a lot of workshops on influence, scores are uneven, some high, some very low.

There are two problems with influence workshops as they’re often led, one lies with the leaders and one with the participants.First, for some reason many facilitators don’t see influence as arising from the practice of a skill. The folks I talked to this week, both very adept trainers, called influence a meta-topic, a context you must develop, an approach, a way of thinking about talking. This all sounds a bit mushy and that’s a problem for a training intervention. You can’t base an eight-hour day of training on a mushy framework and expect twenty smart staff members to walk away feeling they’ve gained some crisp new skills. If I’m going to take a day away from work, I want to feel more competent when I’m done, not as though I’ve been immersed in mush. Influence is a skill, measurable and teachable. And as instructors and consultants and coaches, we need to step up, learn it, and teach it.

Second, many attendees don’t want to do what it takes to be very influential. Which, in the business world, often means a) getting the other party (the folks we want to influence) what they need or want,  and b) proving that we will. This is a particularly pernicious problem. You can put Dale Carnegie up on the wall

“There is only one way… to get anybody to do anything. And that is by making the other person want to do it.”

and people will agree with it in principal. Until they recognize the burden it puts on them to provide value to the people they want to influence, and to make that person the ultimate arbiter of whether they’ve provided value or not.

That’s the tough part for most people who want to wield influence: the other person gets to judge whether you’re delivering value.

Most people don’t have any problem formulating and offering their opinion. We like to contribute to others and we happily anticipate the gratitude that we’ll receive in return. What we don’t like, what we rail against, is the idea that we often need to prove that what we deliver really has value.

This is especially true among experts in business. If we’ve held a position for more than two years, we believe we’ve built up a a stock of expertise that we can distribute to others. We believe they should recognize our expertise, follow our expert advice, and thank us for it…with a smile. The problem is that if you’re not measuring, what you’re stockpiling is experiences that lead to opinions. And as the saying goes, everyone has those.

Most people in services groups in business who don’t get the respect they deserve and don’t wield the influence they could, have a story running through their heads something like this:

  1. Advertising [or recruiting or recognizing good companies for aquisition or insert your discipline here] is a matter of experience (expertise built up over time). And expertise like mine mostly can’t be measured or monetized because
    a. we only design programs, and we can’t control the folks who execute, or
    b. we drive leads but we don’t sell product, or
    c. what we do is subjective or artistic, or
    d. what I’m proposing is so innovative it hasn’t been tried and measured before, or
    e. insert the reason you haven’t been measuring your performance here.
  2. So, the thing for us to do is
    a. build up expertise from experience and from our broad view of our discipline throughout the company, and then
    b. use our expertise to debate others inside and outside our company to convince them to do what we know is right.
  3. The problem is that they have their [faulty, in our opinion] reasons to trust their own expertise,
    a. they’ve been with the company or another company a while too, or
    b. they have a boss or advisor whose been around, or
    c. they control the budget and that makes them feel powerful, or etc.
    so they push back.
  4. So, this is a tough process that takes resilience and lots of time. We are accustomed to making progress bit by bit and chipping away at a company culture that doesn’t embrace us.

The end result is our opinions have little but our subjective feelings or anecdotes to back them up. Hence, they don’t carry weight with others that have feelings and anecdotes of their own. And instead of stepping up and measuring our performance, we blame the old boy network, our company culture, or the subjective nature of our job for our inability to influence others.

To cultivate influence for your group: Get a trainer who trains on skills so you walk away with something you can use. And start tracking what you do and what happens as a result.

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Filed under: Change ManagementInfluence and PersuasionLeadership

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