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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Types of Influence to Use at Work, According to a Leadership Consultant

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Over the phone, I could sense my client, the CEO of a boutique branding company, anxiously pacing. With 20 years of experience—first as a therapist and then as an executive and organizational leadership consultant—I can tell when my clients are thinking, taking notes, or checking email. And in that moment my executive coaching client was definitely pacing.

He’d thought their reputable new creative director (CD) was a real asset—until his inbox blew up that morning. The CD, under deadline pressure, had reportedly turned into a monster, ignoring the requests of the company’s biggest account and shouting rogue orders at his stunned team.

The CEO wanted to fire the director on the spot. But he also knew his own rash emotional decisions often led to unwanted backlash. After spending so much time wooing the CD over to the company, he needed to hear his side, and, depending on how the meeting went, give him another shot at understanding the way the firm does business and getting in line with the company culture.

“Can I actually influence our CD’s leadership style?” he asked me.

You’ll need to use influence in any and every job you have.

Influence is one of those buzzwords that’s often associated with the top echelons of leadership or with a talent for sales or marketing (think: influencer). But I can assure you, no matter what field you work in or how senior your job—entry level, middle management, director, C-suite—you rely on influence to do your job. Naturally if you’re a boss, you’re influencing staff to perform and behave in line with your vision and expectations. But if you’re an entry-level employee—you may not be aware of how much influence you use to teach your colleagues the best ways to communicate and collaborate with you, and to get higher-ups to listen to and consider your ideas.

When it comes to influencing others, no outcomes are guaranteed. But after years of personal experience and input from my mentor, leadership consultant Richard S. Nodell, I’ve categorized four main modes of influence: telling, selling, consulting, and collaborating.

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of each mode. Then we’ll have a better sense not only of which type will help our CEO in influencing the CD, but also of which you might use at your own job or even in your personal life.

Influence type 1:

When COVID hit, organizations needed to quickly distribute new policies and procedures to their employees. They had to direct staff to comply with government regulations, adhere to WFH parameters, and make strategic pivots to stay afloat. Back in those early days, leaders in many organizations had to tell staff what to do in order to work through a pandemic.

Because telling is the quickest way to wield influence, it’s well suited for emergencies and regulations. It’s authority driven, or top-down, meaning it’s usually distributed from higher leadership down through lower positions (from CEO to staff, from manager to direct report, and so on).

Telling may be expedient, but in cases other than those necessary regulations, it’s surprisingly ineffective. For starters, few people like to be told what to do: When adults get marching orders, it can make them feel powerless. So when you use telling, whether it's to encourage punctuality or teamwork or to adopt a new method of working, it doesn’t necessarily inspire compliance.

A leader I know, for example, was beyond frustrated at having to repeatedly tell her staff to actually use the LEAN methodology they’d spent hours investing in. She realized that to inspire more lasting behavioral change, her influence required something deeper, like selling.

Influence type 2:

A small, 40-year-old philanthropic organization that served low-income communities needed an upgrade to embrace more progressive social justice strategies. They hired a new CEO, and when she presented her strategic plan, the board naturally had a lot of questions. Over the course of several meetings, she, along with her staff, tried to sell them the idea, explaining through storytelling, research, and documentation why her strategy was the most effective way to drive the change they’d hired her for. But they resisted. She became frustrated, and spoke honestly: “My understanding was that you wanted change, and you hired me knowing my expertise, background, and intentions.”

Her words struck them, and they warmed to her leadership. Her storytelling, research, and especially her last-ditch honest reminder of their original intentions sold them on moving forward. She’d finally influenced them to trust her vision.

At work, as in life, change—even if we say we want it— is difficult. Selling is a way to get buy-in and support for a new idea or culture shift. Whereas telling stops at a declaration of the what, selling digs into explaining the why (like why this strategy will work or how it’ll benefit everyone) in order to persuade others to get on board and, hopefully, excited. And it can occur from top-down, bottom-up, and laterally.

In an off-site retreat, a team brainstormed about how to pivot their live in-person trainings into an online model. As they realized just how much work was involved, they started to wilt, and had to remind themselves of the end goal. I watched them sell themselves and one another on why this new direction and the amount of work involved were worth it.

When trying to convince a coworker to adopt your way of approaching a task (because you know it’s more efficient!), or even get a good friend to go with you on vacation, selling comes in handy.

a group of coworkers sitting and standing in front of a white board with colorful sticky notes on it, talking and smiling
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Influence type 3:

If you’re trying to make a big decision, you might reach out to a trusted friend for their perspective. But even though your friend may have fantastic advice, you’re ultimately in charge of whether or not to use it. Consulting at work uses the same principle: It’s a collaborative process based on conversation and co-creation, in which one party has the authority to make the final call.

I once coached a team in which an administrative assistant was put in charge of selecting new project management software for the office. In order to make an informed decision, they conducted research and consulted with the senior leaders for requirements and UX preferences before choosing and switching everyone over to the new platform. Not everyone was 100% thrilled with the final product, but most—having been consulted, heard, and involved with the changes—were happy.

Consultation is a very effective type of influence because it creates a sense of partnership and teamwork, and because one person has the final say, it also doesn’t require everyone to hash things out ad nauseum.

I will often advise a manager to conduct performance reviews as a consultation, for example, in which they first invite the employee to evaluate their own performance, leading to discussion and negotiation. The boss has the last word on what new goals and improvements the employee is aiming for, but they create the plan together.

Influence type 4:

The owner of a small manufacturing company had a problem. His office was in one part of town, and his production facility was two hours away. With staff divided in two locations, communication was difficult and caused too many delivery and scheduling mishaps. Staff was bubbling over with frustration.

After trying and trying to fix the problem by telling people what they should do differently, he realized he needed everyone’s help to fix it. He shut down operations for a whole day and called a company meeting to collaborate on solutions. Over the course of the day, the team aired their frustrations and clearly outlined the problems. Then everyone started coming up with new ideas, including better scheduling practices and more efficient customer management software. While the boss created the structure for the meeting, he didn’t dictate solutions but instead joined in with the entire team to troubleshoot workflow issues and improve work morale.

When an old problem persists, a company is thrown a curveball and there’s no precedent for how to handle it, or a team is tackling something new or different, it’s a good time to collaborate. And workers at all levels can exercise their leadership by providing the structure to communally problem solve: In the same company, a production assistant realized that the supply chain issues were about to negatively affect them and wreak havoc on their schedule. She called a meeting to get everyone working together on sourcing new providers, setting out new deadlines with customers, and brainstorming any material substitutions that might work for some of their projects.

Don’t be afraid to mix and match the four types of influence.

So now that we’ve reviewed the four modes of influence, let’s go back to our branding CEO. We have a leader who wants to influence a hot-headed direct report to lead with more grace and equanimity. After the CEO gathers the essential data of what the director thinks happened, should he tell the CD what he expects? Sell him on why it’s important to respect the company culture and respond to clients and staff with respect and consideration? Consult with the director about what he thinks should happen differently next time? Or collaborate with him on creating the right working conditions and environment?

I’ll let you decide (yep, I’m influencing via collaboration here), but note that it very well might take a combination of all four. Clearly, the CEO doesn’t want to mimic the testy CD, whose telling turned to yelling when he felt under pressure. At work, emotional reactivity always decreases trust, and therefore minimizes influence.

Instead, when wielding influence, it’s essential to pause and first identify the outcomes you’re looking for. Do you want to get buy-in for your idea? Get a boss to treat you differently? Implement a more effective way for your team to work together? Then, knowing your audience and using the guidelines above, select the right mode or combination to manifest the outcomes you’re looking for.