Author’s Note — this is the second installment in a serialization of Active Leadership: A Blueprint for Succeeding and Making a Difference. Much of this material was presented in an earlier work, Influence for Impact.
Getting there: influence or derail
Sam is an exceptionally competent analyst and team member. He came to the group several years ago with stellar academic credentials and a proven ability to get along with people. He is usually the best problem solver in the group. However, he has seen several peers get promoted recently. He has always had great reviews and encouragement from his managers, so he’s having a hard time understanding why people who are far less able appear to be getting quicker opportunities for advancement. He has always assumed that keeping his head down and doing great work will eventually get him recognized. He was taught not to brag or to toot his own horn. And he finds it difficult to ask for things or to draw attention to himself in general. He still feels deep down that his results, his willingness to share and his hard work will be rewarded. But he’s also starting to feel overlooked and left behind. He knows he’s the best quant in the unit. But he’ll have to admit that he would like to have the skills of persuasion he senses in some of his colleagues. On the other hand, he’s beginning to wonder if he wants to spend much more time in an organization that rewards such superficiality.
Research and observation indicate that hard skills (quantitative, data-analytical, technical, specialized knowledge) are important for success early in a career; but that the soft skills (influence, relationship building, and political savoir-faire) are crucial for later success, especially in leadership. People who are rewarded for being the cleverest individual problem solvers tend to assume their good work speaks for them.
We have conducted many thousands of psychological assessments for business clients since our founding as a professional firm over a quarter century ago. This has allowed us to develop an extensive database of scores, profiles, and characteristics of successful high-level people. Analysis of the profiles of several thousand successful people (MBAs from top-tier schools, people in fast-track developmental programs, COOs, CEOs and a wide variety of top executives in general) revealed consistent but rather surprising developmental themes.
The most frequently mentioned suggestions for further growth and development of highly successful people fell into the following two related categories:
- Influence and persuasion
The shortcomings in this category include poor communication skills, tendencies to undersell, marginal self-presentation, introversion, shyness, lack of assertiveness, and so forth.
- Interpersonal insensitivity
The problems here have to do with being too dominant, intense, or impatient; tendencies to push people too hard; excessive competitiveness and a lack of political insight and sensitivity, among others.
If this is true among exceptionally successful people, and among those seen as having high growth potential, the situation is even more acute with people in the ranks, with technologists, and with people early in their career trajectories. Here are two key thoughts to keep in mind for the rest of this discussion:
- Remember, the world isn’t fair and doesn’t care about your success. If you don’t learn to increase your base of power, others will – and they won’t have your best interests at heart.
- Brainpower and performance help you to gain power only up to a point. How you play your cards, and who you develop relationships with, are of equal or greater importance as you get closer to the top.
To be able to influence others, you must have credibility. Credibility is a function of two primary factors: trust and expertise. These are the first two pillars of influence. The first two questions people ask, to decide if you are credible, are: “Do you know your stuff?” and, “Do you have my back?”
In addition to the individual quality of credibility necessary for effective persuasion and influence, the following goals are important to us:
- Accuracy – We need to make sense of things, so we can know whether they present threats or offer advantages.
- Affiliation – We want to associate with people we find attractive and helpful. We seek their approval and acceptance.
- Consistency – We need to maintain a positive self-image. This makes us strive for consistency, and we’ll go to great lengths to appear consistent to ourselves and to others.
These pervasive human motivations lead naturally to the fundamental laws of influence. A simple listing of them, however, clearly doesn’t do them justice. Books have been written on each of them. These laws are based on a tremendous amount of academic research, but they also can be verified by direct observation.
The Law of Authority
We have a strong drive to seek out higher sources of opinion, direction, and advice. People want to comply with and follow authority. People in positions of authority are seen as credible. If you’re not in a position of legitimate hierarchical authority, you should at least project the right image. Dressing similarly to those in power increases the perception of your authority, and we’re strongly influenced by people who project optimism, confidence, and a positive attitude. Learn to project power, not only in your speech and mannerisms, but also in your dress. It’s a learnable skill. Image becomes reality over time. Establish your credentials to emphasize your expertise, or show that a respected and credentialed source agrees with your position. Don’t forget, though, that there’s no substitute for actually being a good source of information and help for others. Over time, this is what establishes a reputation for expertise, not merely the appearance of authority.
The Law of Trust
This is one of the two key components of credibility. Once you lose trust, it can never fully be regained. Every time you make a deposit to your trust asset base, it grows; but once you make even a small withdrawal, the entire account is likely to be wiped out. The keys to establishing and maintaining trust are simple, obvious, and often overlooked. They include: always following through; not taking credit where it’s not due; never, ever, betraying a confidence; never overselling or exaggerating; communicating as fully as possible when you have information that will affect others; and taking the first step by trusting that others will perform as expected.
The Law of Liking
Think of the most credible and persuasive people you know. If you make a list of their traits and characteristics, close to the top will be something to the effect that they are likable. We’re strongly influenced by people we like. This means that you need to develop a social network within the context of your work environment. We like people who are similar to us, who make us feel good, who like us, who are optimistic and cheerful, and who are attractive but not perfect. The classic reading in this field is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. His original principles have been validated by later research, and are for the most part as applicable now as they were 80 years ago.
The Law of Reciprocity
We strive to keep things in balance. If someone does us a favor, no matter how small, we feel obliged, and are likely to help them out in some way. This is a fundamental law that is at the core of our society, but it is also at the foundation of all free market transactions. This is why cultists give you a free flower or keychain on the street, and why charities include holiday stamps or coins with their solicitations. Such “free gifts” dramatically increase donations. We operate by implicit rules of balance and fair play. With apologies to President Kennedy: ask not what this person can do for you, ask what you can do for this person.
The Law of Consistency
We are driven to maintain a positive image of ourselves. To do that, we need to appear consistent to ourselves. This is the basis of the foot-in-the-door technique, and the reason salespeople try to get us to commit publicly that we’ll buy a certain item “if they can only find one”, before miraculously discovering exactly the model we previously thought was unavailable. Once we commit to a small action or agree with some part of a position, we’re much more likely to agree with larger requests or stronger positions in the same direction. We go to great lengths to maintain our self-image of consistency and to reduce the dissonance we feel when we act inconsistently. This is the basis for all rationalization.
The Law of Scarcity
We’re strongly attracted to things that are rare, scarce, and limited. Less is more. If we perceive that something might become unavailable, or be in limited supply, its value goes up for us. This is the basis for bidding frenzies at auctions, popular toy shortages at Christmas, speculative investment bubbles, snob appeal, and many other examples of seemingly strange human behavior. We are more strongly motivated to avoid losing something than we are by the chance to gain something.
The Law of Social Comparison
We take our cues about how to think and act from other people. Psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term social comparison in his research on the factors involved in attitude change and rationalization. This is a fundamental principle: we’re strongly influenced by the groups to which we belong, and by those to which we’d like to belong. We look to others to figure out how we should interpret and respond to new or ambiguous information. We care what the Joneses think, and about what they do. We stop to look up when we see people in the street looking up. We’re more likely to tip the bartender if she’s salted the tip jar.
Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer notes that the ability to influence others is crucial to success in a career, and in gaining personal power. His book Power: Why Some People Have It – and Others Don’t offers useful insights about power in organizations – how to gain it and how to hold on to it once you have it. It’s based on real world observation and research, not on theory, abstraction, or political correctness. As such, some of his observations could be at odds with what you see in the popular literature and press. In fact, he warns that most leadership literature can be hazardous to your health, because it doesn’t reflect the realities of organizational life.
Some people won’t like his observations, but having done a bit of research in this area myself, I see very little to quibble about. Pfeffer makes the case for trying to expand your base of power because many good things come from it, not the least of which are higher levels of physical health and well-being. Then there’s the money, he notes, not entirely tongue-in-cheek. Listed below are some of the keys to success along the path to power.
- You need to be noticed, and need to rise above the organizational noise. Make sure people know about your successes. Find a gap and fill it. Reach out and create something. Don’t be afraid to break the rules when you’re just starting out – you’ll be noticed and thought of as innovative. Don’t be stupid about it, though; and if you can define the criteria for success, you’ll have the advantage.
- Be sure you know what success looks like in your boss’s eyes … and in those of his or her boss.
- Become adept at some Dale Carnegie skills, and learn to make people feel good about themselves (it’ll make them feel better about you).
- Flattery works. Even when people realize you’re doing it. What’s more, research shows that more flattery works even better. But be careful here. If you’re too blatant, you’ll develop a reputation as a brown-noser.
- If you have the chance, pick a department or group with high influence and power. However, sometimes the path to the top can be found through indirect routes, if you develop your alliances and nodes of information, and if you learn to use them well.
- Ask for stuff. We enjoy helping others. It makes us feel powerful, and it flatters to be asked. We also like those we help. This is where the laws of reciprocity and consistency kick in.
- Networking is important. It is a learned skill, even if you’re painfully shy.
- Learn to fight and don’t take things personally. Do everything you can to make relationships work, and to be liked. Sometimes, however, you must simply work effectively with a few people you really dislike. Tolerate and become comfortable with conflict; but don’t be a jerk.
- Get over yourself. Yes, some of this might sound manipulative, and you could be uncomfortable asking for things directly. In reality, though, people aren’t paying much attention to you. They’re generally wrapped up in themselves, so don’t worry too much about how things look. But of course you must protect your reputation for being ethical. You need to build trust for full success, so be careful of anything that could taint your reputation.
- When you’re at the top, stay vigilant. It’s not paranoia – they really are after you. But stay humble – you are replaceable, and you need to know when to quit. Hopefully, it will be on your own terms.
All of these principles work, and they all can be misused. If you use them to manipulate or exploit, people quickly figure it out. If people think you’re trying to manipulate them, you immediately lose their trust, the absolute cornerstone of credibility.
Although the principles of gaining power can allow manipulative and callous people to rise, those traits are also associated with an eventual loss of power. One of the keys to understanding and dealing with the struggle for power is to lose your misguided faith that this is a just world. The good guys don’t always win, and the bad guys sometimes do. Perhaps they often do: but if they’ve made too many enemies on the way up, even if they bring in their staunch loyalists, people find creative ways to even the score. The world might not be just, but people have long memories and they hold grudges. They like to balance things out however they can. If you don’t have much explicit power, you’re likely to find underground ways to resist people you don’t like or trust.
The core principles of influence – credibility (expertise and trustworthiness) and likability – are important factors that allow a person to hold on to power over time. The most effective leaders realize that power can corrupt even the most well intentioned person, and that you don’t get good feedback when you’re in a position of power. Effective leadership in a high-level position requires the humility to seek out good data. You never know as much as you think you do – and most of the stuff people tell you is filtered. Even though you might realize they’re trying to flatter you, you’re still only human and still subject to believing your own good press. So it helps to have people who can give accurate feedback, unvarnished data, and seasoned opinion. That kind of information usually only comes from people who don’t have a dog in the fight – people who know you in a different context, who knew you in previous lives, or who aren’t inside your organization.
The laws of influence stem from our basic human goals to understand what is happening, to associate with people of value to us, and to see ourselves as consistent. People who understand and use laws of influence appropriately and effectively – without being malicious or manipulative – are likely to be much more successful.