How to influence when you’re not in charge

A common theme that comes up across the coaching and action learning sets we deliver is the struggle to influence when you’re not in charge. This can lead to frustration at best, a talented person leaving an organisation at worst.

Here are some simple things readers can do, which some of our clients have successfully used themselves:

Really take the time to understand the decision maker: Do you know what makes the person tick? Have you go to know them as a person, as opposed to them as the role they’re in?

Notice how they work, including how they like to make decisions. For example, one leader I worked with a long time ago hated lengthy reports. All they wanted was a one pager, in plain language, which outlined the main pros and cons of a decision. Woe betide the person who gave them a lengthy report in policy talk. That person would be waiting a long time for a decision.

So take some time to understand your key decision maker’s likes and dislikes. You might think, “I don’t have the time” but what about time wasted going back and forth on a decision because you didn’t take that time at the beginning?

Observe key stakeholders and decision makers: Board meetings. Project meetings. Team meetings. These are all great places to observe what kind of approaches work (and don’t work) with your stakeholders, particularly those making the decisions.

This really requires you to be present. Put your phone away. Stop responding to your emails on your laptop. Focus on the meeting and the various interactions so you can really learn the best way to present your case when your time comes.

Phrase your suggestions carefully: If your decision maker doesn’t respond well to ultimatums (and let’s face it, who does?) then best not to go down that path. Telling someone “there is no choice but to do x” tends not to be a good move.

Does your decision maker like choice? Yes? Then give them choices.

Does your decision maker like evidence to help them? Yes? Then make sure you back up your suggestions with evidence.

Is your decision maker competitive against other similar organisations? Yes? Then tap into that by referencing what others have done in relation to the thing you’re suggesting.

When I think back over executive coaching sessions over the past 16 years, where the client has struggled to influence, a key thing has been them not taking the time to plan what they wanted to say…and how they wanted to say it.

Keep the end goal in mind: Sometimes, just sometimes, you need to let things go in order to achieve the overarching outcome. This is akin to “lose the battle, win the war”.

To influence, you need to think like a chess player. Which things are you prepared to let go? Which aren’t you? Again, this requires some thought and planning.

I’ve seen colleagues cut their nose off to spite their face just so they don’t lose. Ever. This is not a particularly strategic or even tactical approach to influencing or managing your career.

That whole win/lose mentality is really unhelpful when trying to influence. Your aim should be win/win. It should be about achieving the best outcome for the organisation you work for and the customers it serves.

Deploy the right people: This requires a good level of humility and a healthy ego. Sometimes, just sometimes, you are just not the right person to deploy to have that discussion with a powerful decision maker.

Taking time to map out which of your colleagues has great relationships with key decision makers can be a really powerful thing to do. And if you are a manager, then including your team members in this mapping can also be powerful.

Trust is at the heart of influencing. If a colleague or member of staff already has that trust with the person you need to influence, then why not work with your colleague? If a member of staff already meets regularly with the person you need to make a decision, why not involve that member of staff? It could be a great development opportunity for them, so it’s a win all round.

The key takeaway with all these suggestions is take the time to think and plan. Before you run headfirst in to your next project or programme, taking that bit of time to think about your relationships with key decision makers could be the best investment you make.

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Hayley Lewis is a chartered psychologist and founder of HALO Psychology, a consultancy helping public sector leaders and organisations improve, change, transform and perform. HALO offers a variety of services including coaching, facilitation and training. Contact us to see how we can support you and your team in their development.

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