How do you cultivate a complex and delicate skill like influence? More importantly, how do you maintain it?
Influence, like its equally abstruse counterparts ‘respect’ and ‘trust’, can be a difficult quality to acquire and an incredibly easy one to lose.
It is less obvious than power – which can be bestowed upon someone whether or not they’re ready for it – but it’s more complex than simply having sway in a situation.
It’s an amalgam of the two – the sweet spot that allows you to manoeuvre a situation without commandeering it. It is about skilfully nudging someone towards a particular outcome while also encouraging autonomy.
While influential workplace leaders might evoke images of high-powered senior professionals and CEOs, COVID-19 has brought HR professionals into that same fold – some for the very first time.
AHRI’s October 2020 pulse survey revealed that HR professionals felt their influence on their respective executive teams had increased by almost 15 per cent over the COVID-19 period.
While this is great news, it’s not surprising. Leaders and employees alike have looked to HR at every turn this year for cues about navigating a work environment that has been turned on its head.
HR has never had more weight. Your words and decisions have never had a greater impact. And your value, perhaps, has never been so clearly written in stone. So how can you use this new-found influence to become architects of the workplaces of the future? More importantly, how can you make sure it doesn’t slip through your fingers?
“If people are only coming to you when things are broken… then I don’t think you’ve got much influence. You want to be brought into the fold from the beginning to help shape the approach.” – Tracey McPherson CPHR, HR director, Kuehne+Nagel
“If I had to explain the concept of influence to a layperson, I’d describe it as a catalyst for change,” says Charmi Patel FCIPD, associate professor in International Human Resource Management at Henley Business School in the UK. “Importantly, when we say we’re ‘influencing’ someone, that could be a good influence or a bad influence.”
The weight of the workplace challenges that HR has been speaking about and championing for years is finally hitting home for the wider organisation, says Patel.
“The pandemic has made us realise how important ‘soft’ issues are. Hard issues, like money, are very important, but the ‘softer’ aspects like wellbeing, compassion, emotional health, empathy, gratitude… these all became important aspects that were previously regarded as ‘back office, HR stuff’ that would happen once a year. It was like a tick-box sort of thing. Now, suddenly, we’re seeing it all on the forefront.”
It’s a shame it took a global pandemic for some organisations to wake up to this. What matters, however, is that these conversations are finally getting the attention and resources they have always deserved.
Instead of having to work tirelessly to get executive buy-in for people-related workplace initiatives, such as a wellbeing program, many HR professionals are now finding they’re being proactively sought out for their advice.
Tracey McPherson CPHR, HR director at global transport and logistics company Kuehne+Nagel, says HR professionals know they’re influential when they are asked for their opinion from the get-go.
“If people are only coming to you when things are broken and need fixing or if there’s an issue with something, then I don’t think you’ve got much influence. You want to be brought into the fold from the beginning to help shape the approach,” says McPherson.
Professor Vanessa Bohns, associate professor of organisational behaviour at the ILR School, Cornell University, wrote the book on influence, literally. Her upcoming book You Have More Influence Than You Think delves into the ways we can “see, feel and experience our influence on others”.
This comes off the back of a long-term interest in social influence studies. Notably, in 2013 she co-authored a paper with Francis Flynn which investigates the ways in which we underestimate our influence over others in the workplace.
“We describe influence as changing someone’s attitude or behaviour,” she says. “This doesn’t necessarily mean reversing or altering someone’s initial attitude or belief. It could also mean strengthening or validating their initial position.”
It can, however, be hard to understand the power of your own influence if you don’t know it exists in the first place.
“We tend to underestimate the role of self-conscious emotions, like guilt and embarrassment, in the workplace,” says Bohns. “As a result, we sometimes fail to recognise the influence we have over other people through those emotions.”
For example, other research she conducted shows we can underestimate how often people are likely to agree to our requests, even if they don’t want to, because it’s too uncomfortable or awkward to say “no”.
“This is true for prosocial favours we might ask too, as well as for unethical requests… all those things are harder to say “no” to than we realise when we are the ones doing the asking,” she adds.
“Research shows that people in positions of power tend to be particularly bad at taking the perspectives of people with less power than them. For this reason, they may be, perhaps ironically, particularly bad at recognising their influence over people below them.”
Our tendency to underestimate our influence can lead us to engage in all sorts of unhelpful or inhibiting behaviours.
Firstly, it can stagnate innovation. Leaders who aren’t aware of their influence might be less likely to spearhead new initiatives in the workplace, Bohns and Flynn suggest, or become “unwilling to admit their role in their subordinates’ performance failures”.
This, they posit, could lead to ineffective approaches to performance management. For example, leaders may become overly reliant on external incentives, such as rewards or punishment, instead of relying on their influencing skills as a way to encourage or motivate their people.
This lack of awareness can also cause leaders to become unnecessarily assertive.
“Those overly aggressive strategies, which are borne from our insecurities about the influence we think we’re lacking, can backfire. We can actually lose the influence we’ve been trying to gain. For those reasons, I think developing an awareness of the influence we have already can also help us to nurture and maintain [it], as well as ensuring we don’t abuse it,” says Bohns. How do you go about doing that? Bohns envisages a few ways in which you could train people to better see their own influence, including:
- Taking time to visualise interactions you have with other people as if you were a neutral observer or a fly on the wall; this helps you get out of your own head.
- Listening to other peoples’ perspectives in order to understand how your actions have impacted, or are likely to impact, them. This helps you get into someone else’s head.
- Testing out your influence in small ways, while simultaneously doing (a) and (b).
“Most of us have a self-attribution error,” says Patel. “We think we’re not that good or that we don’t have that influence. To get that balance check, it’s really good to have mentors at work. They will tell you about your influence in the workplace.
“They’ll give you objective information without massaging your ego and without using flattery. They’ll tell you where you genuinely stand. So try to make the time for one or two coaching sessions each year, just so you can keep your self-esteem built up and really understand your strengths and weaknesses.”
“We tend to underestimate the role of self-conscious emotions, like guilt and embarrassment, in the workplace. As a result, we sometimes fail to recognise the influence we have over other people.” – Professor Vanessa Bohns, associate professor of organisational behaviour at the ILR School, Cornell University.
A new-found influence
McPherson works in an HR team of four within the Australian arm of Kuehne+Nagel. It employs around 800-900 people with an approximate 50/50 split between blue and white-collar workers – so employees’ needs and experiences are quite varied.
As the pandemic kicked off in Australia, McPherson and the HR team were quite stretched. While McPherson never felt she didn’t have influence over the executive team, she saw an increased level of trust, collaboration and agile decision-making during the thick of the crisis.
“We were having to make decisions pretty quickly because things with COVID-19 were unravelling really fast. HR needed to be across all things people.
“Our response was very much led by our MD,” she says. “But we had to make joint decisions, especially when these decisions would be impacting people’s lives – our employees, customers and suppliers.”
McPherson can point to a specific moment when she felt her influence within the organisation expanded. The company had just discovered that multinational companies like theirs wouldn’t qualify for JobKeeper.
There were lots of quick decisions being made by various departments about COVID-safe regulations and business continuity strategies, but their main goal was to safeguard their employees.
“Our MD said to everyone, ‘Before you make any decisions from a people perspective, you need to speak with HR’. I already had a really good relationship with the business directors, so that line of communication influence was there, but I did feel the trust and respect heightened,” she says.
While this increased influence made McPherson feel valued, that doesn’t mean it came without stress.
“I mean, obviously you feel very responsible. I had a line of sight of what was happening and unfolding within our organisation across each state. [COVID-19] wasn’t just impacting our peoples’ work lives, there were so many things happening in their personal lives, too. We’ve had a lot of employees who lost elderly parents and loved ones during COVID.
“There were so many balls we had to juggle from a leadership and people perspective. Knowing I had the support and backing of my MD and the trust and respect of the senior leadership team… meant we became very agile in our decision making.”
Positional versus social influence
Influence isn’t synonymous with positional power. Even a leader’s influence is fragile.
In her research paper, Bohns makes an interesting point in saying “followers confer legitimacy on their leaders, and if a leader fails to meet [their] followers’ expectations, this legitimacy can be revoked along with the leader’s influence”. So while those sitting at the hierarchical peaks may perceive themselves as influential, that doesn’t mean others feel the same way about them.
Instead, social influence is what drives a lot of progression in workplaces and society at large. It’s this type of influence that HR professionals can be taking advantage of.
Bohns points to separate research which suggests peer-to-peer influence (social influence) can actually be more powerful than leadership-led influence, especially when faced with an ambiguous situation.
After studying two employee groups in an advertising agency, the researchers found that our impression of our colleagues’ ethical behaviours was the strongest predictor of our own tendencies to engage in unethical acts at work, such as taking a sick day, concealing errors and padding expense accounts.
“In fact, employees’ beliefs about what their peers thought was a better predictor of their unethical behaviours than their beliefs about what their bosses and agencies thought of these transgressions,” Bohns and Flynn note.
There’s a flip side to that too. If we know our peers are engaging in ethical behaviours, such as caring for the environment, we’re more likely to follow suit.
McPherson says HR leaders need to think about those in their team who don’t have positional power or exposure to executives. How can you help them increase their level of influence?
“Less experienced HR professionals often sit in on business meetings and are asked to share HR insights or updates – they have a spot on the agenda but don’t necessarily influence decisions. However, if they’re given guidance and coaching, and develop trusting and respectful relationships [with executives], they can truly become HR business partners.”
Bohns says this kind of bottom-up influence is more prevalent than we think.
“We also tend to forget that bosses and people in positions of power have the same concerns as other people: they want to be liked and respected, and they worry about letting the people who depend on them down. That gives subordinates a lot of influence, which they tend to overlook and underestimate.”
For those struggling to influence upwards, Patel suggests helping leaders to see the bigger picture and consider their place within it.
“When your influence is only seen through your actions, sometimes it’s a good idea to benchmark against other people, like your competitors, in order for the executives to hear what you’re saying.
“You might not always have the power to do something, but you can talk about benchmarking and spotlight what other companies are doing. That gets powerful people to listen.”
Maintaining your influence
To maintain their influence, Patel says HR professionals need to be prepared with data-backed advice for the executive team.
“You can do monthly or fortnightly surveys of your people and just keep that data on you so you can help others [the executive team] understand how employees are coping in general. These things can be easily quantified, and they bring credibility to the HR profession,” she says.
“I always say one thing to the HR directors I work with: get evidence. You don’t have to pay millions to consultancies. You don’t have to go to McKinsey, you are your own McKinsey. Get your people together. Get valid scales and survey items. Do interviews with your people to know what they want and how they want it.”
Don’t present a bunch of data to the executive team without a strategy for using it, Patel adds.
“You need to sit down and analyse why the data looks the way it does and what interventions might be necessary.”
Looking forward, McPherson says it’s important HR remains involved in these influential conversations.
Leadership teams will also be looking to HR to validate what the future of work will look like and what the parameters should be.
“While the data will inform some of our decision-making, we need to look at our leadership behaviours and challenge our ‘pre-COVID’ mindsets. I think while we are in COVID everyone has been trusted because there’s been no alternative. Once we go back to this new normal, however, where people may not want to commute two hours a day to work, for example, how are managers able to deal with that?”
There’s a lot of responsibility sitting on HR right now; businesses are asking for a lot. But remember that this is a watershed moment for the people management department.
You have the chance to tear down archaic systems and redesign workplaces that centre the human experience. You can create new norms, implement cutting-edge processes technologies and shift executives’ priorities in the right direction.
So how will you grab this opportunity with both hands?
Think about the lessons gleaned from this crisis, design a clear, data-backed plan and then start putting your influencing power to the test.
This article first appeared in the December/January 2021 edition of HRM magazine.
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