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Career Skills: How to Influence Your Colleagues

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“The most important capacity you possess is the capacity to influence other people to change their behavior.”—Joseph Grenny, addressing the 2010 World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. According to Grenny, all leaders face two key problems:

  1. What should we do? (A problem of leadership or strategy)
  2. How do I get everyone to do it? (A problem of influence)

Making the point that most businesses tend to focus on the first point—the strategy—Grenny pointed out the need to spend more time on the second, and devoted the bulk of his address to it. He explained his rationale via a concept he calls Grenny’s Law of Leadership: “There is no strategy so brilliant that people can’t render it worthless.”

While it provided a lighthearted moment, the law also encapsulates a serious reality: that the real challenge for leaders is not in devising strategies, but in influencing people to execute on them. Grenny points out that most people faced with a challenge of influence believe that “one thing will propel change”—whether that’s an incentive, a persuasive argument or simply an order. Throughout his years studying influencers, however—during which he co-authored the book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything—Grenny has identified six sources of influence that are crucial for anyone considering that question of how they can influence others to change their behavior. And he stresses that the best influencers manage to tap all six sources at some level:

  1. Make the undesirable desirable
  2. Surpass your limits
  3. Harness peer pressure
  4. Find strength in numbers
  5. Design rewards and demand accountability
  6. Change the environment

Unfortunately, Grenny had rather a lot of information to squeeze into the time allotted him, and he was only able to fully expand on a couple of the points above. Most notably, he suggested that a solution to overcoming the first influence is to “connect people with the human or moral consequences of their actions”—and to do so by “storytelling.” As an example, he pointed to New York uber-restaurateur Danny Meyer, whose focus on customer service is fast becoming the stuff of legend. But Meyer didn’t get his thousands of employees to buy into the concept simply by decree, says Grenny. Rather, he tells stories at company meetings of how exceptional service profoundly impacted the experience of customers at his restaurants, and encourages other employees to make a similar difference.

Grenny also made an illuminating point about the power of social influence. Illustrating this, he discussed an experiment to get more people to pay their taxes in Minnesota. That experiment saw three different messages printed on the top of tax forms, encouraging people to pay—one threatening punishment for non-payment, one telling people where their tax dollars were being spent, and the other thanking people for joining the 80 percent of the population paying their taxes. The message that had the greatest effect? The one that placed a social pressure on people, by suggesting that if they didn’t pay, they’d be in the minority.

While he didn’t have time to focus on any of the other points he raised, Grenny did leave the audience with one striking stat: that those who use six sources of influence to change personal habits (to stop smoking, for example) are four times more likely to succeed. In a business setting—when using the tactics to effect changes at an organizational level—the level of success rises to ten times more likely.

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Written by Phil Stott

October 7, 2010 at 3:42 pm

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