When Trying To Influence Others, Start With Yourself
Updated: Mar 27
(Originally published in Forbes.)
Influence is a non-negotiable skill in leadership and business. Influence is how you get things done in flatter, less hierarchical organizations, and it also can be a key element to advancing your career. And while most leaders appreciate the importance of influence, many have mindsets and self-limiting beliefs that get in the way of their ability to influence.
Much has been written about the key principles of influence, which are important to understand. But unless you also identify and adjust the mindsets that limit you, learning influence models and skills likely won’t get you as far as you want. When it comes to influence, as in many domains, improving your inner game can enable and amplify a positive shift in your outer game — how you show up and the results you achieve.
Working as an executive coach has given me visibility into common mindsets and internal barriers that can get in the way of developing greater influence. Do you recognize any of these in yourself?
• I don’t want to play office politics. Many people find office politics distasteful, and I'm not suggesting you play. Influence is about building and leveraging relationships for mutual benefit; it’s about getting your voice heard and driving an agenda that is good not just for you but also for others. Playing political games, on the other hand, is often about individual rewards, is Machiavellian in nature and can be a destructive force. Are you putting influence and politics in the same bucket in your mind? If so, your aversion to politics and players could be getting in the way of you taking the steps necessary to develop greater influence. To move past this barrier, try to see and believe in this distinction. If you have an agenda that would ultimately benefit the greater good, influence is a high road that can take you there.
• Great work should speak for itself. This belief often comes up in the context of influence and career advancement more generally. And unfortunately, it’s not always the case. Believing that working hard is all you need and should have to do may not get you the results you want. As noted by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith in How Women Rise, this attitude often results from faulty either/or thinking (either I'm an obnoxious showboat or I'm not). However, there are many shades of gray between these two extremes, and it's important to develop the ability to speak to the value of your accomplishments and ideas. Early on in your career, hard work may be enough, but as you rise in the ranks, it's often overall results that matter, and cultivating strong relationships and internal advocates can be critical to your success.
• What’s the point? I’m not part of the inner circle. This disempowered feeling can feel especially true if you aren’t clear on the inner workings and unwritten rules that govern how things get done in your organization. If this murkiness is familiar, study how decisions are made: What’s the process? Who’s involved? What do the most successful people in your organization do?
What sometimes underlies "What's the point?" defeatist thinking is fear of failure. To override your concerns, step back and assess: What’s the worst thing that could happen if you try to change something? Next, use an organizational chart to identify the key relationships you could initiate and deepen. Get started one person at a time. Trust is a critical component of influence, and it can take a sustained effort over time to build and solidify trusting relationships.
• I’m not good at influencing. Fortunately, influence is a skill that can be learned. Like all complex skills, it usually requires practice, time and experience to master, but almost everyone can enhance their ability to influence. Influence is the confluence of many other attributes, including empathy, executive presence, organizational awareness, resolve and the ability to build trust. Engage a trusted colleague or coach to conduct an honest inventory of your strengths and weaknesses, and home in on where you should focus your development efforts. Your authenticity can be a critical aspect of influence, but thinking about someone at your company who is influential outside of their direct authority can provide food for thought: What are they doing that you’re not?
Two other internal barriers that can get in the way of increasing your influence can also be addressed with a shift in your thinking:
1. Myopic thinking: If you're too focused on your needs and agenda and fail to see the world through the eyes of those you seek to influence, your efforts may be doomed. This is the classic “What’s in it for me?” situation. People often do things for their own reasons, not yours, and you may need to be able to explain to others how they could benefit from helping you. Shift your focus to understanding others’ interests, motivations and pain points — only then can you effectively address them in your appeal for their support.
2. Having a win-lose mentality: Described in detail by Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford in Influence Without Authority, influence is about give and take, and you usually have to give in order to take. The very nature of influence is about exchange and mutual benefit — providing something the other values in return for something you need or desire. Mutually beneficial relationships are the foundation of influence and often require compromise. Your commitment to finding a win-win can be essential to laying the groundwork for success.
Growing your influence can require playing the long game. Influencing others is a complex skill that may take time to master, but it can be critical for gaining buy-in for your ideas and advancing your career. Identifying and letting go of the mindsets and internal barriers that may limit your efforts to influence can be essential to your growth in this capacity, and a great place to start your journey.