How to build influence in your job

Even small steps can make a big difference to how your colleagues perceive you.
“It's not enough to have a bright idea, you have to get all the right people in the boat with you.” Sophie Vandebroek, chief technology officer at Xerox, was speaking about that crucial commodity in the workplace – influence. Difficult to define, even harder to know if you have it, becoming influential at work takes time, energy and some second-guessing. But here are some tips from the experts on how to achieve it.
The first step is obvious: making time to help those around you can also deliver personal dividends. People won’t cooperate with you if you’ve got a track record of saying no. But there are ways to magnify the impact of getting stuck in with your colleagues and their work. Robert Cialdini, professor at Arizona State University and president of the consulting firm Influence at Work, suggests reinforcing your willingness to be a committed member of the team. When asked for help, say something like “of course – it’s what colleagues do for each other”, rather than just “that’s no problem!”, he says. It may sound cheesy, but it could just work.
Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger, writing for the Harvard Business Review (HBR), point out that most leaders try to present themselves as strong and hyper-competent. But projecting strength before establishing trust can elicit fear, they warn. They cite a study into 51,836 leaders, which found that “the chances that a manager who is strongly disliked will be considered a good leader are only about one in 2,000”.
But what does this mean for building influence at work? The authors highlight an apparently growing body of research, which suggests that leaders prioritise “warmth” – the “conduit of influence”. It doesn’t need to be complicated. “Even a few small nonverbal signals – a nod, a smile, an open gesture – can show people you’re pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns.”
Listening is far more important than people care to admit, but doing it well is also difficult. A recent article in the HBR described it as business’s greatest unused potential. “People in general do not know how to listen,” the authors argued. And while everybody knows that being silver-tongued has its benefits, talking isn’t the only – or necessarily the best – way to build influence.
So how can you do it better? There are some broad and obvious rules: minimise distractions when you’re talking to someone, don’t interrupt (too much), don’t try to top the speaker’s story (even if your trip to New York was much more exciting). But being a good listener doesn’t just mean passively taking information in. Through well-chosen questions, there are ways to introduce your own ideas into the conversation.
Mark Twain once said that he could “live for two months on a good compliment.” And in their book Interpersonal Attraction, Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Walster use experimental data to determine why being nice to others works so well. They show that making positive remarks about someone’s personal traits, attitude and performance generates liking and compliance, in turn building your influence with that person.
But nobody likes insincere praise. While Cialdini argues that a heartful compliment can both “charm and disarm”, if your sentiment is empty, it’s only likely to backfire. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, says that most deceitful praise can be spotted a mile off – leading to alienation rather than influence.
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