Emerging management trends and flattened organizational cultures mean more and more managers have little or no formal authority over their team members. This means that anything you want me to do, you have to persuade me.
In traditional project management, the arts of influence and persuasion are a core skill set precisely due to the lack of direct authority inherent in the profession. A variety of best practices have emerged from the field as a result, and the good news is anyone can learn these practices when they need to lead but don’t quite have the authority to do so.
How to Be Influential
Most of us have developed a facility with structured, logical thinking that allows us to easily create a credible and coherent argument for what we plan to do. But have you noticed that being right is rarely enough to persuade someone? Analytical reasoning is merely a starting point for influencing team members, stakeholders and project sponsors.
A large part of your influence lies in your day-to-day actions, your attitudes, and your approach. If people are to follow your lead, they will need to like and respect you, which means your actions must carry your convictions and integrity with them all of the time.
Start with the absolute basics: courtesy and respectfulness. It costs nothing to be polite, but you will be surprised how much difference it makes in a world where many stressed-out managers have short tempers and feign entitlement to the loyalty of their teams and the support of their stakeholders. A generous attitude is also a valuable asset. People remember favors and simple concessions and you may be surprised how powerful the “I’ve scratched your back…” principle can be in building loyalty.
But above all, our sense of fairness means that you absolutely must ensure that you follow through on any promises or commitments you make. To not do so would invite a reciprocal approach from others and your influence will drop to zero as people will no longer trust you to keep your word.
Your attitude to your project and your team will be tested throughout. Primarily you should be cultivating the kind of attitudes that people find attractive and lead them to want to follow you. While people respect calm detachment and a realistic assessment of the situation, they are drawn to optimism. So if you can find your own way to balance these two attitudes, you can win both respect and liking.
Tenacity is another character trait that we both like and respect, but again, a dogmatic attitude to constant repetition will undermine your reputation, but robust adaptability will leave stakeholders and team members willing to follow your lead.
A Choice of Approaches
Ultimately the question of what sort of project manager you are will come down to the approach you take to influencing people. The three approaches we commonly see can be characterized as “the Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” and I am sure you have met them all in the course of your career.
- The Bad is that style of influence that depends solely on assertion. Some managers seem as though they cannot help themselves but coerce and compel actions with either the promise of great rewards or the threat of some kind of sanctions. Clearly, celebrating success and small appropriate team incentives are a vital part of good project management. But when the promises are hollow and the threats get personal, there is only one name for this behavior: bullying.
- The Ugly Some managers are far more subtle. They make you feel as though you want to do something for them but, at the same time, you don’t feel good about it. Often, you cannot put your finger on what feels wrong, and this is a sure sign that you have been the victim of manipulation.
- The Good influence has total integrity. You offer genuine choice, and people accept your ideas and act as you ask, because they want to. You have made your case and they feel good about supporting you. Often, when people feel this kind of loyalty to a positively influential colleague, they will do even more than was asked. Investing over the long-term in your reputation as a generous, respectful, and optimistic leader, who perseveres sensibly and addresses their own commitments consistently, is perhaps the best professional investment you can make.
Ten Persuasion Tactics
No matter how positively influential you are, it always helps to have a few handy persuasion tips up your sleeve, so here are ten of my personal favorites from my book.
The “Your Doctor would Tell you to…” Principle
Why do we trust doctors and follow their advice? We trust them because we know that they have had years of relevant training and experience. Well so have you. As a manager you have gained the scars and war stories, and will also have access to the experience and knowledge of your senior team members and experts. When you deploy these together, you have a massive level of credibility. Wear it lightly, but do ensure the people you need to persuade are aware of it.
The “Jiminy Cricket” Effect
Do you recall that in the movie, Jiminy Cricket was appointed to be Pinocchio’s conscience? You, me and most everyone has a Jiminy Cricket organ – a part of our brains that makes us feel bad if we are about to break or promise or renege on a commitment. The most important part of triggering the Jiminy Cricket effect is to secure a clear commitment, and the more prominent it is, then the stronger the effect will be.
Look them in the eye and ask for their commitment. Step up the effect by doing it in a formal setting and, better still, in front of other colleagues. Amplify it to the max by doing it in writing. Then, courteously remind them of their commitment two or three times in the run-up to your deadline.
The “Eight out of Ten Cat Owners” Principle
In my childhood, a UK TV advert asserted that “Eight out of ten cat owners, who expressed a preference, said their cat prefers…” Why did this advert work? Well, despite loving their pets, few cat or dog owners taste their pet’s food. So how do they know what to buy? But, if other loving pet owners have made their choice, then perhaps the safest option is to go with their judgment. This is known as social proof and, where the stakes are low and we think we are like the crowd, then we feel good doing what they do. It saves making a decision for ourselves.
The “Follow Me” Effect
People like to follow crowds, and leaders too. So, if you show enough confidence in yourself, and confidently expect people to follow, they often will. Leading from the front or role model leadership is a powerful persuader. Often, the most powerful way to deploy this is to not even ask, just do.
The “WAM” Principle
WAM stands for “What about me?” This is the most basic persuader of all: self-interest. Where you can properly align your request with my self-interest, I will comply readily. So put yourself in other people’s shoes and ask, “What’s in it for you?” When you understand the answer, you will have the basis for easy motivation and persuasion. This is the fundamental approach to the influence aspect of stakeholder engagement.
The “Who are You to Tell Me?” Principle
Without the WAM factor, there is almost always one thing you need to establish before you try to persuade anyone of anything: “Who are you to tell me?”
We want to know the credentials of anyone who is trying to persuade us. Can we trust them? Do they understand our position? Do they know what they are talking about? Are they one of us? Watch any halfway competent professional politician and you will see that they spend more of their time on these aspects of persuasion than they do on mounting their argument for any particular policy or position. And the reason is simple: if they fail to establish their character and credibility, we won’t listen to anything else.
The “Structured Response” Effect
When you make your argument, you must make it in as clear and concise a way as possible. The more confusing you are, the less I’ll be persuaded. The more you repeat yourself, the lower your influence will be. So take care to structure your advocacy or responses with a clear context, point of view, and reason.
The “Why Should I Care?” Principle
People rarely make their choices based on facts and logic. What we do is decide based on our emotional response to the situation, and then use the analysis and evidence that you give us, to justify our choice – both to others and to ourselves. As an influencer and persuader, you neglect the emotional dimension at your peril. It is simply not true that emotions have no place in management.
The “Welcome the Ah but…” Principle
Managers fear resistance from the team members and stakeholders. But in truth, it’s a good thing. It means you are getting genuine engagement with your ideas. Listen to it, because you may just learn something. But if you believe you are right, the simple strategy is always to keep inviting every last objection. When you’ve dealt with them all; when you’ve “emptied the hopper,” then there will be no resistance left.
The “Make ’em Feel Smart” Principle
Most managers and all of the experts and specialists on your projects are smart—very smart. And you all have a tendency to show this off and use long words, jargon and even formulae to prove it. Wrong! People won’t trust you if they don’t fully understand you. And if they don’t trust you, they won’t do or think as you ask. You will fail to persuade them. On the other hand, if they think they understand deeply because you have explained clearly, in simple terms, with analogies, pictures and simple lists, then they will feel smart, they will trust you, and they will say to themselves “Yes, that’s right. I get it.”
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