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Four Corners of Influence

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Aubrey Warren

During a panel discussion I hosted last year, one of the panelists reflected on what she called her "portrait gallery of leaders". It was a simple but vivid description that reminded us all about the way we store the memories of leaders (good, bad and indifferent). Some are painted in rich layers, with great detail and a sense of personal connection; others are a quick sketch. And of course whiile there are some we are happy to put on prominent display, there can be others best left in a cupboard!

When you think about your own portrait gallery of leaders - the people who have significantly influenced you and your development - each will be painted or drawn in different ways: unique strengths, personalities, styles and ways in which they influenced you. Each of the portraits, though, will probably be "framed" by some common ways in which they influenced you. I'd like to explore the idea that a portrait of effective influence is likely to be drawn within a frame of these four "corners":

Being present and attentive. The first and most powerful impression we make is through our presence. It seems kind of obvious, but visibility and presence - being around - is essential to credibility. "Credibility is gained in small quantities through physical presence," say Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it; Why people demand it (2011). "Leaders have to be physically present, they have to be visible, and they have to get close to their constituents to earn their respect and trust."

Of course, there's more to influencing than just "showing up" (although that is a necessary prerequisite). How we show up determines people's experience of us. The influencers whose portraits we recall most positively are likely to be the ones who give us their attention, who are "present" in the sense of making it clear they are with us in the moment, not just tolerating us scavenging a microsecond of their precious time. They are able to manage their own and others' attention "in the moments". It's foundational to the idea of our "example"; everyone who leads does so first and foremost by example - the only question is what that example is. And that is determined by how others experience our presence and our attention.

If we want to influence others we have to be able to frame our own and their attention. The challenge is in disciplining our minds and our behaviour so that we are able to be genuinely present with those we are with and focus our attention on them and the topic of conversation. Because it's only then that we can strengthen our influencing frame with the second corner ..

Encouraging input. The pressure to have answers sometimes blinds leaders to the need to seek the input required to get closer to the best answer, rather than the familiar one. Professor Sydney Finkelstein from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College studied "spectacularly unsuccessful" people in business - CEOs who have taken well known businesses and made them worthless. Their shared flaw? Having all the answers. "In a world where business conditions are constantly changing and innovations often seem to be the only constant, no one can 'have all the answers' for long. Leaders who are invariably crisp and decisive tend to settle issues so quickly that they have no opportunity to grasp the ramifications. Worse, because these leaders need to feel they already have all the answers, they have no way to learn new answers" (in Why Should Anyone Be Led By You, Goffee and Jones, 2006).

Encouraging others' input is of course dependent up being genuinely present and attentive. It's about "framing" an environment in which questions can be asked and explored, concerns aired and options debated. Beyond the cliché of an open door, productive input requires an open mind, open eyes, open ears. No doubt the leaders in your portrait gallery had the confidence, humility and inquisitiveness to actively encourage your input - in the process enriching their own knowledge as well as yours and the team's. With these two corners of our influencing frame in place we're in a stable place to bring the third corner into play:

Challenging people and processes. Openness to input helps frame an environment in which thinking, processes and assumptions can be challenged in productive ways. Think of the leaders in your portrait gallery and you'll almost certainly see the image of a someone whose influence successfully challenged you to do more, to go further, to stretch, to take a risk, to learn.

"All leaders challenge the process," say Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge (2007). "Leaders venture out ... But leaders aren't the only creators or originators of new products, services or processes. In fact, it's more likely they're not: innovation comes more from listening than from telling. Product and service innovations tend to come from customers, clients, vendors, people in the labs, and people on the front lines; process innovations from the people doing the work ... The leader's major contributions are in the creation of a climate for experimentation ... the willingness to challenge the system to get new products, processes, services, and systems adopted."

Productively framing positive challenges for people is, again, supported by the trust established through presence and attention, the confidence built through actively seeking input. These parts of the "influencing frame" allow for the robust and open conversations that strengthen individual, team and organisational performance.

"One of the best ways to recognize a cohesive team is the nature of its meetings, writes Patrick Lencioni in The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive (2000): "Passionate. Intense. Exhausting. Never boring. For cohesive teams, meetings are compelling and vital. They are forums for asking difficult questions, challenging one another's ideas, and ultimately arriving at decisions that everyone agrees to support and adhere to, in the bests interests of the company." That's because the leaders of these teams understand the need to provide a safe and secure frame that enables respectful, solution-focused challenges to thinking and processes - and one of the ways they sustain that framework is by ensuring the fourth corner of the influencing frame is in place...

Making people feel significant. Celebrating what's working well, giving recognition and expressing gratitude are behaviours that create vivid and memorable features in our portraits of influence. They bring out more of the best in people. The focus us on achievement, strength and success. And yet, this final corner of our influencing frame is too easily neglected in the haste to move onto new projects or become distracted by shortcomings and frustrations.

Martin Seligman's work on positive psychology highlights gratitude as one of the keys to a "flourishing" life. We all know the power that an expression of gratitude can have and yet, despite the fact it costs nothing and has no known negative side effects, too often positive reinforcement, thanks, appreciation and recognition go wanting. All for the want of a little focused attention and a few well chosen words.

"Followers want to feel significant," say Goffee and Jones. "In simple terms, they need recognition for their contribution. Social psychologists have made repeated pronouncements on this profound human need for recognition. So it is remarkable how often as individuals we seem to want it but not give it." They describe a number of leaders from different organisational cultures who made giving recognition and celebrating success a signature of their leadership, including the notoriously tough Jack Welch at GE who "was well known for his handwritten notes. He might thank a colleague for a job well done, or simply encourage them to greater efforts. But the point is that despite his colossal workload, Welch made the time to jot down a few well-chosen words of recognition ... Do you pay the same kind of attention to those that you wish to lead? Do you make them feel that what they are trying to achieve is important ...?" (Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?).

As you think about the portraits of effective influence and leadership in your own experience, you can probably relate to these four corners of the influencing frame. It's interesting to observe these everyday behaviours at work and see how they frame people's experience of those in influencing roles - and to see how the absence or weakness of one or more corners can hinder a leader's attempts to influence.

Of course, each of these corners is just as important to our own portrait of influence in the lives of those we work with. So it's worth thinking about which of the corners of the influencing frame we are most comfortable and effective with and which might deserve a little more attention. Because every day our efforts to influence others are framed by their experience of our presence and attention, how we encourage their input, the ways in which we constructively challenge them, and the recognition we give for the efforts they contribute.

Aubrey Warren Situational Leadership® Australia


The Leadership Challenge

Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it. Why people demand it

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