How to Influence in Fear, Chaos, and Uncertainty

Woman laughing with others

How to Influence in Fear, Chaos, and Uncertainty (1 of 3)

by Dean Newlund, CEO

ANY LEADERSHIP development training would be incomplete if it didn’t address the ubiquitous question asked by managers near and far: How do I influence without authority? Leaders with authority influence differently than those with no authority. Most culture change consultants would agree employees will do a better job when they’re intrinsically motivated by something they desire than extrinsically inspired by something they fear.

Influencing with authority relies on the implied threat of what could happen. If I don’t do what my boss tells me to, I could lose my job. Remove authority from the influence-equation, and I do something because I want to. So, the real question we should be asking: How do we influence?

The first to attempt to answer this question in a business setting was Dale Carnegie in his 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence Others. Since then, there have been dozens of others who’ve attempted to ascend to the top of this Everest-of-Business questions: Steven Covey’s “seek first to understand before being understood” concept in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Thomas J. Leonard’s “Distinctionary” that helped popularize coaching as a leadership tool, Daniel Pink’s “autonomy, mastery and purpose” model in his book, Drive, to name a few.

As I stand on the shoulders of these – and other – great thought leaders, I will pull from my quarter-century of working as an executive coach, facilitator, and corporate culture consultant and attempt to provide a modern, useful and actionable framework of how to influence. I chose influence-strategies inspired by neuroscience and address the increasing rate of change and the demands to lead in in-person and virtual environments.

While the complete story of humankind can be summarized as “the struggle to influence”, I’ve developed a three-word model that addresses modern-day challenges and opportunities: Contract. Benefit. Agility.

Contract. A successful marriage, team, department, company, and even country need to answer these questions:

  • Why do we exist?
  • What roles does each person play?
  • What commitments do we make to one another?

Issues arise when people can’t answer those questions or don’t follow them. In business, this contract clarifies “The What.”

  • what is our purpose,
  • what are the essential roles,
  • what are the reporting lines?

And, a good contract answers “The How.”

  • How do we make decisions,
  • How do we build trust,
  • How do we resolve conflictHow do we respond to change?

The old saying “knowledge is power” is correct. When someone lacks clarity, they lack influence.

Team contracts. The issue of clarity and influence starts with the development of the company organizational chart. While it defines the reporting structure, the org chart is a map of the proportion and flow of influence.

Team members further down the organization chart often ask questions to gain clarity to increase their influence: “where are we going, how do we get there, what value am I creating, who’s making the decisions?”

This lack of clarity creates a culture of caution and fear because the sequence to build the team is out of order. A cook doesn’t pull together flour, eggs, water, nutmeg, and apples and wonders what she can bake. Instead, she decides she wants to make an apple pie, finds the necessary ingredients, and assigns the job of peeling apples to her kitchen helper. The cook defines the performance goal and works her way backward. In business, the sequence is all wrong.

We fail to build the necessary structure when building a team by over relying on teamwork behaviors. Jon Katzenbach, in his book, Wisdom of Teams, makes the argument that not all groupings of people in business are, let alone should be, a team. He suggests we should work our way backward from “why do we exist?” to the appropriate structure. For example, groups charged with a short-term, important performance goal (like a product launch) should be structured as a real or high-performance team. People in accounting that do the same process each month should be structure as a workgroup. Real teams and workgroups have their unique structure, size, and requirements.

Individual contracts at home. In a successful marriage, both people know why they are in the relationship, for example: to grow together, receive and express love, build a family. These marriages also clarify who does what and what roles are shared, for example: Making money for the family – both; Raising kids – both; Cooking – you; Planning travel – me; Home design – me; Yard work – you. Successful marriages also establish behavioral commitments that could include:

  • When one person is upset, the other will listen and ask only open-ended questions,
  • Both partners strive to see the best in the other person – even when the other person can’t,
  • Both agree to schedule time for the marriage, not just the kids.

Individual contracts at work. These contracts also exist in one-on-one relationships at work. If I’m in the marketing department working with a person from the products team, I can add much more value if I know our common goals, roles, and behavioral commitments, for example:

Common goal: to launch a new project that is appealing to our customer base,

Roles: You develop the product, and I help determine who our customers are and how they like to be communicated to.

Behavior commitments: During the design phase, we agree to freely brainstorm new ideas before we determine if any of them are viable.

Most of us are followers of others’ unconscious habits. We set up our teams the way our managers set up theirs. Without clarity and commitment, accountability is impossible. Confusion in a person engaged in their work creates frustration. How can I meet your expectations if I don’t understand my role and how it supports yours? Confusion in a person without motivation creates a reliable excuse. Why am I responsible for something you never clarified?

In next week’s blog, we’ll look at how the brain responds to influence. We’ll explore why the brain is five times more likely to see an effort by someone to influence us as a threat. We’ll learn how to by-pass the brain’s addiction to the negative by presenting information as a benefit.

Learn More