No matter what role you play in change, the ability to influence others is essential to your success. Influence is something that is earned over time—it’s rare to walk into a situation where you are automatically granted the power to make things happen just by saying so.
Think about someone who is able to influence you: if they ask or suggest that you do something, you’re likely to do it without question, even if it sounds a little crazy. Where did that trusted relationship come from? How did it develop over time? I’d like to suggest that two forces are at play, and that they represent strategies you can consciously apply to build your influence with leaders, peers, and others.
Strategy 1: Understanding and Leveraging Influence Criteria
Whether we are aware of it or not, each of us uses a set of filters to determine what information to pay attention to. Sometimes these filters are logical (for example, making sure your’re getting news from a credible source) and sometimes they are illogical (for example, listening more closely to people you find more attractive). Sometimes they focus on the content of a communication (is the information well-documented and presented clearly?) and sometimes they focus on aspects of the communicator (gender? age? accent? graduate degree? attire?). Even though it’s not fair, something about you that is totally unrelated to the value of your message might reduce the likelihood that you will be heard. I remember working with a leader who paid way more attention to a colleague with gray hair and pants (i.e. an older guy) than to me, (at that time a young female) even when we were saying the same thing. It was frustrating, but it was real.
You can increase your influence by:
1. Learning as much as you can about the conscious and unconscious filters used by the person you seek to influence. How do they like to receive communication? How do they process information? Do they have informal criteria that appear to carry weight with them, such as how someone dresses or what school they went to?
2. Crafting your messages to fit their preferences. Do they want the headline first or do they prefer to be led to the conclusion? Do they like images? Stories? Data? Do they care more about financial results or human impact? Do they prefer informal discussions or formal presentations?
3. Presenting yourself effectively. To the extent you can do so without being inauthentic, make sure that you emphasize elements of your personal characteristics and style that align with their filters. This may mean dressing up, tailoring your language and vocabulary, making sure they are aware of any affiliations or interests you share, or some other way of adapting your persona to the situation.
Strategy 2: Building Idiosyncracy Credits
The second strategy increases your level of influence by stretching the size of “leaps” you can ask people to take. When someone doesn’t know you, it’s unlikely that you can get them to try something uncomfortable or difficult. However, if someone trusts you a great deal, you can often get them to take higher levels of risk and try something that is farther outside their comfort zone.
The term “idiosyncracy credits” was coined in 1958 by social psychologist Edwin Hollander. He used it to describe the amount of latitude people have to deviate from others’ expectations. Someone with a lot of credit can do or say things that are outside of the norm without being rejected or devalued. In the context of change, this means that people are more likely to allow you to invite them down an uncertain or unfamiliar path.
You can build your supply of idiosyncracy credits by:
1. Fulfilling expectations. You start building these credits by fitting within the expectations of the individuals or groups you wish to influence, doing what you say you will do and accumulating positive impressions.
2. Making small moves that deliver results. Take actions or make requests that represent small departures from norms or expectations, ensuring that the results are positive. For example, you might model a new behavior related to a culture change, or request that someone else engage in an unfamiliar activity, making sure you choose something that will have a benefit to the people involved.
3. Slowly increasing the size of your requests. As you build a track record of successes, you increase your available credits, giving you the ability to make larger and more challenging requests. Over time, you can earn the right to ask people to take innovative and creative leaps with you, allowing you and your organization to create significant change.
These two strategies work together well. The first one helps you get started by understanding the people you wish to influence and presenting your ideas in ways that are more likely to be heard and valued. The second enables you to systematically increase your level of influence by meeting expectations and creating value. In combination, they can help you become significantly more influential over time.
[This article was first published at Change Management Review.]