3 Critical Questions About Influence Every Aspiring Leader Should Be Asking
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
If you’re looking for an invite to “the table,” make sure you know how to effectively balance what you know, who you know, and how you’re known.
This article was originally published to Medium.com
Not too long ago, I sat down with a friend of mine who serves as a director within a small organization. Small as it may be, his team plays a major role in his organization’s overall success.
He came to me feeling a bit frustrated and looking for advice because he started to realize that he was being left out of key meetings. He didn’t understand why his senior leadership team wasn’t pulling on him more to speak into critical issues.
“I don’t mean to sound prideful,” he began. “But I’m the only person there who really knows and understands the project we’re working on. We’re going to end up spending a lot of money on things we don’t need, only to turn around and spend even more to get the things we actually need. I don’t want that to happen,” he said.
He wasn’t exactly wrong either. Due to the nature of his work, he was one of few directors in the organization who interfaced with all of the other departments on a regular basis. Humility aside, he really could save the organization a lot of heartache because he understood the organization’s technology footprint better than anyone else — and no one in the organization questioned that.
But, while his senior leadership team regularly tapped him to answer critical questions as they arose, they rarely trusted him to be in the room to ideate and strategize with them. So what was the disconnect, and why was it that he was being used as a type of consultant resource, but not as a trusted advisor?
To find out, I asked my colleague three questions, the answers to which would reveal his own influence gaps.
#1 What kind of resource am I? This is the first critical question that you should be asking when analyzing your own influence. Essentially, you are asking, “What do I bring to the table?” Understanding who you are as a resource can help you to determine the depth of your influence potential. Many leaders assume that their education, training, and experience make them an indispensable asset to their organization. In truth, it’s not what a leader knows that makes them valuable to their organization; it’s how they share that knowledge to empower and equip the people around them.
It is entirely possible that, while you see yourself as a valuable resource, others may only see you as a repository.
Said another way, you may have information and insight that is valuable to the room, but for various reasons, your peers may only pull on you sparingly. They may already know (or may think they know) what you know, they may not trust you fully, may lack access to you, or perhaps you fail to share your knowledge effectively. This is the challenge of measuring the uniqueness of your resource — your value proposition. If what you bring to the table is attainable from other people or means, then your influence will be significantly minimized.
#2 What kind of relationship do I have with the people in the room that I desire to be in? In the race for influence, competency competes with companionship. Chances are that you’ve seen this play out in different ways within your own organization. The harsh reality is that an incompetent but well-connected individual will almost always have more influence within an organization than an individual who is competent, but disconnected.
Competent people are seen as a repository of information, but it’s relational chemistry that determines if and how that repository gets tapped.
It is no mystery that leaders trust and lean on people they know, especially when seeking advice for critical issues and matters of high consequence. This is because relationships allow feelings of loyalty, confidence, and security to develop. It’s those feelings of like-ability that maximize influence in a room. This is why the second critical question you should ask yourself when assessing your influence concerns your relationships.
Keep in mind that this may extend beyond the professional realm and into the personal. Having some shared experiences and rapport outside of the board room will increase your influence inside the board room. You don’t necessarily have to have a close relationship with everyone in the room, but you should at least be able to relate to most of the people in the room.
Additionally, don’t overlook the role that titles, position, power, and authority play in defining professional relationships, and how those relationships impact influence. Studies have revealed convincing evidence to support the obedience to authority that occurs in the presence of powerful and authoritative figures (Cialdini, 2009). For organizations enjoying increasingly flat and decreasingly hierarchical management structures, a popular assertion is that titles don’t matter. In reality, honor and respect surrounding titles and prestige significantly impact influence.
Accordingly, it may be beneficial to explore how your organization’s culture is shaped by this dynamic of power distance and leadership structure.
#3 How am I known? What is the story others tell themselves about me? Reputation is dual-faceted and can be considered both active and passive.
On the active side, reputation is directly shaped by your actions and behaviors; your body of work. Are you consistent, reliable, collaborative? Are you divisive or cynical? Are you assertive or aggressive, loud or passive, complex or simple? Active reputation is the culmination of your very essence as a person and includes your character and personality, along with consideration for your ability to demonstrate emotional and social intelligence. Active reputation is all about how other people experience you.
On the passive side, reputation is shaped by your network and your affiliations. For example, someone may consider you simply because you are a member of a particular professional association, or they may hire you solely on the basis of the college you graduated from. They may do this even if they have not fully evaluated or vetted your individual capabilities. Heuristic cues like these work overtime to dictate the story that people tell themselves about you.
You cannot control your reputation because it doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the people who maintain a subjective opinion about you.
A strong reputation can be a huge catalyst for building rapport and shaping influence, but a tarnished one can be an immovable obstacle. It can stir up feelings of admiration, pride, and affection in some instances, or feelings of distrust and disdain in others.
As a result of knowing this, the third question you should ask yourself is, “How am I known.” This has less to do with who you know, and more to do with how others know you and who they know you to be.
Challengingly, perception is reality. While you should never allow the judgments, criticisms, and labels from others to define you, you would be wise to understand that someone else’s perception of you may differ greatly from your own perspective of yourself.
Even though you cannot directly control the outcomes of your interactions with others, you can control what you input. Be diligent to ensure that you refrain from doing or saying anything that might cause your character to come into question. This will serve to minimize harm to your reputation, and may even earn you some reputational equity that can be useful in the event of a reputational challenge.
By the end of my conversation with my friend, we were able to determine exactly where his influence gaps were. This short exercise allowed him to see that, despite being a relatively high resource to his organization, his relationship and reputational shortcoming were negatively impacting his influence.
Armed with this knowledge and a desire to improve his influence and leadership presence, he no longer has to ask why he’s left out of rooms or how to get into them. For his part, he now knows that a solid effort in cultivating and maintaining positive relationships will undoubtedly lead to a steady increase in his reputation, and as a consequence, his influence.
Have you overcome resource, relationship, or reputational challenges in order to earn a seat at the influencer's table? I want to hear from you! Give yourself a shoutout, and leave a comment below explaining how you did it!
References: Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice (5th ed.). Harlow, Essex: Pearson
Ryan Dunlap is a conflict strategist and the founder of Conflictish, a conflict strategy consultancy dedicated to helping leaders navigate all of the 'ish that comes with conflict. From tarnished rapport to hellish attitudes to sluggish performance, Conflictish helps leaders get 'ish done.