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Thought Leadership

Influencing In Uncertainty

A businessman speaking to a small group of businesspeople.

Influencing others is often difficult. You might need to persuade a key colleague, over whom you have no authority, to take an action you need to be successful. Perhaps you need support for your team from a busy decision-maker. Or you need to secure budget from a higher authority in order for your innovative idea to move forward.

Enter COVID-19. Suddenly, many of the influencing tools used to affect outcomes were thrown into question. What has changed about the other party? Will tactics used previously to influence them still work? If not, what needs to change? Even if an old approach would still work, will using it in these unprecedented times damage an important relationship?

UNC Professor Alison Fragale offers unique insights to navigate these challenges. Alison, who honed her influencing skills as a consultant for McKinsey, is widely published on topics such as influence and negotiation and frequently teaches these skills to executive audiences. She argues that there are several universal truths about influence that are still valid in uncertain times.

  • Our ability to influence someone else is often highly reliant on our relationship with them. To influence someone, we need to know what is important to them and carefully consider what is the most effective means to communicate with them.
  • We must help the other person see how what we propose benefits them. And we need to have a plan for doing this, rather than reacting in the moment.
  • We can anticipate and overcome resistance to our case through a strategy of offering multiple options to the person we want to influence.

Alison offers three strategies to capitalize on these timeless truths.

Choose your medium

With COVID-19 vastly reducing our ability to influence in a face-to-face way, as President Lyndon Johnson famously did with his “Johnson Treatment,” we have to think more than ever about our medium. Should we use email? Videoconference? A social media post? An old-fashioned phone call?

“Above all, avoid trying to influence by email,” advises Alison. “That only works if people love you or they hate you,” she explains. “Email removes the other person’s ability to hear our tone and understand intent, which leads to miscommunication. I have heard it said that 80% of emails are written to clarify a previous email.”

While phone calls are better than email, Alison suggests video calls are best. But those have their own challenges. “We have to be conscious of ‘Zoom fatigue’ and also be aware of where our eyes are looking,” she says. “If you are looking down or off to the side, let the other person know why – that you are taking notes or that you actually have their video feed in a different place from your camera. Paraphrase and repeat what they are saying to show you are listening.”

Regardless of medium, Alison reminds us to take time to build rapport and to show that you are listening, especially with people outside your organization whom you are just getting to know. “Seize opportunities to find points of genuine commonality with the other person, whether it is where you went to school or where you have worked. People like to talk to people with whom they have something in common. After building rapport, try to not ask for a favor too soon. Make a lot of relationship deposits before you make a withdrawal.”

Another way to build rapport is humor – when used wisely. “Humor helps others like us and want to help us,” says Alison. “But be very careful. Know your audience – an attempt to be funny that backfires can put you in a hole which will be hard to leave.”

Choose your mindset

Anxiety is possibly higher now than ever. When we are anxious, we might act in ways that limit our ability to influence. For example, when having a budget conversation with a superior about our proposed initiative in the context of recessionary pressures, we might be reluctant to ask for the full funding we need to succeed.

Alison counsels those feeling uneasy to seek information and stay aspirational. “Do not make assumptions,” she says. “Ask multiple targeted questions to uncover what the other party needs from you, what they care about, and then craft your message to that. Do not give up on your aspirations, but pursue them in a data-driven way which brings objective, compelling facts to make your case. Research clearly demonstrates that those who focus on their aspirational goals perform better than those who focus on their bare minimum.”

For instance, in the above situation, your superior might be focused on seizing opportunities for revenue growth rather than on cost-cutting. If they see the connection between their priority and your initiative, they could be more supportive of funding than you thought. But if you do not ask questions to reveal this, you are less likely to receive the support you need.

Alison also advises to be aware of the role power and status plays in your ability to influence. If the person you are trying to influence perceives that they have more power than you – that you depend more on them than they depend on you for resources such as money, access to other people, and information – that greatly influences your ability to influence them. Status is another source of influence. It is the extent to which you are respected, admired, and valued by other people. It usually cannot be taken from you; it is what people believe about you.

Choose your strategy

Perhaps the most powerful strategy Alison offers is backed by recent research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. When trying to influence someone, propose multiple solutions at one time that you are indifferent to them choosing between, rather than one solution at a time. “People like having options,” she says. “This makes people not feel boxed in and relaxes them, which often will make them more open to your suggestions.”

Finally, Alison provides some unique advice in these times when the old playbook for influencing does not seem to fit and doubts about our choices are overwhelming us. When in doubt, assume positive intent. “When I err on that side, I have never regretted it,” she observes. “Not only does it feel good, but it has yielded great business results for me: loyal allies, a reputation as a principled decision-maker, and the ability to ‘call in a favor’ down the line.”

Making your Influencing less uncertain

While influencing others is always a complex challenge, these ideas can provide a structure to reduce your uncertainty and increase your success in these uniquely trying times.

  • Ask multiple targeted questions to discover what matters to the other party.
  • Keep in mind the role of power and status in your interactions.
  • Invest time to build rapport.
  • Choose your communication medium carefully.
  • Give the other party multiple options.
  • Remember the power of humor – used wisely.
  • When in doubt, assume positive intent, which can be a powerful tool in building strong, long-term relationships.