You Can be More Powerful Than You Think

December 5, 2017 Allen Cohen

people-coffee-tea-meeting.jpgIncreasingly, gaining sufficient power and influence is a challenge for everyone who works. We need the knowledge, skills, permission, connections or resources from individuals or groups in order to complete work assigned to us or that we believe really important. Yet it is inevitable that many of those whose help we need do not have to cooperate—or even respond.

That leads to many forms of often ineffective attempts to influence: polite requests, the same request in a louder voice, false friendliness, bluffing or bullying, trying to enlist higher-ups, name-calling (overt or covert) or giving up in desperation.

But it turns out that there is a universal underlying process to all influence that you and everyone else knows, but somehow forgets or can’t execute when the other party refuses, doesn’t know you, has a bad relationship with you or your group or has conflicting objectives.

All influence is based on reciprocity and exchange. People allow themselves to be influenced because they believe that in some way, in some reasonable length of time, they will receive something of roughly equal value back for what is being asked. It is as simple – and complex – as that. Complex because:

  • in execution, the prior relationship and the one expressed during the transaction matters
  • people often value different things (we call them currencies as a metaphor due to the exchange going on) and it can be hard to assess how much what each side offers and values is worth
  • although everyone values several different currencies there may be no compatibility between what the two parties care about
  • the process of exchange can be implicit or explicit depending on the relationship and the culture of the organization in which people are functioning.

Because so much of everyday influence is automatic, when people get stuck they often resort to self-defeating irritation and stereotyping of the other person or group, which dramatically decreases the possibility of influencing them. But stopping to figure out what the other party really cares about and how to give them some of that in return for what you want, can dramatically increase your influence.

Here is an actual (slightly disguised) example. Vishwas was asked to lead a product development task force from his West Coast office. He had to collaborate with an Eastern group. He was friendly with that group’s leader, Tarun, but as meetings proceeded he found that Tarun seemed to become increasingly competitive, and as Vishwas saw it, was trying to undermine him by constantly claiming credit for more of the work. His instinct was to plot revenge of some kind. But he learned about reciprocity and exchange, decided to step back and ask what currencies Tarun seemed to be aiming for. It struck him that Tarun was driven by seeking recognition, exactly what Vishwas was plotting to deny him.

After a virtual meeting in which Tarun proclaimed—accurately as it turned out—that he and his group had made an important contribution to solving the problem they were working on, Vishwas gulped hard and acknowledged the terrific work. To his relief, the competitive behavior began to diminish, and with a few more public acknowledgments from Vishwas, collaboration and warmth increased. A potential disaster was averted. It doesn’t always happen so fast, but shifting to a partnership mindset and when possible giving what is wanted, not just insisting on what you want, is the core of influence.

In hindsight, the solution seems obvious, but think about the times you have been frustrated or furious at trying to influence someone whose cooperation you needed but couldn’t get. What currencies did they value? Could you have found a way to “pay” in those currencies and would it have made a difference? Making win-win exchanges increases your influence and power.

Learn more from Influence Without Authority, now in its third edition.

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