Do You Want Influence or Control?

Have you ever thought about the amount of influence you have in life? While I would argue that you have mountains of influence and you need to harness it to work for you, I am going to guess that most of us don’t think a whole lot about it until we feel like we’re not able to influence a situation. Often we get to a situation, big or small, where we are trying to steer it in a certain direction and feel as though we can’t. In those moments we reach for control. If you’re in a leadership position this can be the turning point of when you stop leading and start managing because you have to use your position, title, or authority to get people to do what you need them to do. If you’re not in a leadership role, and you don’t feel like you can control the situation, you very likely get overwhelmed or frustrated.

I had one such experience years ago where my boss and I were sitting in a meeting. He was trying to hand over the baton to me so I was supposed to be leading the meeting while he was there for moral support. Someone asked me if we were going to complete the work on time and I answered by asking a few more questions arriving at a very vague and small, probably not. The other attendees didn’t seem to appreciate that too much and looked over my shoulder at my boss. He responded with a confident, almost offended that they would ask, no, and promptly sighted every reason I had been implying by asking questions. Talk about deflated. Here I was trying to complete this big project and trying to show off that I knew how to do it and I couldn’t even get people to believe me that we might not hit the mark, how would I ever get them to believe that we would? (Insert eye roll at my old self for just how much weight I can put on a single interaction.)

I needed to find a way to increase the influence I could have with people, because that is what true leadership is. The first step I took was to ask my boss to not come to meetings anymore. I was clear that I wanted him in large group meetings and trainings but that I needed to handle the small groups on my own, or people would never trust that I was handling the project. (Also he talked a lot in meetings so often without even meaning to he would end up running them.) I said that I needed to sink or swim and I had no doubt that people would share their thoughts of my performance. Further, my work product of getting things done on deadline and without any major hiccups should speak for itself. He sort of gave me a cocked eyebrow when I suggested this but agreed. Since then I’ve learned how to more effectively influence people than to shyly, vaguely, ask questions. I have seen that there are both positive and negative ways of influencing, and that doesn’t mean good and bad.

Mostly it’s positive

More recently, I was on a conference call and my microphone wasn’t working properly. The others were going down a path for resolution while I thought I had something to add that would impact their decision. At first I was frustrated that I wasn’t able to add my two cents (Now, I talk a lot in meetings so when I can’t get a word in I typically do get frustrated) but as I listened I had a bit more peace around the situation. Surprisingly, by talking it all the way through, the group ended up coming to the decision that I believed to be correct, even without my astounding wisdom to guide them. (See post about how busy and important I am and remember I’m a work in progress.) It wasn’t for the reason I was going to point to but we got to the same end. Is it possible that they were cognizant of my interests because they knew I was on the call and listening, maybe. Are all of the people involved in this situation strong capable employees who make the right decisions and not ones that serve a single person’s interest, absolutely.

So why is this a good example to point to? (Didn’t this start out by saying that we do have influence and now have followed with two situations where I didn’t appear to have any?) There may or may not have been any direct influential impact on this specific decision, likely not. There was, influence from myself and others on how to get to the root of a problem, how to find and ask the right questions, how to identify and work with your resources and experts to better understand what is going on and what solution best fits. Influence is often subtle and just nudges you, and others, in a direction rather than all out shoving you that way, that is kind of the point. That means, that the amount of influence you have is a product of consistency.

Typically we’re trying to influence people by way of modeling what we would like to see. I categorize these as trust me and follow me. In trust me you are attempting to say, I can do this, you show the plan and provide the artifacts of what you have, or will, accomplish. My meeting with my boss, the one where I asked him to step out of my meetings, is a good example of this. I came to him with a clear why this was important, plan for what I needed from him, and way that he could measure it. (For the record I did do that but didn’t script it out or anything. I was not prepared enough to do that on purpose and didn’t realize that I was laying out a why, how, and measurement until much later.)

In follow me you are attempting to say, we can do this. For that, you need to ask more questions and allow them to come to their own solutions. You would be shocked at the way you can drive a conversation by asking good questions. This is a hard way to influence but truly the best way. I know exactly one person who excels at this and strive to learn from her daily. Asking questions is what I should have done if my mic had been working on that call, but in the gift of just having to listen to the conversation and watch it unfold, I could see what influence the leaders of this group (which is a small group that includes that excellent woman) had on the team. They were all asking the right questions to get to the right answer, essentially, in our absence.

Then sometimes you take a stand

There are times where you essentially take a bullet, knowingly, because it will make a point and change a future trajectory. I don’t believe these are situations that you strive for consistency in. They are typically negative in the short term so, if done correctly, these situations would be out of character or out of the norm and stick in people’s minds.

One of my favorite examples of this actually comes from a high school basketball game. Right in the beginning of the game one of our players, on defense, completely hacked a big guy coming down for a layup. Our guy wasn’t the star of the team or anything but could hold his own and certainly knew better than that. It was so obvious. Even our student section, which boo-ed every call, couldn’t complain about that one. Thankfully from there he kept his arms straight up when the guy drove in for a layup and managed to block a few shots. Later that week I was chatting with the coach, who was also a teacher, and I made a joke about the terrible foul. He told me it was intentional. “That guy would have killed us on layups all night. We needed to get in his head early and make him hesitate. His shooting percentage was way down in our game because he hesitated the rest of the night.” My little fourteen year old mind was blown, you can do that? Our player did one thing, in most eyes made one mistake, that impacted the trajectory of the game. I don’t remember if we won or lost but the other team had a heavy hitter with a high percentage shot that we were able to effectively disarm with one well timed foul.

In case you’re struggling to find the applicability from a high school sports analogy, lets use a corporate example too. There was one coworker who consistently referred to me as overwhelmed or over my head. These were phrased in almost backhanded compliments most of the time. For example he would say, “Thanks for getting to that, I know its been overwhelming lately.” At first I was just confused about what he thought was so difficult for me and glad that I was getting things done for him despite whatever it was that he thought was so hard. The problem was he kept doing it, in bigger and more “important” circles. Finally, other leaders would start asking me things through the filter of my being in over my head. Before starting project work they would ask how I was doing and if we needed to postpone. When it occurred to me that what he was doing was negatively impacting other’s perspective of me and what I was capable of, I had to step in. The results and my achievements, or lack of if that’s the case, should speak for themselves rather than the subtle undermining comments about me to the leadership team. So, after discussing with my supervisor who brushed it off telling me it wasn’t a big deal, I sent him a note. The note explained that I had the utmost respect for him and his opinion and if he had concerns I would hope that he would share them. It also explained that his constant reference to my being overwhelmed was impacting my ability to work effectively with the rest of the team. This is certainly out of character for me to send this in email and not allow the verbal chain of command to handle it. It was also quite frowned upon in this instance. I received a scathing email back and my supervisor pulled me into a meeting to discuss. That was a hard day and a painful conversation. Looking back, I am not sorry for my decision however. It had a negative consequence in the short term but I do think that my note struck a chord. He changed his attitude, or at least how he verbalized it, which quickly ceased the questions and reservations from others. He and I haven’t discussed since that day, and from my perspective don’t need to, however our level of respect is more reciprocal since.

These are two very different examples with very different stakes however the model is the same. Despite the fact that the short term consequence was negative and painful, the long term had pay off. The key is to, as best you’re able, understand what those short term consequences and the long term pay off are going to be and weigh them to determine which comes out ahead.

Daily I am influencing my family, team, and coworkers on their level of joy, priorities, confidence, respect, you name it. This is something you’re doing in your circle every day too. You are influencing those around you and being influenced by them. Even in social media, phone calls, and texts; every time you report to your friends that you’re killing it or falling down in some aspect you’re affecting how they feel about, and interact in, the situation.

To wrap up I want to point back to that original example where the project team looked to my boss for confirmation rather than trusting in me. In that moment, where he swooped in and saved the meeting, he didn’t have any of the details. In handing the project over to me he had stepped away from it and had been trusting me to handle it. He was influenced enough by my small hesitant voice to pick out the facts and present them more confidently. I probably wasn’t going to influence that team no matter how I phrased it at that point but I didn’t need to, I just needed to sway him. Influence doesn’t mean that people listen to you and follow each word that you say, that’s control. Influence means that you impacted the situation. Even in the situations where it feels like a total fail and like you’re completely out of control, you can still be impacting them for good.

Things I’m reminding myself of

There are consequences to every decision. This includes negative and positive consequences. Understanding the potential consequences and choosing to accept them or not helps you to not only be more intentional but also have more control over your own situation. It is a reminder that life isn’t happening to you, you made it happen for you.

We are consistently influencing situations we’re not in. The standard operating practices that we live by will have more impact than the situation we’re currently in. So if you’re leading a team or a family or your pets keep in that your typical way of handling different type of situations is living on in them and influencing how they handle those situations.

Influence trumps control any day of the week. Think of influence as asking a 5 year old what they think she should do after dinner and she takes a moment to think, then clears her place from the table. The control version would be more like after, or during, the temper tantrum taking her hands and picking up the plate and cup and “helping” her carry them to the sink. In the first one you prompted her to pause and think through what she might be missing while the second you controlled ever aspect of the ask. (If your’s is like my house you may start out influencing, get to directing, and finish in control.) Its not that control isn’t necessary from time to time but influencing gets the goal accomplished, teaches for next time, and avoids tears (usually).

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