Expert tips on influencing and managing up

Recently at the Lucidity Network I spoke to fundraiser turned leadership, team and career coach Jennifer McCanna about influencing and managing up.

A big part of any new project or change process (in fact anything involving people) is convincing others that it’s a good idea. You can’t expect anyone to like your new idea or project and therefore making any type of change will involve an element of influencing.

Sometimes when we talk about ‘influencing’ it can feel uncomfortable, like it’s a dark art, manipulative or political. If you ever work with others you will, whether you realise it or not be influencing their behaviour and decisions. It’s not just at that moment when you want someone to get involved in your project, back your idea or see your point of view, we are influencing others all the time through every interaction that we have. We are more likely to influence or be influenced by those that we know, like and trust. It’s your choice to be deliberate rather than accidental about building good relationships. You might even feel more comfortable substituting ‘influencing’ with ‘building good relationships’ – it amounts to the same thing.

Managing up is not just your relationship with your boss; it’s the relationship you might need to have with any senior colleague. It’s easy with senior colleagues to fall into a parent-child relationship. Managing up involves breaking that pattern and having a more equal two-way dialogue. It’s the process of using initiative and communication to lighten your managers, or other senior colleagues’, workloads. It’s about supporting them by identifying and sharing ideas for growth and helping them to achieve their goals. It’s not about doing your managers job, dodging systems and processes or trying to be the boss before you’re ready (and its also not about sucking up).

Jens first tip when it comes to influencing and managing up is to understand your strengths, style and how you come across to others. Until you raise your self-awareness it’s really hard to work on building effective relationships with others. Next, think about the other person. Get in their shoes. What do they what from you? Right now? Do you know? Have they told you? (Hint, if they haven’t then ask them) What’s going on for them specifically as well as what’s going on in the wider context? What do they care about? What are they trying to achieve? What are their drivers? What’s their personal style? What’s their preferred communication style? Are they happier in the mornings or the afternoon? By understanding them, you can adapt your style and ask to meet their needs.

To effectively understand someone else you need to be able to really listen. Listening skills are important and often overlooked. And listening to understand is different from listening to advocate for your own agenda. If you know what’s going on for someone you have a much better chance in positioning something in a way that appeals to them. Spend as much time as you can just listening.

We’re in our head a lot of the time and we often intellectualise about a situation, however the best way to really increase your understanding of the other person is to understand how they feel. Jen and I both do this with the individuals and teams we work with by asking them to role-play being the person they are hoping to influence. Asking questions like ‘How do you feel right now?’ ‘Tell me what life is like for you right now?’ and answering as the other person changes the dynamic completely and creates empathy. One person I did this exercise with could feel, when they played the part of the person they were influencing, how their style had been (inadvertently) threatening the other person. They went back to the person after being them in the role-play and shifted their approach. They got a different response that opened up a dialogue rather than closed it down (which was happening before).

Jen introduced us to another way to see a situation differently by using random objects. Here’s how. Pick up some things that are on your desk, for example, a mug, a pen and a stapler. Use the random objects to play out a scenario with those that you are hoping to influence. For example, the pen might be your director of finance, the mug might be your manager and the stapler might be your director of HR. Place them on the table. Think about how close they are to each other depending on how good their business relationship is. Move the random objects and see what happens. Find a paperclip (that’s you!) to add to the mix. What happens? Ask ‘what if?’ questions. What if we moved the stapler closer, what if we moved the pen nearer the mug? Where are you now? Where do you want to be? Have fun playing with the patterns. Does it give you insight about where you need to invest your time in building relationships?

Think about whom it’s important to have good relationships with to get your job done. Who’s powerful and who will help you progress your projects effectively? Sometimes who you are trying to influence is not linear, it’s not the person at the top of the organisational hierarchy. Alternative structures exist outside of organisational charts. Think about informal relationships, for example, who’s on the softball team, who smokes outside, and who manages the diaries of the senior management. It might be that those are the people to ensure you build good relationships with to influence others.

If you’d like to hear this interview as well as a whole host of other experts on topics including innovation, creativity, making time to think, resilience, failure, networking skills and personal brand then you can find them all at the Lucidity Network. There’s more information and how you can join here.

The most important ingredient for good ideas is people

Good ideas do not just happen by themselves. Good ideas become real when people get together and make them happen. You might have all the budget you need, the best processes, robust frameworks and the latest technology, but if you do not have people inspired and motivated about the impact of the idea, quite simply, nothing happens.

Whether you are persuading your manager to test your ideas or motivating team to get on board to with your project or inspiring your peers to get involved the skill of inspiring and influencing others is crucial for your career development.

Persuading your manager

In your career you will have to influence your manager, perhaps to endorse your new idea, or to expand your experience through signing off a budget for a training course, or give you time to develop new projects. The day I shifted my mindset and acknowledged that part of my role was to help make my manager look good, my influencing abilities improved significantly. In my experience, people can be reluctant to take risks or try something new for fear of failure. So one of your influencing techniques with your manager is to give them confidence that the risk of failure is minimized and they will not lose face. You can do this by showing them what another manager, who is like them, that they respect, is doing that is working. Make it easy for them to say yes by suggesting a small test. For example I wanted to work with a new event supplier (when we had used the same one for many years), we tested the new supplier at one small event before making any big decisions, and it helped that another manager had worked with this supplier previously and recommended them.

Motivating your colleagues

People prefer to say yes to people they like. We also like people who are similar to us. You rely on your colleagues every single day. Yet how much do you know about them? Early in my career I had to work with the very overstretched database team on multiple projects. It was an understandably fractious relationship; we were all under a lot of pressure to deliver on many projects with conflicting deadlines. In the hope of building relationships I started going upstairs to their office to see them rather than emailing. One day I arrived at my colleagues’ desk at the same time as a delivery of shoes for a wedding they were going to. We spent 10 minutes trying on shoes discussing which would be most suitable with her dress. Others might have seen us and thought it was a frivolous waste of time, but after that the work got done more quickly, we had two-way dialogue about why I needed the data and we worked together to find the best way to get it.

The more you know about the people you want to inspire and influence, the more equipped you will be to think about the best way to approach them. You may not get it right first time, be resilient work out why it didn’t work and try again and keep trying because the only way you make your ideas happen is to work with and inspire others.

4 quick influencing tips

  • Work out how to make your manager look good
  • Minimize risk by trying something on a small scale to test if it works.
  • Work out the win for you and the person you are trying to influence
  • Spend time getting to know people.

For more on influencing and making your ideas happen check out The Innovation Workout.

A version of this blog was first published on the Guardian Voluntary Network.