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May 11, 2021

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What a 5th-Grader Taught Me About Influence

Our 5th-grade daughter explained a recess conundrum that she and a few friends were facing during a recent dinner table conversation. During recess, each 5th-grade class is separated on the school grounds — one class using the playground area, the other class using the field area (due to COVID-19 protocols). 

On the days her class uses the field area, playing a soccer game has been the dominant activity. Our daughter and a few of her friends expressed their concern to one of the teachers about wanting to do something different than playing soccer — and at their request, the teacher gave them the option to lead an activity during an upcoming recess. While conferring with a few classmates on what to do, our daughter suggested the idea of having a ‘field day,’ in which multiple activities co-occur at different stations (i.e., tug of war, sack races, relay races, etc.). 

She promoted her idea by pointing out that since the school was not having its usual school-wide field day to celebrate the end of the school year, this was a way for her class to enjoy the fun still.

She gained support from the small group first, and then the group proceeded to share the idea with other classmates and their teacher. By the end of the school day, they got approval from the teacher and got their classmates excited to have a class field day.

As I pondered her story, I realized that she demonstrated a critical leadership trait — influencing others towards a common direction or goal. As a continuous improvement (CI) practitioner who has led improvement projects, teaches improvement methods and tools and coaches improvement practitioners for growth, the ability to influence others is fundamental to effective leadership — especially when you don’t have formal reporting authority.

I also recognized another aspect of influence that she demonstrated — our spheres of influence grow over time or as a situation progresses.

In the first few years of my career as a Black Belt, I was charged with driving cross-functional and complex improvement projects. While I was the project lead, I needed to engage with team members and critical stakeholders to complete project tasks and move projects to completion. 

In this role, it was vital that I was organized, tended to details, created a clear plan, communicated often and effectively, and escalated issues when necessary. My sphere of influence was mainly those directly impacted by the project work.

As I transitioned into the consulting industry, I was now faced with managing client relationships, meeting account team expectations, and corporate requirements for utilization (% of time billed to client project work). During this time, I needed to clarify who my key stakeholders were (i.e., from the client, account team, and corporate), what their needs and priorities were, drew from standard methods and tools to complete client deliverables, and networked within the organization to seek new project opportunities. My sphere of influence expanded and became more complex.

Over the past eight years, while still in a consultative role, the majority of my time is spent teaching and coaching others in continuous improvement and scientific problem solving — and ultimately helping them think differently about how value is provided to their customers. In all cases, I have no direct reporting authority over those I teach and coach. 

Still, I am responsible for helping them apply their learnings to solve organizational problems and provide value to their organizations. I often am serving multiple organizations concurrently and supporting people at various levels within each organization (front-line, supervisory/managerial, and executive leadership) — furthering my sphere of influence. Additionally, I serve on nonprofit boards and recently coached junior varsity girls basketball, which has added more depth to my sphere of influence.

Throughout these various experiences, I have learned that even if you don’t hold positional authority, you still can positively influence others around you. Here are the three practices that have helped me grow my influence with others.

Cultivate Relationships

Building a relationship with others is fundamental to establishing trust and, in turn, increases your influence with others. When you engage with others on a more human level, you form deeper bonds and, in turn, build a relationship with them. This bond includes being honest. 

If a project, deliverable, or outcome is unacceptable, say it. Explain why it didn’t work, what precisely was unacceptable, and why it is essential. Conversely, when you make a mistake, own up to it by letting others know about it, and offer a sincere apology. 

Early in my career, I made an intentional effort to separate my ‘personal’ and ‘work’ personas, which stifled my ability to foster good relationships. 

I once had a manager tell me that while I was meeting or exceeding all of the performance requirements in my job, I needed to improve how I was engaging and interacting with the others in my department, essentially enhancing my relationships with others. 

As I recognized my spheres of influence growing, I continued to remove these self-imposed barriers and opened myself up to creating more genuine and sincere professional relationships. As I cultivated relationships, I built trust with others and ultimately expanded my realm of influence (to learn more about building trust, check out Building Trust with Your Remote Team).

Focus on Giving, Not Getting

As eloquently stated in The Go-Giver (Burg, Mann), the Law of Influence is:

“Your influence is determined by how abundantly you place other people’s interests first.”

As I transitioned from executing and leading project work as an individual contributor to teaching and coaching others in continuous improvement, I learned that I was now serving others through education and coaching a new way of thinking about problem-solving. To do this effectively, I needed to focus less on technical methods and tools and how people learn and develop and adjust my approach accordingly. Some of the ways I have adapted my approach include using multiple examples or stories in a classroom setting to convey a concept or topic to ensure understanding and using screen-sharing to assist someone using statistical software to analyze data. Or to literally roll up my sleeves and work alongside others to clean up their work areas (5S). In all of these scenarios, my approach is based on my desire to serve and help others.

Another form of serving others is through sharing resources. Over the past year, many people have had to lead improvement work in their organizations remotely. For many, this posed challenges like keeping teams engaged in virtual meetings, encouraging creativity and brainstorming, and going to the Gemba to observe where and how the actual work is being done. In the early months of the pandemic, I began using web-based whiteboard tools like Miro and Mural. I found them helpful in getting teams to collaborate and engage more effectively. Once I learned of these platforms, I used them with those I coached and shared them with anyone looking for new ideas to engage their teams. Many practitioners began using these tools with their project teams to create process maps, brainstorm root causes, and track progress on deliverables.

Humble Authority

In Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he highlights authority’s weapons of influence. Humans are highly obedient and will alter their behaviors or actions when perceived to come from a person of authority. A typical example of this phenomenon is in medicine. Physicians hold a position of respected authority. While most adults are aware that eating a sensible diet, exercising, and having good sleep habits are vital to maintaining our health, we often don’t adopt these habits on our own until a physician directs us towards them to address a particular health concern. This phenomenon also crosses over to healthcare staff, which in some cases exhibit automatic obedience to doctor’s orders, which is one of the factors that contribute to preventable surgical complications (as described in The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Gawande).

I am also finding that having over 20 years of experience in continuous improvement helps me gain credibility and influence with new groups or organizations. Using the knowledge I have gained during this time, I can draw from experience to ask questions, provide feedback or recommendations, and share ideas. The key has been to balance existing knowledge with continued curiosity and humility to acknowledge I don’t have all of the answers and can learn much myself. While having expertise or a particular title certainly helps gain influence, I firmly believe it needs to be coupled with fostering a relationship, building trust, and serving others to have the most significant impact.

Conclusion

Whether you are a school-aged child, are a people-leader with positional authority over others, or are driving improvement work across your organization, influence is a crucial attribute to possess and hone in our personal and professional lives. Although one may assume that influence goes hand in hand with leadership, many leaders who are not skilled in influence never find a permanent flock. 

Resources
5 Ways To Influence Without Authority (forbes.com)
How to Get Someone to Like You Immediately