The Practice and Theory of Influencing People | Technological Leadership Institute

Posted on
October 10, 2018
Image of a chess board with the title of this blog

You will notice the fairly formal title of this posting. It comes directly from Webster’s Dictionary, defining a word that is considered offensive in many quarters: “Politics."

But politics in an organization is not a curse. It is the way people come together and get things done in a group. Despite cringing at the word, my advice to any new engineer or scientist joining the workplace is to accept that politics is necessary and to strive to understand how to maximize your influence in the organization. You have worked too hard to arrive at a job and just “do what you are told.” Even if you don’t aspire to be “the boss," you do want to have your ideas taken seriously and to impact the direction of the company.

So how to best do that?

Know what change you want to achieve. What is the pain of the current situation? What is your vision of the future? That vision may be big, bold and all but unattainable now. But if you can imagine how to start towards that goal, or at least take actions today consistent with that future state, you can articulate a strategy for today that points towards the future you seek.

A keyword is “articulate.” Whether verbally or in writing, you need to communicate your ideas in a way that gets others engaged. This is where I’ve seen too many people fall short. They are content to see a better future, without putting in the effort to bring along others. That brings us to our next step.

Know your stakeholders. Of course, that includes your boss and your coworkers. But it often reaches beyond them to include other functions in the organization and people far beyond your workspace. Who would be impacted by the change you seek? They will ask, “What’s In It For Me?” (The famous WIIFM.) Who are your natural allies? Would anyone see the change as a loss?

An honest assessment of where individuals stand is a vital starting point in articulating your strategy to gain organizational acceptance. So always remember this maxim of organizations: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Suppose you need support from the plant manager in your company. Start by considering the goals of the person in that role. What will make them a success? What would make them a failure? What are the daily/weekly/monthly pressures they face? Put yourself in that person’s shoes and see what life is like as a plant manager. Now you can predict how they will react to your idea. And now you can adjust and communicate your idea to be most appealing.

Then you need to repeat that thinking process for everyone who is an important stakeholder and has the power to say yes or no. Sure, that sounds like a lot of effort, but just showing up with a wonderful university degree isn’t enough. (And it is still a lot less work that mastering wave equations in a quantum mechanics course.)

Finally, know yourself. This may actually be the hardest part since it requires taking an honest assessment of our strengths, our weaknesses and even our “blind spots."

Maybe you are not a compelling public speaker. That is fine. For this work, just accept that and find a path that avoids or minimizes the need for you to speak in front of a large group. Prepare a “white paper” to make your case. Sit with people one-on-one to present your ideas, proving your knowledge, passion and commitment.

If a large group setting is unavoidable, can you enlist an ally that excels in that forum? And if it has to be you, prepare, practice and remember that you know the subject matter better than anyone else in the room. Feel the fear and do it anyway! If you’ve done your homework as discussed above, you’ll find the audience is a lot nicer than you expected.

As with any endeavor, mastery requires commitment and practice. Your first try might fall short, or you might succeed in spite of mistakes. While in the arena, stand back a bit and observe. What you learn will make your next effort more successful. In time, people in your organization will start coming to you for guidance. You will be influential.

This blog is part of a 14-week series by TLI Senior Fellow and Honeywell/Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management Steve Webster. Each post will focus on one concept or idea discussed in his course MOT 5001- Technological Business Fundamentals. Other posts in the series can be found here.

About the Author

Photo of Steven Webster

Steven Webster

  • Honeywell/Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management
  • Senior Fellow

Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management

Steven Webster brings 31 years of experience with 3M to TLI’s graduate programs. Teaching primarily innovation classes and leading the Management of Technology minor program, Webster has expertise in new product development and commercialization; technology foresight, planning, and development; innovative organization and design and effectiveness; leadership development; global business; Six Sigma, display technology; consumer electronics, and communications technology.

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