How to Influence Influencers

Reality Check: It's my job to influence the people in our company to improve quality—both of processes and of our customer’s satisfaction—and it's hard. We've got all the "head" stuff right—technical expertise and good quality tools—but we don't have the heart. And to make it even more difficult, the people I need to influence don't report to me and are too busy meeting other goals. So I can't get them to commit to our quality goals—or worse, they commit with their mouths but then don't deliver. Please help!

Learning Opportunity:

This is a classic influence problem. And most companies never see it that way.

My Human Capital team and I worked with many of the storied companies who lost their way because of poor quality. We saw stark differences in those who developed a true culture of quality and those who simply went through the motions. It is the fundamental work of leaders to influence the behavior of people in an organization (it is not the role of HR, the Quality department, the Customer Service department, etc.). And sadly, far too few leaders 1) realize this is their job or 2) have the skill to do so.

So congratulations on the fact that you don't suffer from problem #1! However, it sounds as though your organization may have a chronic case of problem #2.

Few leaders have an articulated and systematic way of thinking about the insightful question you raise—how do I influence the behavior of a handful, a few hundred or many thousands of people?

So let me frame your challenge in this way: your job is to influence the influencers. Your job is not, as you said above, to influence the people in your company. You can assist leaders in doing this, but attempting to do it yourself will only lead to frustration and failure.

Here are some suggestions for influencing the influencers:

Help leaders make a connection. Most leaders don't care about influencing behavior because they don't see its relevance to results. We've worked with some pretty cynical leaders over the years that dismiss influence work as "soft stuff," but that attitude changes the instant they come to see a connection between behavior and the results they are sworn to achieve.

Too often, those of us who try to influence these influencers make vague arguments about empowerment, teamwork, trust and so forth that require leaders to make a leap of faith in some philosophical argument in order to engage in leading change. That leap isn't necessary when they can see how concrete, specific, and measurable behaviors are the root of their frustrations.

For example, in one company we found an executive who was a little more accessible than others and we asked him to join us in interviews with the five departments in his company that consistently produced the highest quality output as well as five average teams. We conducted hour-long focus groups in each of these teams to elicit the behaviors the team thought were helping or not helping. 

At the conclusion, it was clear to this executive that one of the most damaging behaviors in the mediocre teams (and even more so in the poor performing teams) was a lack of peer accountability. He heard story after story of peers witnessing others skipping quality and customer service processes without so much as raising a finger, let alone a concern, and left a zealot about changing this behavior. Once he saw the connection between concrete "vital behaviors" and his critical results, he was spurred into action.

Focus on results. Your job is to help leaders see the connection between behavior and results. If you do this right, your senior leaders will begin to realize you have "mutual purpose." They'll see you aren't just nagging them about quality, but that your interest is in improving results overall. Never let yourself get pigeonholed into a smaller agenda than that of the larger enterprise or you'll lose influence with those you most need to engage. Always present your proposals in a way that demonstrates how your entire motivation aligns with that of your senior leadership team.

Influence with data. So let's say you're trying to involve some more accessible leaders in exploring the relationship between behavior and results—and they aren't biting. You're framing everything you present in terms of enterprise interests—and it's still not working. You don't have the formal authority to compel anyone to pay attention to your objectives. What can you do?

The best strategy you can use is to influence with data. Leaders' mental agenda is set by the "data stream" they live within. The kinds of reports, measures, and indices served up to them regularly determine what they think about. That's why leaders appear to have different "values" than frontline employees. Those on the front line accuse leaders of only caring about the bottom line, while those at the top can sneer at the frontline employees who don't see the "big picture." This predictable conflict doesn't happen because DNA is different at the top than at the bottom. The problem isn't one of IQ or values. It's one of data. Senior leaders receive a steady stream of enterprise level data. Those on the front line are influenced by data about product, services, schedules, rework, or other in-the-trenches concerns. So if you want to change someone's mental agenda, change the mix of data they receive.

I hope some of these ideas are useful as your work to influence your influencers. Your role is crucial in your organization—and influence is your primary skill set!

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