A Leader’s Guide to Influence - Part 1: Why Leaders Have No Influence
By Joseph Grenny
As my coauthors and I conducted research for our latest book Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, we sat down with two dozen senior executives from several Fortune 500 companies and asked each leader whether they faced any of these problems:
- Bureaucratic infighting that smothers innovation and change
- Self-centered silo thinking and turfism that prevents true collaboration
- Shoddy accountability wherein failure, plus an excuse, is acceptable performance
- A “let’s do the minimum” work ethic
The most typical response was, “Can I pick ‘all of the above?’”
Suffice it to say, these are very common problems. These issues are also especially costly and difficult to resolve because each involve entrenched habits—ineffective practices that have come to be accepted, or at least tolerated, within an organization. Consequently, solving these problems requires influencing chronic patterns of behaviors.
Why Leaders Have No Influence
As we continued to interview senior leaders, we began to see some very clear failure patterns. Before long, we could quickly tell whether the change strategy a leader described was going to fail. Below are the five most common failure modes we observed.
1. Leaders act as if it’s not their job to address entrenched habits. Most leaders put a great deal of time into crafting breakthrough strategies, selecting winning products and engaging with analysts, shareholders and major customers. However, few realize the success or failure of their grand schemes lies in influencing the behavior of the hundreds or thousands who will have to execute on the big ideas—their employees. In fact, our research shows the average leader spends less than five percent of his or her time on active efforts to create behavior change. Instead, they delegate these responsibilities to others, mainly leaders in HR—who often lack the credibility to influence real change.
2. Leaders lack a clear influence plan. Many leaders who previously stumbled into success at influencing behavior change couldn’t articulate why their efforts succeeded. Even worse, the study showed that while most executives were frustrated with many behaviors in their organizations, only one in 20 had a carefully developed plan for influencing change.
3. Leaders confuse talking with influencing. Many leaders think influence consists of little more than talking people into doing things. It’s no wonder most influence efforts start with PowerPoint presentations. But profound, persistent and overwhelming problems demand more than verbal persuasion. Anyone who’s ever tried to talk a smoker into quitting knows there’s a lot more to behavior change than words. Leaders make the same mistake when they publish platitudes in the form of Mission and Values statements, give a few speeches on why these values are crucial and then assume their job is done.
4. Leaders believe in silver bullets. When leaders actually attempt to influence new behavior, they commonly fall into the trap of thinking deeply ingrained bad habits can be changed with a single technique. Some host star-studded retreats. Others hand out inspiring posters and color-changing mugs and think people will line up for change. Still others believe it’s all about incentives, and so they tinker with the performance management system. The research shows that when leaders rely on just one simple source of influence to drive change, they almost always fail.
5. Leaders try to influence everyone. The few leaders who do understand that influence is their job make the mistake of trying to influence everyone. The most influential leaders amass a wealth of social capital by investing time and energy with two influential groups—their chain of command and their opinion leaders. Influencers know they don’t have to have personal relationships with everyone in the company—they just have to have relationships with those who do. If leaders spend time building trust with formal and informal opinion leaders, they will inherit social capital that extends their influence into every corner of the organization.
Don’t fall trap to these failure modes. Awareness is the first step in changing your own behavior so you can become the Influential leader your organization needs to succeed. In my next post, I’ll share important strategies leaders can use to change entrenched habits.
Joseph Grenny is the coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers—Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything. He is also a sought-after speaker, consultant, and cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance, www.vitalsmarts.com.