Paul Glen: How can you wield influence if you don't know what it is?

We in IT want to be more influential in our organizations. We think our influence is insufficient in an era when technology is ubiquitous and essential to every organization. But despite our desire to wield more influence, we are not clear on what influence is. Given that confusion, we pursue influence in all the wrong ways.

I made this realization recently, when a group of 70 CIOs and IT directors gathered for a half-day seminar I gave on the topic of "Overcoming the IT Influence Deficit." I decided to test our common understanding of the subject matter. Even in this group of very smart, senior technical leaders, all of whom had chosen to attend a seminar on influence, definitions were all over the map.

The biggest confusion for these leaders was that they couldn't separate the concepts of power and influence. For them, the two were fuzzily overlapping. Loosely, they thought about power as making people do what you want and influence as persuading people to do what you want when you don't have (or choose not to exercise) power. In other words, they thought of power and influence as just alternate ways to get people to do your bidding.

But these ideas are really completely distinct. Influence is not merely a softer form of power. They operate completely differently. So it's no wonder our approaches often fail.

Power is very simple at its core. It is one person's ability to affect the behavior of another.

For example, if you are called to jury duty, the judge has the power to compel your attendance. If you don't show up, she can issue a bench warrant for your arrest. She can coerce you, unconcerned about why you chose to comply.

Influence is also very simple. But it involves one person's ability to affect the inner experience of another person, to change how the other person thinks and what he believes and, most importantly, what he feels.

Influence does not operate directly on behavior. If someone changes his behavior because his inner experience was changed by an influential person, that change is a secondary effect. So if you show up for jury duty, you might have to listen to two lawyers attempt to influence the way you think about the case being tried. They have no power to coerce you and the other jurors to vote one way or another once your deliberations begin. They attempt to change your inner experience with facts, logic and emotion in hopes that you will see the case in a way that is to their client's advantage.

A lawyer who isn't influential isn't going to be very successful in his calling. More and more, I'd say the same is true for IT professionals. But I think we see the things that we can do to influence others as being manipulative, and we generally don't like the idea of manipulating others' feelings, positively or negatively. We think that other people's inner experiences are their own business and that we should only need facts and logic to influence them. But as numerous studies have shown, decision-making is primarily emotional, not logical, so our approach often fails.

If we want IT to become more influential, our first step will be to accept that it requires that we become willing and able to change how our business partners feel. And that will require overcoming our own emotional resistance to influencing their emotions.

Paul Glen, CEO of Leading Geeks, is devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. His newest book is 8 Steps to Restoring Client Trust: A Professional's Guide to Managing Client Conflict. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

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