The Power to Influence

November 20, 2009

Hopefully, this post will be the first of many entries that suggest ways to supercharge your career. Step one: network. I’ve been using some of the connections that I made during the annual conference to gather these tips. Among them, the Committee on Leadership and Management has promised to provide some of its own career building resources. More on that to come.

Today’s post is based on the presentation given by Solange Dao at the Younger Member Leadership Symposium, held after the annual conference in Kansas City. She has some strong messages to engineers. First, wake up, get excited and start having fun. Your brain is wired to perform better when you’re active. Solange had many suggestions for using your brain better to improve your memory, influence people, avoid bad decisions and become more creative. Let’s start with improving memory and influencing people.

Things you can see are easier to remember. Try forming a detailed mental image, the crazier the better, to remember new words or names. We practiced this to improve our vocabulary. Do you know what inviolable means? Look for images in the word that you can remember, like “in” and “viola.” That’s a stringed instrument similar to a violin. If you were tiny and scared, would you feel safe by climbing into your viola? Sure, that’s because inviolable means “protected from danger.” Try a similar experiment with other words: nadir, foment, assiduous, etc. I bet you won’t forget their meaning.

Growing your vocabulary is a good start toward being better able to articulate your ideas. That’s important when you want to influence people, but not all approaches are effective. Ever notice how the conservative and liberal talking heads on cable news can never change each other’s opinions. They’re not practicing good influencing techniques.

People naturally resist change. In your argument, answer the questions, “is it worth it? Can I do it? Sure, but you go first. The next step is to show that you or others have made the right decision and it turned out ok. Provide a vicarious experience with lots of details. If you’re trying to convince someone not to mix the alcohol, you might share that story about your 21st birthday and how you ended up puking your guts out in the trough urinal and then… You get the point. Another less personal approach is to conduct a motivational interview. Ask leading questions that help that person, based on their own experiences, arrive at the conclusion that you’re looking for.

Micromovement Wheel

But making a change is hard and getting started is never easy. Try to make the undesirable, desirable. Break down the long process into micro-manageable steps. The hardest step is the first one. So if moping the floor means first getting out the bucket, then make that your easily attainable first step. Rewards help too, but there are pitfalls in that strategy. It’s not right to reward people for things that they should be doing. Also try to reward behavior and not outcomes. People are sneaky and will try to game the system otherwise.

Finally, you need to put yourself in the position to start influencing people. A lot of that requires establishing credibility. This can mean seeking out relevant experiences, studying and even obtaining recognized credentials (you didn’t really think I’d let you off the hook for your PE). But many times, location is all it takes to become an influencer. Be in near the place where people congregate. You colleagues that sit by the water cooler (or coffee maker) probably have a much better idea of what’s happening in office politics. And don’t expect to make an influence by showing up out of the blue. You need to establish relationships, so people (even superiors) feel comfortable accepting your advice.

Next in this series, we’ll delve more deeply into how the brain works and what that means for your performance.

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