How do leaders gain influence?
Italian Philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli
pondered "Is it better to be loved or feared?"
Who has influence in our lives? What leaders are we more likely to follow? An interesting set of findings from organizational psychology suggest a balance between warmth and strength that seem counterintuitive to many leaders.
In the most recent issue of Harvard Business Review, authors Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger review some of this literature, which shows that managers tend to choose training programs focused on competence valuing their strength over their warmth. Yet in study after study our “spontaneous trait inferences” consistently show that we pick up on warmth faster than competence.
As the authors point out, putting competence first undermines leadership. “Without a foundation of trust, people in the organization may comply outwardly with a leader’s wishes, but they’re much less likely to conform privately – to adopt the values, culture, and mission of the organization in a sincere and lasting way.” This tends to be reflected in a culture of each employee looking out for his or her own self-interest, and therefore “shared organizational resources fall victim to the tragedy of the commons.”
A critical component of changing culture in a time of uncertainty is trust, and the way to garner trust is to project both warmth and competence. They both have to be there, while warmth is first and sets the stage for trust to evaluate competence. Again to quote the authors, “before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.”
In a companion piece, influence is evaluated by looking at how some people are remarkably successful at leading transformation efforts, even though large organizations tend to resist change. The examples they use are from the National Health Service in the UK. Their thesis is that change agents who are successful tend to be aware of their networks and how to use them. We all have experienced that the informal networks in organizations are very powerful and that change does not happen only through the formal hierarchy.
In one of my earliest leadership training courses, I learned that my former negative view of the word “politics” (in reference to organizations) needed to be re-evaluated. As the instructor said, “politics” is the code word we use to describe the informal influencers in an organization and how they are networked. Those who are more aware of influencers and their networks are more likely to be able to get things done. Simple examples are, “I know I will need to pre-meet with Robert, because he’s an influencer and a fence-sitter. If he can see my point of view and speak up at the meeting, my initiative is more likely to get through.” By being more deliberate about describing networks in organizations and distinguishing different types of networks, change agents in the National Health Service were more successful.
I learned to bury my prejudice that paying attention to “politics” is somehow seamy, and that being aware of who influences who can help me get things done.
There is a final interview in this HBR issue that reinforced a critical change notion that I think we all need to remember as we face turmoil in health care. Robert Cialdini, discussing moving people under conditions of uncertainty, points out that people will tend to freeze if they are scared of what he or she might lose. That’s certainly true for a lot of folks who work in health care right now.
Cialdini suggests that “Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky won the Nobel Prize for showing that if you’re trying to mobilize people under conditions of uncertainty, notions of loss are psychologically more powerful than notions of gain.” This research, by the way, underlies the common use of “withholds” in payment methodologies for providers.
In the case of making a big change in direction, he’s making the point that it’s important to tell people what they will lose if they fail to move. That way they can compare the loss of failing to move from the potential losses of moving.
For me, awareness of how influence works helps me think about how I work with people in my organization to accomplish change. The above-referenced articles provide a nice summary of some of the most important literature on influence.
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