Expert Commentary

The Importance of Influence

Organizations produce a product or service to generate revenue. They have systems with which to create those products or services and people to manage the systems. To manage the people, organizations have structures and management procedures and practices. To function effectively, organizations need departments with specialized functions and skills to operate efficiently, which makes organizations complex.


Construction Safety
May 2011

Different divisions and departments end up with their own policies, practices, and procedures, which may or may not be aligned with those of the organization. As organizations grow and/or diversify, they become even more complex. On top of the internal workings, there are the external factors involving clients or customers, business partners, vendors, suppliers, and contractors, all of whom, in one way or another, have to work together to accomplish success.

Because of internal stratification and external complexity, there could be barriers to getting work done or accomplishing a goal, which may require cooperating cross-functionally or influencing peers or others over whom one has no direct organizational or contractual power. In many cases, people may be part of a project team, in a work group, or in a cross-functional unit, having to use influence to get something accomplished or get the job done. To be successful, you may need to exert influence upward to sway the boss; horizontally to get others to assist, cooperate, or perform; and possibly downward to convince direct reports to do their very best rather than the minimum to get by. There is a greater need to manage upward and laterally in business today.

Influence

Everyone has a boss as well as peers. To be successful, one must be able to work effectively with any or most of them. The lifeblood of this process is influence. In all likelihood, to be successful at your job, you must be able to "sell" an idea or project, persuade coworkers or peers to provide support and/or resources, or get people to do something that they may not necessarily want or need to do. The ability to move others to achieve important objectives is most effective if you can find a way to couch it in terms where everyone wins (you, me, and the organization). An underlying principle of persuasion is that people expect reciprocity in the process. To be able to persuade effectively, you must create win-win trades when in difficult situations or when dealing with difficult individuals or groups.

This is especially true of construction. The construction process involves a large group of organizations that come together to build a facility or structure. There are three major teams involved: the owner, the designer, and the constructors. A number of groups may be involved in the owner team, including but not limited to senior decision-makers and financial, legal, operational, and maintenance professionals, to name a few. An architect will most likely head up the designer team, with a number of primary and secondary consultants. And the constructors may include a construction manager, a general contractor, and a number of subcontractors. Sub-subcontractors, vendors, and suppliers may also be involved. In many cases, there is no contractual relationship between many of them. Because of the interdependent nature of construction, all these organizations and parties will need to work cooperatively to successfully complete the project.

Doing business is getting more complex. There are greater time pressures, the need to do more with less, more competition, and higher pressures on profitability. There are fewer middle managers. Employees are expected to take on more responsibility and decision-making.

Technology is changing rapidly, and knowledge is growing exponentially. People are expected to keep up, and there seems to be little time for training and development. There is a greater need to bring together diverse groups of people to work cooperatively to achieve success. With all the complexity and interdependence, the ability to wield influence is becoming more and more important to one’s ability to function effectively in the organization.

Safety is another aspect of the building process that requires cooperation as well as active participation from all the builders and their crews to achieve an injury-free work environment. The safety personnel usually do not have positional power and therefore cannot make anyone work differently. Safety practitioners and professionals need to be involved in all aspects of the business from estimating to purchasing to contracts, as well as planning and field operations. This addresses exposure risk in a holistic and comprehensive manner. Then, during construction, safety personnel need to convey ideas to subcontractor staff as well as to workers to get them to accept the suggested recommendations and implement them. To accomplish this seamlessly and effectively, they will have to be able to persuade and influence others.

Construction poses a unique challenge due to the fact that there are contracts between the various parties, and one company cannot direct the workers of another company to work differently. This falls under the precept of "means and methods." There are many ways to exert influence—by rational persuasion, inspirational appeal, consultation, ingratiation, personal appeal, formation of a coalition, or relentless pressure. According to Robert Cialdini, six basic tendencies of human behavior come into play when exerting influence to achieve a positive response. These are:

  • Reciprocation
  • Consistency
  • Social validation
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Scarcity

These six tendencies affect business and organizational dealings, social involvements, and personal relationships. Therefore, understanding and utilizing this knowledge effectively will not only make us successful in business but also enhance our relationships and our lives.

The Six Basic Tendencies

To use the art of influence, it is important to build relationships. Good relationships lubricate the process. Building goodwill is an important aspect of the art of persuasion. It is easier to ask people we know and who like us for a favor than to ask those who do not. Also, to exert influence effectively, one must be perceived as being competent, making reasonable requests, and having the good of the organization at heart. This provides credibility—you are working for the good of the organization, which benefits everyone, and are not just selfishly looking out for yourself.

Reciprocation

Reciprocation is at work when you try to effect an affirmative response. It is about exchange—give and take. It is about exchanging something of value in return for something you may need or want. There is an expectation that a favor will be repaid at some future date. This is known as the law of reciprocity.

In all societies, a norm obligates an individual to repay in kind what they receive. This allows people in organizations and business situations to gain cooperation. Most people usually have some working level of the art of influence. The process of winning outcomes includes an analysis of who can give what is needed and then, in return, an identification of what they may need that you can provide and how best to present it. It also requires flexibility when making the request and a readiness to make adjustments based on the nature of the response.

Consistency

We are driven to remain consistent in our attitudes, declarations, and actions. If we take a position or agree with something, we tend to try to be consistent later. So, we can initially try to get agreement with something innocuous or reasonable and then ask for something more substantial that we actually want. Because of consistency, others are more likely to respond affirmatively to the second request after having agreed to the first.

Social Validation

When people are uncertain about what action to take, it's normal to look to others to see what they are doing. This is known as social validation. We try to get an idea of what is acceptable or makes sense given the circumstances. In a weekly coordination meeting, I was trying to achieve a general consensus from the group on the steps needed to achieve that week's goal, which included advanced planning for safety. I found few takers. There were a myriad of reasons why it could not be done. Not wanting to repeat the failure, the following week, just prior to the coordination meeting, I explained to three participants the importance of the topic and the need for their verbal agreement with me at the meeting. As a result, when I brought up the subject again, about a third of the attendees readily agreed with basically the same suggestion that they had shot down the prior week and, after some discussion, we achieved general consensus.

Liking

It is a proven fact that people are most comfortable with those who are more like them or think like them. We are more likely to say yes to people we like than to those we do not. So, what are some of the factors that may influence likability?

Research has shown that factors that enhance likability are physical attractiveness, appearance, having things in common, things we are familiar with, and people who compliment us. Recognizing this, we can actually work on developing and improving rapport. Salespeople often try to create a connection between them and the customer.

A difficult designer was not very open to suggestions, but after we socialized a couple of times and got to know each other, he seemed more receptive to discussing other ideas and looking more favorably at alternative suggestions. Cooperation is another factor that has been shown to enhance positive feelings and behavior. So, agreeing with the other person or doing something for them can be useful in achieving your objectives.

Authority

The rule of authority tells us that people are almost instantly deferential to those in a position of power. This includes persons in leadership positions and those who have special knowledge, impressive credentials, or even just an air of confidence. The things that may influence us include titles, clothing, trappings, or knowledge.

When a speaker is introduced and his/her credentials presented before the presentation, more of the audience will tend to agree with the speaker’s position, receive him or her better, and give more positive reviews. Authority is good, but credibility is even better. Credibility results from expertise and trustworthiness. You become trustworthy when people understand and agree with your intentions. You become more trustworthy and influential when it becomes evident that you truly believe what you are saying. This can be especially useful when dealing with project safety.

Scarcity

The perception of being in competition for limited resources has a powerful motivational effect. This becomes even stronger if immediacy is added to the mix. The effect of scarcity on human judgment is demonstrated when a buyer "is sitting on the fence" and the real estate agent tells them there is another potential buyer with cash who has seen the property and will be back tomorrow with his spouse to put in an offer. The fence-sitter reacts and responds quickly. On construction projects, time is generally a limited resource, and the potential to save time may be used to achieve compliance.

Barriers

When a good working relationship exists, getting something done may be as easy as asking for it. Sometimes, though, it's not that easy. The art of exerting influence becomes important when others fail to respond as requested. A barrier to influence may be a lack of common goals, priorities, or agendas, or a lack of common ground. They want something in return for their cooperation that we may have difficulty providing. Enmity, rivalry, and/or politics may be involved.

Look inward for barriers to exerting influence successfully. These may include such things as lack of working knowledge of the art of exerting influence, not preparing sufficiently, becoming discouraged too quickly, or failing to try different means or approaches. Perseverance, in most cases, pays off. Fear of rejection or negative reactions and not presenting the request in a win-win manner are also potential barriers to success.

Conclusion

The competitive marketplace, the rapid growth and use of technology, and the need to work efficiently require decisive and "smart" employees. This necessitates that people quickly and effectively resolve issues and get things done. Less dependence on organizational power and more on earned power makes for agile responses to solving problems. The art of influence or persuasion is a powerful and necessary tool in organizational life. Even better is using it effectively to carry out tasks and achieve goals successfully. Mastering the art of influence is a powerful tool in ensuring one’s success within the organization.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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