Lessons on Influence

Pulling this from my notes and publishing it: things I learned about how to push for changes in an organization. I don’t particularly like pragmatic posts of this kind, but just thought that I might as well share it in case it helps or resonates. Written in an imperative tone since they are mostly notes to self. I am thinking about making more of these notes—more of myself—available, to those who are willing to go through the efforts to know (love) me. Quartz seems like a good option, or I might just pay for Obsidian Publish. We’ll see.

Learning how to keep pushing for improvement without upsetting everyone is one of the rarest talents. It’s easy to complain things aren’t better. Much harder to see the path forward to making it better and inspire other people along the way. — Ben Fryc

Acknowledge existing power dynamics.

Seniority in levels and experience are real, even in a low power distance society like US. Identify the decision makers who have the most power to materialize changes.

Be patient and earn your trust over time.

When we first join we often see all the wrongs in an organization with a pair of fresh eyes—but we should be patient, and bear in mind that we need to earn our trust over time. How? By being the “the person for a thing” and accumulating credits through continuous contribution. It takes time for people to know your ways of thinking, witness your craft and expertise to be able to trust your decisions (this is especially true for juniors since you don’t have titles and experiences that act as proxy for you).

Nudge, don’t persuade.

One cannot force a perception change but only create the necessary conditions for it. Remember that you cannot change people’s mind over night, but you can influence their decisions by nudging them towards a direction over and over again, implicitly or explicitly.

Help the decision maker see the things you see through storytelling (be their telescope).

The decision maker—or “people from the higher up”, sees things you don’t see, and vice versa. You care about a forest, they care about the whole national park, so that makes sense. But it also means that it’s on you to help them see what they don’t see, the forest that you care so dearly. I like this talk from Lauren LoPrete where she uses the (way better) metaphor of telescope. And: the communication of an idea is as important as the idea itself, choose the right medium to facilitate the telescoping.

Connect your goal to theirs (speak their language).

Precisely because you care about different things, it’s not enough to highlight the inherent merits of the change you are proposing. Instead, also talk about how what you care will help them achieve what they care. One trick is to look at their annual goals (if made available) or project milestones, incorporate that in your storytelling, highlighting how your proposal could contribute to their agenda.

Be confident speaking about your proposal.

You need to show confidence when speaking about your proposal so that people can have confidence in it, too. People might not remember what you say but they will remember how you say it. Once again, the communication of an idea is as important as the idea itself.

Maybe hedge less in your speech, such as removing the “maybe” at the start of this sentence. Words alike include perhaps, probably, guess, suppose etc. It’s important to be polite and humble, but at times an assertive posture is helpful. But also be open and honest because confidence and openness are positively correlated: the more confident someone is, the less she is afraid of being wrong.

Language matters.

Even if the status quo is not ideal, don’t forget someone else—one of your colleagues—built it. Don’t rush to point out all the opportunities for improvement without knowing why and how things came to be where they are. Things are rarely intentionally bad, most often it’s the result of all kinds of trade-offs and compromises (and priorities).

Therefore, it’s important to propose changes without discrediting other people’s work. Show empathy to not just your users but other human beings who happen to be your coworker. Explicitly acknowledge contribution before you propose. Avoid direct comparison if you can, if not framing things like “current vs. proposed” instead of “before vs. after”.

Learn to let go.

Well, the exit strategy: compromise.

It’s okay to let things go after you’ve tried everything you can. Feel free to disagree but allow things to move forward. Getting things moving is sometimes more important than making things perfect. After all, work is solving problems as much as coordinating with people.

Sometimes there’s no one that’s more right or better, it’s just the power dynamics and people politics. But even if you are right (or you think you are right), things don’t need to always go your way. Be flexible, so that everyone can have a good time:

Suppose you move from being the smartest person in the room at school to one of the smartest people in the room at university to one of the smartest people in the room at your tech job. In that case, you might fall into the trap of obsessively pushing to always choose the most brilliant, efficient way of doing things (your way). Despite how that might make the people you work with feel.
I cherish all that time I spent grinding in hospitality before I got a cushy developer job because it taught me about compromise. How to assess other people’s needs and how important those needs are, and how to ascertain when being flexible will bring more rewards than being right. I’m not trying to be some sort of Steve Jobs-esque visionary. I just want to make a good quality product, make my team happy and have a good time.