“The extreme sophistication of modern technology — wonderful though its benefits are — is ironically an impediment to engaging young people with basics: with learning how things work.”
– Lord Martin Rees, British cosmologist, and astrophysicist
At a moment in history when technology is advancing at breath-taking speed, Rees reminds us that the siren call of progress can be a distraction – and not just for the young — from ‘the basics’: from understanding how things actually function and how decisions are really made.
His warning is clearly relevant in the realms of science and is also meaningful for decision-makers in business, government, academia and beyond: How do things actually work? How are decisions made and executed? Who wins and who loses? And why?
Responsible leaders cannot let the dazzle of technological progress blind them to the everyday interactions that still get things done. One of those interactions is influencing people in an impactful, sustainable way. So I offer here three practical suggestions for influencing others and getting things done effectively, even in our fast-moving digital age.
Use authority sparingly
Using authority to influence others may seem quick and productive, but there is a price to pay for too much reliance on this approach.
There is an efficiency argument for using authority to influence: think of traveling on airplanes or ships, or procedures in the military. These systems all run on command-and-control, with strict hierarchies and clear lines of authority. Orders are given and things get done, with little if any discussion. Using authority in these instances is clean and efficient.
But there is another side to the story. Systems based on authority and hierarchy are usually based on an implicit or explicit threat: if someone does not obey an order or respect the wishes of the hierarchy, there will be a consequence or punishment. Something bad is going to happen.
But people don’t like to be threatened. They put up with it when they feel they don’t have a choice, but they won’t like it. And this can erode trust, professional relationships, productivity, and morale.
This tradeoff can have important consequences for leaders in all walks of life: using authority to get things done may seem quick and efficient, but it can create resentment and dissension in individuals, teams and entire organizations.
A wise leader knows that authority has its place and should be used sparingly. As you influence the people around you, ask yourself: do I need to exercise authority here, or is there another way?
Ask powerful questions
Sometimes we are so focused on finding ‘the answer’ that we forget the power of asking the right question. Which questions make you more influential? It depends on the situation, but here are two you might want to use more often.
‘Is there a better way?’ Most of us are skilled at asking questions – we’ve had a lot of practice over the years – but with heavy workloads and time pressure, it can be tempting to say, ‘Okay, I’ve got an answer. That’s good enough: we’ll go with that.’
Yet many times it could be very productive to say, ‘All right, we have an acceptable answer. But can we improve on that? Is there a better answer?’ Having the courage and taking the time to ask that question and push for a better solution can make an enormous difference.
Implication questions. From an early age we learn to ask simple factual questions, no matter what language we are speaking: who, what, where, why, when, how, how much? We ask these questions, get our answers, and then we write reports, prepare presentations or move on to new problems.
And because we are in a hurry, or because we are tired, we don’t ask the implication questions: ‘What if this were not true? What if we could get around that obstacle? What if we could eliminate that constraint?’ Implication questions force us to look at other possibilities. They are powerful.
Answers are important, but the right questions can also change the game.
State with confidence
‘Stating’ is about going directly to the point or request, without offering explanation or details beforehand. Many people struggle with this direct approach.
When used correctly, stating is clear and efficient: it saves time and the listener knows exactly what is on the speaker’s mind. It demonstrates confidence and assertiveness since the speaker knows how to articulate the point succinctly and then wait.
That is not the end of the conversation, of course. The listener may agree, disagree, ask for clarification, or even stall for time. But at least the listener knows what the speaker wants, without listening to a lot of unnecessary detail first.
There are two big challenges with stating. One is precision: effective stating gets to the point quickly and economically, without detail or vague language. The idea is to ‘cut to the chase’, not meander. This is an instance where less – in the form of fewer words – is more.
Another challenge is simply being quiet: making the statement, then knowing to stop speaking and remain silent while the other person digests what was said. This can be tricky: many people are tempted to fill that silence with chatter. Remember: much of the impact of stating comes from the silence that follows the statement.
Two caveats: stating can seem abrupt, so always be courteous and respectful. And be aware of cultural sensitivities: stating can work like a charm in New York City but won’t go over well in the Far East or the Middle East. Be judicious.
In sum, three simple tips for influence and impact: use authority sparingly, ask powerful questions and state with clarity and confidence. And if you would like to learn more about being influential, click below to sign up for my free Influence Video Series.