In work, persuasion and influence is big business. It’s the stuff of deals through to the lubricant for smooth running relationships. Every day you find yourself having to convince people to do something new or different.
If you’re the CEO, it may be the challenge of presenting a credible pitch to the market. As a project manager, you need to influence stakeholders to get their buy in. As a team member, you might need to persuade your colleagues or your boss to change tack. Your effectiveness at influencing others will impact how people judge you, your chances of promotion, whether or not your ideas hold sway, your ability to engage colleagues and the quality of your customer relationships. Persuasion and influence are mission critical skills.
In a small study with 100 staff in a manufacturing business, the most common answer to the question: “What does influence or persuasion at work mean to you?”, an overwhelming 76 people answered: “Getting other people to do what I ask.” What this demonstrates is a lack of understanding of both the scope of persuasion and the opportunity for using different influencing strategies. It also illustrates the lamentable fact that most of us are convinced by our own sense of rightness and that our ideas are the best.
The academic research on influencing highlights as many as nine different styles. Most of us has a default style, one we feel most comfortable using. However, to be effective in our influencing, we need to be able to select the most appropriate style and execute it well.
The two most frequently used styles are Push and Pull. Each style is behaviourally distinctive and each is appropriate for different situations. The Push style goes like this:
- I have an idea or opinion that I share with you
- I tell you the reasons why it’s a good idea and/or why I’m correct
- You agree and you move your position.
Behaviourally speaking, Push style is characterised by three specific verbal behaviours:
Proposing Content (suggesting an idea); Giving Information (providing the rationale); and Shutting Out (talking across others). The solution comes from the influencer and it’s the influencer who does most of the talking.
Push style persuasion is the most commonly used and yet it’s only effective around half the time. Sometimes this is because we are apologetic or aggressive pushers. Another weakness is being a mis-judged Pusher, where you reveal your solution early. In so doing, you under-estimate the strength of resistance you will encounter. What seems clear and convincing to you fails to shift your audience. You may become frustrated and try another round of blinding your target with logic, either bludgeoning them into submission or leaving the encounter feeling exasperated. Either way it’s a Win:Lose outcome at best.
Push works well in conditions where the influencer has positional authority. Other situations that call for Push include where you have the expertise, where there’s only one solution, where the decision has already been made, where decisions need to be made quickly and when you can enforce compliance. Yet how often do you adopt a Push style when none of these conditions apply? No surprise then that your attempts at persuasion are less than successful and perhaps have unintended, negative consequences. Take Simon for example – a middle manager in a multinational business. He needed to create a new direction for his team. In doing so, he articulated a clear, coherent plan and instructed each of his team as to who would do what, and by when. For him, the logic was clear, the detail was exemplary and he was in charge, so the team was bound to agree. Push style was a no-brainer. However, Simon had overlooked a fundamental question: How important was it that he gain everyone’s commitment to the plan? If engagement is essential, then a Pull style is much more likely to work.
Pullers use three behaviours in particular: Seeking Proposals (e.g. How should we best do this?) Seeking Information (e.g. Who has the relevant experience?) and the rare but highly prized skill of Building – extending or developing a proposal made by another person. Building is used much less frequently than is warranted. This is usually because the persuader is much more interested in his own ideas and fails to harness the suggestions of others. If Simon had focused on engaging his team, he would have used a Pull style, rather like this:
1. Simon asks the team for their ideas
2. They offer some options
3. Simon then asks questions to explore their suggestions
4. Simon builds on their suggestions
5. Together, Simon and the team agree a way forward.
In this way, the level of commitment of the team increases in line with their engagement.
Pull style can also be effective when influencing upwards, where resistance is likely to be high, when there’s more than one option, when there are no time pressures and where any movement is better than none. It’s also useful in fostering collaboration and in coaching others to use their resources. Pull might take a little longer but the rewards outweigh the costs. For example, in a recent performance appraisal discussion, Sian wanted to convince Tom of the need to work on his presentation skills. If she had defaulted to a Push style she would have told Tom what she wanted and why. Instead, using a Pull style she was able to get a better understanding of why Tom’s presentation skills weren’t where they needed to be – the underlying need, not the presenting issue. They explored various options for addressing the shortfall and Tom was committed to the outcome. The effort was worth the gain.
If you think back to the last time you tried to influence someone and were unsuccessful, the likelihood is that you opted for the wrong style or perhaps it was the right style executed poorly. To be effective we need to be able to use both styles skilfully. Push and Pull styles of influencing have nothing to do with tone. You can Push in a thoughtful, low-key way and you can Pull in an intense manner. What differentiates each style is the behaviours involved.
Give some thought as to which style to use and why. When you’re operating as a Pusher, be clear about your proposal, give your reasons and explain what’s in it for the other party. As a Puller, lead with questions, exercise your curiosity, believe that other people can have ideas that could be better than yours and work with those ideas, gaining engagement as you go.