Sarah* is a new graduate who is excited about her entry level role in a large international organization. She has little experience building influence in her past experience, but she is eager and willing to learn!
A Case Study on Building Influence
She’s smart, driven and ready to perform her best in her current role and the future opportunities that might be available to her as she establishes herself and builds her reputation. Yet only months into the role she is feeling insecure about her performance level and ability to add value, along with her lack of understanding about building influence and how it can affect her work life positively.
She was sharing that she worries she is not as advanced in her orientation training as some of her fellow grads who have already started to take the lead in some customer meetings. I asked, “What feedback are you getting from your manager that would lead you to believe you are behind and under-performing?”
“Oh, it’s all good feedback. She says I am doing well, and she is pleased with where I am at,” Sarah replied. Then Sarah was quiet for a moment. “But what if she is just being nice and I’m really not doing as good as she says.”
“So, you don’t trust her feedback?” I asked.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Sarah jumped in quickly, “I really like my manager, she’s the best manager I’ve ever had. It’s not that I don’t trust her, I just worry that I’m not getting much criticism, and this makes me nervous.”
As Sarah and I explored this further what became clear is that Sarah likes and respects her manager and yet there is more Sarah needs from her manager and she is afraid to ask for it.
“What if you have the ability to influence how your manager manages you?” I asked. “How would that help both of you be more successful?”
“Who am I to tell her how to do her job? She’s got way more experience than I do,” Sarah replied. “Why would I ever think I could influence someone like her when I am so new?”
What Sarah is feeling is very common, especially among new employees. Many hold the perspective that because they are new or because they are younger, they can’t influence those in a higher position, especially their manager. They feel an imbalance of power in the relationship and presume they must move along at whatever pace their manager sets.
What most of us don’t realize is that we have more influence than we think, and that influence is a good thing and benefits more than just ourselves. A series of studies conducted by Vanessa K. Bohns of Cornell University confirms that people have much more influence than they think.
What I wanted Sarah to consider is the benefit to herself, her manager, and the organization if she shifts her perspective and understands that she does have more power than she thinks. Building influence is something that Sarah, along with other young perspectives, are very capable of achieving with the right coaching.
The Benefits of Influencing Up
Managers have a challenging job. Not only do they need to be managing their direct reports, motivating them, ensuring their team is meeting the metrics set by the organization, they also need to be managing many other relationships across and up the organization.
Sarah felt she was too young and too new to offer anything of value to her manager. This is where many people get stuck. This feeling of powerlessness keeps them quiet and yet they may have great things to offer that can benefit the team and the organization.
Sarah and I stepped into her managers shoes to view the situation from a different perspective.
“Think about this,” I offered. “If you are a manager, you are going to manage in the style that is most natural to you. This style is going to work really well with some people and not so well with others who think differently from you and are looking for different things from their manager.
Now what if every one of your employees was courageous enough to share with you how they work best, what kind of feedback motivates them and how much or how little of your time they actually need to excel at their job? Would that make your job just a little bit easier? Might that give you just a bit more time and energy to do your job even better?”
We continued to explore two benefits of building influence from the bottom up:
- Solving problems before they develop.
- Building partnerships.
In Sarah’s case, her ability to solve problems before they develop (her perception that she is lagging behind and under-performing) helps her be more successful during her training and orientation period, and heads off any challenges that could potentially creep up due to her insecurities. The benefit is she can also use those problem–solving skills with her customers and her peers to create more engaging, honest and impactful interactions.
Her ability to build a solid, candid partnership with her manager is going to benefit both her and her manager in the long run. If her manager does not know that Sarah is struggling, she can’t offer the support and feedback Sarah needs! In this case, neither party is influencing each other in a beneficial way.
People don’t know what they don’t know, which means they can’t act on it. Sarah is actually preventing her manager from being a better manager to her, which is exactly opposite what Sarah is intending and wanting. And left unchecked can lead to unintended and negative consequences.
In the Book “Influencing Up” , some great information is shared about how stepping into your power can benefit both you and the organization.
One truly interesting concept from this book is shared in this short video… “You…can be much more powerful than you think you can be. And being more powerful does not take away the power from others, it builds power for both of you. To be more powerful is not to take away the power of others, but to build your own power, and you can build your own power in a win-win situation. Power is not a fixed amount so the more you have the less I have. In most cases power is a variable. It’s possible for you, to be highly powerful and me also to be powerful.”
To explain this concept, the perception of the power struggle between employees and employers must be left at the door.
Organizations where team members are loyal to the company, practice good communication and strive to build relationships are not concerned with the power that one employee may have versus another. It is about the endgame success of the company, and the personal achievements of everyone along the way.
What can you do to step into your influence?
Fortunately for Sarah, her organization has a unique orientation program designed to get new employees immersed quickly into the culture through coaching and connection with mentors outside their current work group. This opportunity for coaching and mentoring right away in the organization could prove to be extremely important in retaining and keeping a high level of engagement among the new recruits, most of whom are Gen Z.
Regardless of your position in the organization you have the power to continue building influence…here’s a few suggestions:
- Build honest relationships with others – if you are concerned about your performance, discuss this with your manager. Ask for specific feedback in the areas you are feeling insecure about. This helps your manager be able to give you the specific feedback you need to contribute more. This also builds trust as your manager now trusts you will come to them if you are struggling with something. This level of trust expands your opportunities.
- Seek out opportunities to contribute – by listening to what is going on around you, you will be presented with many opportunities to provide insight or help someone else. Opportunities present themselves all the time in team meetings, all hands meetings, customer meetings. You have expertise, look for ways to share that expertise in a way that supports another person, team or customer outside your regular work duties. Generosity builds influence.
- Grow your circle – set aside time weekly and seek out opportunities to connect with people in different parts of the organization and at different levels. Building relationships around the organization not only benefits you but benefits the organization. If you are highly engaged, you are going to contribute more. You might have something to offer that other people need, and neither of you will know if you don’t speak up. This also enlarges your circle of influence.
When people feel powerful, they contribute much more to their jobs, their teams, their customers, their organization. It’s a win-win. We’d love to hear how you are building influence from the bottom up!
*name changed to protect confidentiality