2 min read

A feel-good definition of influence

A feel-good definition of influence
Photo by Elijah Macleod / Unsplash

When we talk about having influence in the workplace, it is often presented as being in the room for critical decisions, having visibility for your work, or persuading other people to align with your agenda. This framing around influence makes me feel manipulative, uneasy, and gross.

Recently, I've been asking a few people whom I respect as to how they define influence. Through these conversations, I arrived at a few principles that helped me better understand the value of influence, and feel good about growing this skill.

Influence is understanding what is important

Influence is having a pre-existing relationship with someone. That way when something comes up, you can just go talk to them about it. You're not a completely random person, suddenly showing up at their door.

Having a sphere of influence is doing that at scale and within certain groups.

You build your influence with someone by meeting with them regularly, but you don't want to just show up and talk about the weather. You want to do a little homework and find out what is important to that person. For example, some questions you might ask are:

  • What do you think is important to our organization?
  • What do you think we need to change?
  • What are the things that we are aiming towards?

You want to get to a point where you understand that person well enough, and have them understand you well enough, so that you can bring things up with them, and they will be receptive to it. As you come up with ideas for how to solve their problems, you can say, "I think we need X, because I understand that Y is important to you, and X will help further Y."

Influence is prioritization

Influence is creating a good strategy. That takes a long time. If you propose something without first understanding the problems, you will cause people to be deeply skeptical.

The worst thing in the world is when an exec comes in and in their first month and presents their 40-slide presentation on the new direction for the organization and creates chaos because they don't understand the existing systems. See also Chesterton's Fence.

You need to first learn the technical potholes in your organization. What are the scary bits that exist and why are they that way? Then you can come up with a technical direction, which is basically just prioritization. What are the most important things that we need to do, and what is the order that we need to do these things in? You are the person creating the structure and the glue. That's what influence is.

Influence is bringing people along

Influence is having an impact on other people. You should always make sure you know who your work is impacting. Influence is first and foremost about getting the job done, but then you want to bring people in and make it clear why they should care. State the obvious for them:

  • Here's what you said
  • Here's what we did based on the information
  • Here's how it benefits you

You want to show people that there is an area where you are the expert and they can lean on you for it. To do that, you should always know what the impact of your work is, and on whom. Let teams know when they are impacted by your work. That's how you develop influence.