Increasing influence equity in project management
Project managers are the often-unsung heroes of organisations, who usually operate with little or no formal authority. Consequently, it is essential for them to develop their influence and communication skills, and raise their awareness of organisational politics. Drawing on the persuasion principles of Aristotle (350BC), Carnegie (1937), Cialdini (1984), Covey (1994, 2004), and others, as well as more than fifteen years of personal experience consulting and training on five continents, this paper provides a practical framework for them to do increase their capacity for consistently influencing others.
Using the analogy of financial equity – the more you have, the more ability you have to pursue your financial goals – the Influence Equity Model™ outlined in this paper shows project managers how to develop their long-term influence, while also achieving their short term objectives, and helping other stakeholders achieve theirs. Project managers can achieve this through developing their own competence in three key areas: developing their formal authority, nurturing relationships, and enhancing their character, credibility and interpersonal skills.
“The new kind of business hero must learn to operate without the might of the hierarchy behind them. The crutch of authority must be thrown away and replaced by their own ability to make relationships, use influence and work with others to achieve results” (Kanter 1989).
Kanter's description of the new business hero could have been written specifically for modern project managers. Not only are they the often-unsung heroes of organizations, but they usually operate with little or no formal authority behind them. Consequently, if they are to achieve successful project outcomes, it is essential that they develop their influence and communication skills. This requires a requisite increase in awareness of organizational politics, principles of influence, and sources of power and authority. It requires project managers to acquire or develop social networking skills, enhance communication skills, and foster relationships at every level of the organization and beyond.
As the organizations of the 21st century knowledge economy get flatter, and the organizational forms become more fluid, we find greater prevalence of “boundaryless” or virtual organizations and communities of practice, and an increase in “networks of networks” (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000; Fisher & Fisher, 1997; Cohen & Bradford, 2005). The traditional, hierarchical enterprise with its clearly defined levels through which people rise during a lifetime of service to the organization no longer exists. As relationships change, so do the ways in which power and authority are exercised and work is performed.
Project managers, particularly those operating in matrix project environments, are perhaps more accustomed to the new organizational structure than many others in management, given their experience in dealing with multiple reporting relationships and limited formal authority. However, even they need to improve their communication and influence skills with superiors and peers, as well as team members.
The principles of influence
The question of how to influence others has fascinated people from the earliest of times, and a review of current titles in a typical bookshop reveal a plethora of titles like: Artful Persuasion: How to Command Attention, Change Minds, and Influence People (Mills, 2000), Get Anyone to Do Anything: Never Feel Powerless Again – with Psychological Secrets to Control and Influence Every Situation (Lieberman, 2001), Maximum Influence: The 12 Universal Laws of Power Persuasion (Mortensen & Allen, 2004), The Science of Influence: How to Get Anyone to Say “Yes” in 8 Minutes or Less! (Hogan, 2004), How to Win Any Argument (Mayer, 2005), and so on. A search on the Internet reveals thousands of further articles and ebooks on influence, persuasion and getting what we want. Together, they promote an endless array of tools, techniques and “secret formulas” that “guarantee” sales, success and “getting your way”, by overt or covert means.
Some of the methods are more successful and more appropriate than others. Most will work for certain types of people, or in specific situations. Over the long-term, any of them could be counter-productive and destroy, rather than enhance, our ability to influence others.
It should be noted at this point that influence, like communication, is culturally and contextually sensitive; what works with one person in one environment or organization may not apply in another. We perceive our environment based on our genetic traits, our personality, and our experience of our society and environment during our formative years. As a result we implicitly take on acceptable behaviors of our identity groups, be they peers, parents, culture or even country. The very language we use is part of our culture. It affects our actions and influences what and how we learn (Britt, 1978). This concept has received considerable attention in the growing field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), first promulgated by the publication of Bandler & Grinder's The Study of Magic (1978) and the various works of Anthony Robbins.
Mortensen (2002) suggests that the various methods of influencing and bringing about change can be depicted in a hierarchy of effectiveness across time. Techniques built on control or coercion usually have a short-term impact, whereas those build on developing cooperation and commitment will endure far longer because they are usually rooted in consultative approaches based on gaining commitment through treating people with honor, trust and respect.
Power and influence
The short-term levels of change in Mortensen's hierarchy revolve around the expression of power. One of the challenges leaders have to overcome is negative connotations associated with power. Anecdotal evidence collected over the past several years, confirmed by a series of interviews conducted by CIO magazine with some of Australia's leading chief information officers, suggests Australians are averse to notions of power (Head 2006). Hargreaves' (2004) study of Australian project managers similarly points to project managers scoring very low on the Machiavellian Index, which measures people's capability, willingness and effectiveness in engaging in political manipulation. Pinto's (1998) study on power and politics within project management categorized attitudes towards political behavior as falling into one of three categories, namely:
- Naïve (“Low Mach”): people who believe politics is unpleasant and to be avoided at all costs. They believe the truth will ultimately win.
- Sensible: people who recognize that politics is a necessary part of organizational survival, and can be used to further the goals of the specific departments or projects. They focus on expanding their networks and giving/receiving favors.
- Sharks (“High Mach”): people who see politics as an opportunity for promoting their own interests, by whatever means necessary. “Friends” and resources are cultivated for personal gain.
The common perception is that “High Machs” are the big achievers, particularly in individualistic societies. However, David Wilson (cited in Paul, 1999) suggests that cooperative strategies – i.e. those that fit into Pinto's “Sensible” category or the long-term level of Mortensen's hierarchy – can work as effectively as exploitative strategies. This contention is borne out by the chief information officers interviewed by CIO (Head, 2006), who, when asked to complete the sentence “Power is…” made statements such as: “your accountability to get things done” (P. 49), “…influencing the business direction and strategy”(p. 44), and “…the ability and capacity to perform effectively(p.43)”.
The corporate officers mentioned above had what can be called “positional power”, i.e. a formal authority vested in their hierarchical position within the company (Cohen & Bradford, 2005; Hill, 1994). This is one of three primary sources of power they identify, the others being relational and personal power.
Positional power provides project managers with a logical base for influence within the organization. If we think of this in terms of formal or hierarchical authority, the project manager generally has very little positional power. However, a well-crafted Project Charter should provide a degree of formal authority, and set out the boundaries within which it can be exercised; consequently, project managers should ensure that this document is signed off at the outset of the project. Project managers should seek active senior sponsorship for their projects, and ensure that sponsors provide the requisite formal authority, should the need for this arise. This will be easier to achieve in projects that have high visibility or strategic importance within the organization.
Even without formal authority, project managers can also find creative ways of rewarding team members for, or motivating them towards, good work, both of which are important aspects of developing loyalty and high performing teams.
Positional power can be further enhanced through effective control of resources, such as project information. A well-designed communications management plan is one of the project manager's most powerful tools towards influence.
A third area in which project managers can gain positional power is through demonstrating knowledge and practical application of the skills required for their job. Many universities now offer management degrees in project management, while professional associations such as the Project Management Institute (PMI®) provide certification programs, which demonstrate a commitment to the industry and to improving one's own credibility and competence.
While developing positional authority may be a relatively difficult objective for project managers, the remaining two sources of power (relational and personal) are both within their realm. Relational power refers to the relationships we develop with those we interact with, both in the workplace and beyond. “People like doing business with people they like” is one of the mantras of sales training, and for good reason. We work through networks of people we know and trust.
Project managers should continually seek to develop their networks of relationships. The more time spent with people, the greater the interest shown in understanding their interests, needs and concerns, the more willing to engage in meaningful interaction and share confidences equally, the stronger the bonds that will form.
There is a negative connotation to this, in that it can foster cronyism; this is particularly prevalent in authoritarian and patriarchal societies, as was witnessed by the author in a recent visit to Pakistan. Several participants on the influence training course expressed severe doubts about fostering networks, believing that this would perpetuate the inequalities of the past.
Important as networks may have been in the past, they are essential for success in the 21st century. The key question is one of intent: successful networkers are those who don't focus on selfish gains (what the network can do for me), but on adding value to their associates.
The third source of authority, personal power, is the ability to create cooperation among others, submerge one's own ego, and adapt one's own behavioral and communication style and position to suit the needs of the other person(s). Developing personal power requires a commitment to developing a learning attitude, as well as assertiveness, communication and interpersonal skills, and emotional intelligence.
Project managers who can demonstrate expertise and a track record of success also have an enhanced credibility, and consequently a greater capability to wield that power in future projects. So too do project managers with specialist skills, in-depth information or knowledge, and a perceived indispensability.
By actively developing each source of power, project managers can systematically expand what Covey (1994) calls our “sphere of influence”, the zone in which we have credibility and recognition of expertise. By concentrating our efforts in these areas, rather than in our “sphere of concern” (matters which may interest us, but in which we do not have credibility, recognition or the ability to bring change), we are able to achieve greater effectiveness.
Note that all the sources of authority are not inherently positive or negative; rather, it's the intent behind how the influence is used (in the perception of the recipient!), that determines the ultimate impact we have. Utilizing any form of power or technique of persuasion for selfish purposes might gain us the short term victory, but at the cost of our future capabilities to influence and direct the thoughts and behaviors of those. It is through the judicious use of power, influence and persuasion over time, with the interests and welfare of the organization, its employees and other stakeholders at heart, that we are able to increase what can be termed our Influence Equity™.
The Influence Equity™ Model
Financial equity is a measure of the various financial resources available to a person or organization. The greater the positive difference between financial assets and liabilities, the greater the owner's equity, and the more capable the owner is of utilizing that equity towards attaining organizational or individual objectives.
Influence Equity™ is similar in concept, but the value is of an intangible nature, namely the level of trust one person places in another. Covey (1994) referred to it as an Emotional Bank Account, into which people can make deposits or withdrawals. The greater the value a person places on the account, the more trust develops and the greater the influence the individual exerts over others.
While the question of how to influence others has fascinated people from the earliest of times, the three key components of persuasion were identified by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Rhetoric of 350BC:
“Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character [ethos] of the speaker; the second on putting the audience in a certain frame of mind [pathos]; the third on the proof or apparent proof [logos], provided by the speech itself. Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and readily than others; this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.”
The three components of influence comprise a considerable degree of overlap. For example, the use of action-oriented words (“logos”) is also a reflection of an individual's character (“ethos”). The greater the area of overlap between the three components, the greater the degree of congruence in the messages delivered by the speaker, the more aligned the perceptions of the listeners, and the greater the trust engendered.
Applying the Influence Equity™ Model to Increase Effectiveness
While the full scope of the Influence Equity™ Model is too broad to cover in this paper, it provides project managers with practical framework against which they can seek to increase their Influence Equity, both for short term gain, as well as long-term expansion of their “sphere of influence” (Covey 1994).
Develop character (ethos)
As Aristotle stated, every persuasive speech should start by establishing the character and credibility of the speaker, in other words the authority the speaker has to address the particular subject. The project manager facing a Steering Committee or other Stakeholder in an influence situation needs to be a credible source of information. A typical listener's response would be, “Why should I listen to you?” The effective communicator gives the reasons right up front.
This entails not only having the information required, but sounding confident about it too! A nervous speaker who lacks confidence is unlikely to inspire or positively influence the listeners.
From an Influence Equity™ perspective, the ethos (character) component forms the very foundation of our ability to develop lasting influence capabilities. Like trust, influence and character take years to develop, and can be destroyed in an instant. Consequently, the project manager desiring to become more influential needs to continually:
- Heed the ethical and professional responsibilities outlined in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), as well as moral code of society.
- Examine and develop his or her own character and integrity (remember that character is what we are when no-one is looking).
- Evaluate his or her own mental filters and beliefs, which determine how s/he reacts to situations, and take steps to change any incorrect, inconsistent or harmful beliefs.
- Remember that trust cannot be forced, but has to be earned over time, and that over time our true character will be revealed in the results we obtain.
- Develop his or her mental, physical, emotional and spiritual intelligence, in order to lead a balanced and effective life.
Nurture passion (pathos)
Aristotle's second point was to put people “in the right frame of mind”. Effective, influential communication is not simply a matter of what we say, but of how, why, when and to whom we do so.
Research by Mehrabain and Ferris (1967) suggests that, in persuasive communication, content accounts for only 7% of the overall impact of the message. The remainder is made up of nonverbal cues, such as body language and vocal delivery. When the words are not aligned with the listeners' interpretation of nonverbal cues, the latter take precedence, and the impact of the message is destroyed. Consequently, when attempting to influence people, the communicator needs to ensure that the nonverbal message is congruent with the verbal.
Rapport – the identification of the speaker with the listener through common use of personal space and voice, body language and physiology, energy levels, communication style, and word usage – is one of the key Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) concepts taught in sales and psychotherapy training and appears in every text covering NLP concepts. The art of building rapport can be a powerful tool for project managers if used correctly and subtly. The overuse or blatantly manipulative attempts to match or mirror the other person's end up having the opposite effect, and destroy rapport.
Project managers should also work on their communication skills in terms of creating powerful emotive images, utilizing words, phrases and concepts that strike a chord with the listeners (addressing the so-called WIIFM – what's in it for me). Many of the books mentioned in the introduction refer to metaprograms or hard-wired triggers in the brain that, if used, guide listeners' perceptions towards predefined outcomes. A simple example of this is the use of the word “but”, as opposed to the use of “and”. Although both are conjunctions, they have radically opposite effects, as can be demonstrated by a simple exercise. Ask two people to have a discussion about choices for one minute. Each person has to begin every speaking turn with the words, “Yes, but…”. This will quickly lead to frustration on both parts. If they try the same exercise again, but this time begin each speaking turn with the words, “Yes, and…” the conversation will be far more productive and enjoyable. This is simple one of many examples of the power specific words have in shaping perceptions and attitudes (see Tannen, 2002, and Davis, 2004).
Aristotle's persuasion component can also be applied to developing ongoing influence equity in a number of ways. First and foremost is the requirement to develop pathos or passion; building relationships founded on mutual respect and empathic listening. As already noted, relational power is one of the three sources of authority available to project managers, and the point is worth emphasizing again: influence is about working through people. We work most effectively through people we trust and respect, people we are willing to listen to. For this reason it is essential that project managers develop a habit of regular informal meetings with key stakeholders (weekly in the case of their project sponsor).
A considerable portion of Cohen and Bradford's Influence without Authority (2005) is devoted to building relationships through reciprocity and exchanging favors (termed “influence currencies”) with diverse people within the organization and beyond. Cialdini (1984, 2001) also identified reciprocity as one of the six universal laws of influence. Carnegie's seminal work in influence, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1937, reprinted 1989) cites scores of examples of some of the world's great leaders taking an active interest in the personal lives of their subordinates, thereby building a loyalty far more powerful than could be achieved through logic or words alone.
Apply logic (logos)
The final component identified by Aristotle is the logic of the actual argument being presented. This requires ongoing environmental and stakeholder analysis, and detailed preparation prior to any influence interaction.
To deliver effective messages and craft meaningful trades, they must be framed in terms of the interests, needs and perceived options of the specific person(s) being influenced, and must draw on the preferred communication and decision-making styles and influence currencies of those individuals. Watson (2000) provides four simple yet powerful strategies to this end, which are elaborated in Oschadleus (2004).
It should also be emphasized that the definition of “meaningful” in this context is in the eye of the recipient, not the giver.
Project managers seeking greater Influence Equity™ should work systematically and logically towards developing their sources of authority (personal, relational and positional), while also increasing their communication and interpersonal skills, and enhancing their visibility and reputation for successful outcomes and empathic approach to team members, peers and customers.
Building Influence Equity™, like trust, takes time to build, and can be destroyed in an instant. And like trust, the real value of Influence Equity™ is determined by the other person's perceptions rather than by the would-be influencer's intentions. It's not easy, and it's not a one-off event.
It's worth remembering the old parable of two men who built identical houses. One laid the foundations in the sand, and was quickly able to erect the shell, roofing and fittings. Soon he was resting on the porch, drink in hand, jeering his neighbor who was still diligently digging out the foundations in solid rock. Eventually the second house was complete, and the second man could also relax. From the outside the houses looked identical. But when a massive storm hit the area, the first man's house crumbled right up front. The second man's house stood firm.
Influence and persuasion skills are similar. The project manager can employ many techniques and skills to get his/her way, and for a while this may work well. But in time, the foundations on which those skills are built will be called on to stand up against challenges. The project manager who has learned the art of selling, manipulating and persuading will be found wanting, while those who built up their Influence Equity™ will endure.
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© 2007, Jürgen Oschadleus
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Hong Kong