Earning the right to influence

Bill Richardson PMP, PgMP

President, The Perdix Group Inc.

Leadership is authentic influence that creates value. Besides managing, project managers are expected to lead. Because effective leadership is about effective influence, this paper approaches the topic of influence in a unique way by separating and valuating compliance and commitment differently. Although teams freely provide compliance, they are much more discerning about providing commitment. This paper zeros in on five key strategies for optimizing stakeholder engagement by earning the right to tap into this valuable commitment reservoir.


In my many years working, consulting, and training in the business world, people (including project managers) consistently identify influence as their most sought-after, but equally elusive, soft skill or capability. Not only is there a lack of shared meaning on the term itself, but also is often equated to rank or position. Interestingly, most people approach influence as something they have, as opposed to something they do.

What they do not understand is that the people they want to influence are the decision makers, in that they decide whether they will be influenced and in what mode. By mode, I mean either in a committed state where their brains are emotionally and mentally fully engaged or in a compliance mode where this is not the case.

Excellent influence skills are necessary for project managers. As vanguards of change, they are the face of new ways of doing things and the stakeholder discomfort that comes with it. Stakeholders do not resist change; they resist being changed.

While in the vortex of change, stakeholders experience the numbing impacts of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (commonly called VUCA), all of which dramatically reduce their receptivity to committing to anything but their personal survival. This is the environment project managers must lead and manage in, day in and day out. To prevail in this environment, stakeholder compliance is not enough. We need commitment and a deep level of trust in the motives and capabilities of project managers to navigate through these turbulent waters. The truth is that stakeholders do not open up to this level of trust easily. It must be earned, not learned, through earning a Project Management Professional (PMP)® or Program Management Professional (PgMP)® certification. It must be earned through a series of strategies presented in this paper.

Principles Behind the Right to Influence

The premise of this idea is simple and profound. Instead of automatically assuming that the stakeholders in your project or program will be persuaded by the brilliance of your rationale or the righteousness of your cause, engage with them with the attitude that you have to demonstrate your worthy intent. Think of influence in the same way that people buy any product or service: (1) Is the seller's intent worthy and focused on win-win; (2) does the seller demonstrate warmth and friendliness, especially during our interactions; and (3) does the seller demonstrate consistent competence to deliver quality as promised?

When all three of these elements line up, the buyer decides to purchase. If the seller has a monopoly on the product, and the buyers are only buying because there are no alternatives, they are not buying because they want to; they are buying because they must.

This is exactly what happens in the world of work. Project managers are in the market for commitment, but because of (1) their self-serving intent and lack of warmth and friendliness, especially under pressure, and (2) their perceived lack of leadership competence, only compliance is for sale. If they want to buy commitment, they will have to come up with a better offer.

This paper is about being willing to come up with a better offer for stakeholder commitment, an offer that does the following:

  • Demonstrates investment in building a unique promise of value delivery called a personal brand that clearly communicates what you are known for, stand for, and are capable of becoming. This is Strategy 1. We are promoted on our brand as much as or more than on our performance. This first strategy lets your positive reputation in this space lead the way. The impact of the reverse of this strategy is equally intense. A reputation for inconsistency or self-absorption will most likely mean that you never reach purchase commitment. You have to make do with compliance.
  • Recognizes the criticality of connecting before you communicate. If the stakeholders you intend to influence are unaware of your brand, then Strategy 2 is your next go-to approach. This strategy is about demonstrating your worthy intent by being willing to pay attention to what other people value and need along with what you value and need. The key to this strategy is being willing to connect before you communicate. This strategy will be underpinned with a model for social interaction called SCARF (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, fairness) that helps participants negotiate perhaps one of the most difficult elements of influence.
  • Promotes a multiplying, as opposed to diminishing, leadership style. Strategy 3 builds on Strategies 1 and 2. It focuses on multiplying stakeholder skills and abilities as opposed to diminishing them. Your mindset in this area (I am the smartest, as opposed to we are the smartest) is a factor in whether commitment is made available to you for purchase. Diminishers seldom get to buy commitment, mostly because they do not think they need it. Without commitment, project managers do not have a stakeholder with cognitive thinking abilities operating at peak performance. In today's VUCA environment, team cognitive skills consistently working at peak performance are necessary.
  • Builds awareness of the need to pay attention to our thinking. With the solid brand promise of Strategy 1 and the thorough knowledge of how to navigate the social domain from Strategy 2, and a clear we-are-the-smartest mindset from Strategy 3, Strategy 4 focuses on your ability to pay attention to your thinking. This strategy is about “minding the gap” between stimulus and response. The thinking that occurs in this gap is either consciously based or unconsciously based and determines largely how people experience you and your brain. This strategy provides a simple model for how to pay attention to what has your attention. This simple ability separates the mediocre project manager from the world-class project manager.
  • Energizes influence as process, not an event. Strategy 5 integrates all the previous strategies by framing influence as a process, and not as an event. Just as one meeting with an individual stakeholder does not establish a relationship, it takes several positive experiences over time to establish a strong relationship. Strategy 5 introduces a three-step model that integrates all five strategies into a repeatable, easy-to-learn approach using a propeller metaphor, which helps project managers remember that influence is something you do versus something you have. With the three blades of the propeller, connect, mobilize, and sustain in motion, project managers have the momentum and direction required to steer a course for the team.

Operationalizing the Five Strategies

The glue that binds these five strategies is the concept of earning the right to influence as opposed to assuming that right exists because of your rank, age, knowledge, or intellect. Simply put, compliance is available from anyone. Compliance means that your followers do exactly what is asked and sometimes no more, because they do not feel it is safe to do otherwise. Commitment, on the other hand, has a bigger price or prerequisite—that is, worthy intent. These five strategies build on one another by strengthening the project manager's worthy intent factor, which in turn leads to followers engaging fully in the project's vision and mission, both mentally and emotionally. Each strategy is profiled below in how it contributes to full engagement through five key words: promise, attention, reach, objectivity, and time.

Strategy 1—Grow, Protect, and Promote Your Personal Brand

In the eyes of the person or team influenced, this strategy reveals the strength of your promise. Simply put, a reputation for being highly capable and exhibiting a solid character and commitment to learning and growth establishes a strong base for commitment. It also sets a positive expectation that will assist in building rapport and harmony quickly.

Your personal brand is your unique promise of value delivery and your most important asset. It likely determines whether you are promoted or given additional opportunities. Understanding the power of your promise, or personal brand, changes how you think about your unique value proposition in your job, career, or industry. Your personal brand is either a stepping-stone to achievement or an obstacle to a solid return on hard work and expertise.

Though powerful, promise can be misinterpreted. With personal brand, it means commitment to consistently delivering value in everything you undertake. Your commitment to constantly striving to improve yourself and your contribution is sometimes called your offer. A strong promise opens doors of opportunity. A weak promise closes them. We all have a promise.

Think of your promise as a tangible asset with numerate value that, over time, appreciates, stays neutral, or depreciates, unless you improve it. There are three ingredients:

  1. Capability includes the mindsets, skill sets, and tool sets you use to get things done. Disabling mindsets that affect attitude and overall behavioral approaches to conflict and resistance holds many people back.
  2. Character refers to the beliefs, values, and traits shaping your behavior while getting things done. For example, if you believe that micromanagement is a valid leadership approach, you continually demoralize your direct reports and stakeholders by constantly “jumping in to save the day.” Unfortunately, it defines you in your stakeholders’ eyes and compromises your promise.
  3. Commitment is your eagerness to continually learn, to adapt to required change accompanying growth, and to master your field. People more likely believe your promise's quality when you model self-discipline and support for the greater good, locally or globally.

Today's business, multicultural, globalized environment, expects relationships to be built while getting results. A project manager's ability to influence others and build relationships depends as much on “brand recognition” as it does on face-to-face or voice-to-voice communication in the moment. A strong brand in which you are known for devotion to connecting, rather than confronting, for example, is a key differentiator for your career and your personal life. Bottom line—your personal brand matters!

Strategy 2—Pay Attention to What People Value and Need

In the eyes of the person or team influenced, this strategy reveals a great deal about your leadership philosophy and, most important, where you focus your attention. Instead of paying attention to only what you value and need, the secret is to pay attention first to what the people you want to influence value and need. This mindset and approach dramatically increases the likelihood of establishing a connection or relationship.

When you combine what the other person values and needs with what you value and need, you have the “grist for the mill.” The grist is both sets of what is valued and needed. The mill is the processing or aligning of these two perspectives into a shared purpose or outcome. Influencing effectively is about connecting with people by paying attention to what they value and need.

Paying attention to what people value and need is one thing. Understanding what they value and need is another question. To answer it, let's turn to the world of neuroscience and, in particular, how we as humans are wired to avoid threats and seek rewards as we interact with our environment. Social neuroscientists believe that we all are born with a social network that helps us understand and connect with others and, equally important, control ourselves.

The bottom line is that social issues matter to our brain and are the table stakes in the quality of human interactions. David Rock, in his book Your Brain at Work, describes a five-domain model of social experience that your brain treats in much the same way as the survival issues that our ancestors faced many centuries ago.

The model is called SCARF and stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. Think of the SCARF model as providing a language for social or connecting interactions that are often outside the conscious realm. If we circle back to the notion that our brain focuses on a simple mission—to minimize threats and maximize rewards—we can use SCARF to become more proactive in deliberately enabling reward-seeking behavior, sometimes referred to as “moving toward.”

Equally important is the opportunity to be more deliberate in avoiding inadvertent and unconscious behaviors that cause a threat response, commonly called “moving away” behavior. The SCARF model provides a simple, easy-to-use, easy-to-teach tool for answering the question “What do people value and need, regardless of personality type or cultural orientation?”

As a project manager, you either tear down or build up one or more SCARF elements in your daily dealings with your team and other key stakeholders. When people feel good about how they experience you, even though they might not appreciate where you are directing your attention (that is, to SCARF elements), their willingness to be influenced by you continues to increase over time.

Strategy 3—Lead by Multiplying, Not Diminishing

In the eyes of the person or team influenced, this strategy delivers a simple phenomenon called reach. Reach is critical to attract followers because reach is about extending, expanding, and growing. People follow a project manager whom they think has reach and who continually expands his or her reach, especially when that expanding comes from effectively multiplying what people bring to the team. The multiplier's mindset is rooted in the belief that “we are the smartest.” Multipliers are genius makers and bring out the intelligence in others. They build collective, viral intelligence in organizations.

Liz Wiseman, in her book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, describes five disciplines and mindsets associated with the multiplier leader:

  1. The Talent Magnet: Attracts and optimizes talent
  2. The Liberator: Requires people's best thinking
  3. The Challenger: Extends challenges
  4. The Debate Maker: Debates decisions
  5. The Investor: Instills accountability

In contrast, the diminisher-oriented project manager believes “I am the smartest,” and therefore, team members are simply required to execute tasks and operate as a pair of hands. These project managers are absorbed in their own intelligence, stifle others, and deplete the organization of crucial intelligence and capability. Although it is true that the reach factor is in play for the diminisher as well, it is significantly restrained by the project manager's pair-of-hands mentality and resultant delegation approach.

Bottom line—by extracting people's full capability, multipliers get twice as much capability from people as diminishers do. By looking beyond their own genius so they can focus their energy on extracting and extending the genius of others, they extend their reach and, most important, their circle of influence.

Strategy 4—Pay Attention to Your Thinking

In the eyes of the person or team being influenced, this strategy provides a critical ingredient for trust—objectivity. Most dictionaries define objectivity as the quality or state of being just and unbiased. Project managers who pay attention to their thinking, especially under stress, establish a unique level of self-awareness in how their brain functions. As discussed in Strategy 2, success depends on being willing and able to pay attention to what has your attention. We are hardwired to think both fast and slow. Daniel Kahneman, in his groundbreaking book Thinking Fast and Slow, introduced us to a simple metaphor to explain the perils of autopilot thinking.

According to Kahneman, we have two modes of thinking: one automatic and intuitive, which he calls System 1, and another, more deliberate and methodical he refers to as System 2. He asserts we are hardwired to rely on System 1 to make fast, intuitive judgments about what is good and bad, whom to be friends with, and what we should be doing at any moment. Although System 2 is present, it must be consciously mobilized to do the slower, more methodical analysis and synthesis when System 1 requires help. For example, if I asked you what the result of 5 times 5 is, your System 1 would say 25 in a split second and would be comfortable with the answer. However, if I asked what 83 times 156 is, your System 1 would either make up an answer or mobilize your System 2 to go through the step-by-step logical multiplication process we all learned and might have forgotten since school.

The problem comes when our fast, intuitive Systems 1makes decisions and judgments unknown to us that we should pass to our slower, more logical Systems 2. This is where systematic mistakes, known to psychologists as cognitive biases, creep in. The bottom line is that, usually, we judge most things without consciously thinking or considering the entire picture or context, often referred to as lacking in objectivity.

Project managers who recognize the value and impact of being known as a consistently objective person have a powerful personal brand advantage, as discussed in Strategy 1. A common approach to nurturing this critical brand attribute involves a process called curiosity before judgment. Think of it as our innate eagerness to learn, which when mobilized, functions as a break or inhibitor for “rushing to judgment” and “jumping to conclusions.”

Project managers who script this critical behavior of consciously being curious about the full context of an event or situation before making any judgment establish a powerful capability for solving problems and making decisions. Project managers earn the right to be influential when their objectivity is consistently demonstrated on a 360-degree basis—that is, upward, downward, and to the left and right on the organizational chart.

Strategy 5—Energize Influence as a Process, Not an Event

In the eyes of the person or team influenced, this strategy provides one of the precious elements in corporate work life today—time. By recognizing that influence is something you do as opposed to something you have, project managers can begin to model a three-step process for influencing people to action: 1) connect, 2) mobilize, and 3) sustain.

Step 1—Connect:

By demonstrating the power of social interaction, as illustrated in Strategy 2 with SCARF, we can significantly improve the quality of our influence capability by simply spending time up front opening a channel of communication. We can do this through facilitating dialogue, building trust, drawing out opinions, and, of course, listening. This step often is skipped, with hidden disastrous consequences. The Relatedness factor in SCARF is one of the most important social elements.

Project managers who jump right in, immediately, to “business” unwittingly signal their disrespect for this social need. When you are known as a project manager who respects people's need to relate, you automatically elevate your influence potential and earn the commitment of your followers. We are social animals who need social interaction!

Step 2—Mobilize:

As Step 1 is about opening a channel, Step 2 is about initiating action, or mobilizing. Mobilizing is a big part of a project manager's role, especially in large, complex projects that span both organizations and geographies. There are four foundational behaviors when mobilizing people to action: tell, sell, negotiate, and enlist:

  1. Tell—This is the go-to behavior where you influence people by exposing/expressing a need for which action is required. As a tactic, “tell” can work in the short term, but in today's cross-cultural, cross-border, highly virtual environments, you lose impact as time progresses.
  2. Sell—This is the behavior most people associate with deception or shallowness. In my leadership workshop, I constantly conduct unofficial polls on different questions. Usually, regardless of the continent, the answer to my question, “How many of you have read a book or taken a course on sales in the last year?” is zero. Project managers need to sell ideas, concepts, governance, and so on; not being effective at sales presents a major constraint.
  3. Negotiate—This is a behavior I ask about in much the same way as sales. Although more people typically have taken a course or read a book on negotiation, there has been little practical application.
  4. Enlist—This behavior is closely connected with visioning. Persuading a team member to commit sometimes can only happen with this enlistment/visioning influence tactic. This tactic involves helping team members visualize themselves enjoying a special accomplishment or emotional state as a result of collaborating with you. It can be a powerful motivator when executed with sincerity and selflessness.

Each of these four tactics requires strong facilitation and communication skills.

Step 3—Sustain:

With Step 1 opening a channel and Step 2 initiating action, Step 3 prolongs that action through four key tactics:

  1. Acknowledge—recognize contribution, which ties directly back into the earlier discussion on SCARF
  2. Redirect—a feedback tactic focusing on identifying specific behavior that is not working and that needs to be redirected in another way
  3. Reinforce—also a feedback strategy, but focuses on identifying specific behavior that is working well and needs to be repeated
  4. Follow-up—a tactic focused on ensuring that commitments are followed through

This sustain step is often overlooked—especially the role that feedback plays in maintaining high engagement.

Think of these three steps in the process—connect, mobilize, and sustain—as a three-bladed propeller that must be kept in motion if you want to maintain momentum. Strategy 5 demonstrates to your team your commitment to influence as something you do as opposed to something you have. The propeller metaphor is a sure way to energize and inspire team commitment to the process.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Canada: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Rock, D. (2009). Your brain at work. Toronto, Canada: Harper Collins.

Wiseman, L. (2010). Multipliers: How the best leaders make everyone smarter. Toronto, Canada. Harper Collins.

© 2015, Bill Richardson, PMP, PgMP
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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