Simon Chadwick, Managing Partner, Cambiar Consulting, will present the workshop, "Influencing Skills: How to Ensure That Your Insights Lead to Business Impact" at NEXT, June 1-2 in New York

We hear the word “influencer” a lot these days, mainly denoting someone on a social media platform who specializes in “influencing” the opinions and behaviors of others with respect to specific products. In many cases, these “influencers” are paid for their skills; in some cases, they rise up to this status organically. References to this type of influencer are not always complimentary but their very existence reinforces what marketers and researchers have known for a long time – that people’s behavior can be affected by what others around them are doing and thinking, particularly if those others hold a position of esteem in one way or another.

In the modern insights profession, the ability to influence has assumed new importance. Gone is the old idea that research is there merely to inform. Now it is realized that unless your insights result in action they have very little value. After all, the true value of insights lies in the effect they have on the organization’s success, whether that be measured in sales, profitability, cost reduction or any other metric. But how can you ensure that your insight will actually affect any of those things? You have to use your influence over management to ensure that they act on the insight.

Influence: n. The act or power of producing an effect in indirect or intangible ways (Webster).

The degree to which you can ensure that management acts on your insights depends on many things: the relevance of the insights to the key business issue at hand; your ability to communicate the insights and their implications in a clear and persuasive manner; the way you tell the story. But it also depends on how influential you are – which, in its turn, is the product of many different factors: What’s your status in the organization? How well does management know you? Do you have a track record with them?

While all of these factors are things built up over time, many people do not realize that influencing is also a skill that can be learned and honed. Doing so, however, requires a lot of self-awareness as well as willingness sometimes to subjugate your own natural instincts and character to the needs of the situation. The starting point here is to understand a very basic truth about human communication: what you intend is very rarely what is perceived.

Take, for example, a situation in which a close friend of yours has developed a worrying relationship with alcohol. As a friend, your strong desire is to help this person recognize this dependency and seek help. So, you approach her and suggest that perhaps she should join AA and get support for kicking her habit. Your intent here is all good. You are concerned for your friend, you want to prevent her from damaging herself and you want to help. But the way in which she receives your suggestion is very likely to misinterpret your intent. She sees you as interfering in her life, as judging her to be a bad person. She gets angry and defensive, rejects your suggestion and possibly ends the friendship. What started out as a good intention to influence her behavior has rebounded on you, with huge negative consequences.

Not all situations are so bad as this, but think about even the smallest of interactions that you have every day. For example, you suggest to your husband that it would be good to clean the car. He takes it as you criticizing his car husbandry, something he is very proud of. What was intended was not what was received.

Influencing, therefore, is a very delicate art. What’s more, most of us do not realize that our core characters can dictate our natural influencing style. Some of us are more prone to a “push” style, where we are perhaps prescriptive, even a little overbearing. Others are more drawn to a “pull” style, where we draw the other person in and where we are empathetic to their views and needs. There are two things that are interesting about this:

  1. Most of us do not recognize what our natural influencing style is;
  2. None of us realize that influencing styles can be learned.

To be effective at influencing, you first have to be keenly aware of your natural style. This is your default, the way in which you instinctively address a situation with another person. If that person and/or situation is not aligned with your style, the end result can be disastrous. I once worked for a boss whose instinctive approach was highly prescriptive with an overlay of sneering that made people in his presence feel belittled. Needless to say, they avoided him like the plague and staff turnover was unnaturally high. But it can work the other way as well. If your style is highly empathetic and rests on drawing people to their own conclusions, this will not work well with someone who is naturally highly indecisive.

So, awareness of your own natural style has to be a starting point for learning how to influence effectively. Only then can you start to recognize when different styles might work better for different situations. Once open to this concept, people swiftly learn that there are many delicate and nuanced shades of style, the deployment of which will depend on a number of questions:

  1. Who is the person you are trying to influence?
  2. What will the insights mean for them, both professionally and personally?
  3. What is their agenda?
  4. What is their natural influencing style? (This can swiftly be determined in a face-to-face meeting)
  5. What is their receptivity?
  6. How much time do they have?
  7. Who else influences them?

Working out the right style to use can also be informed through observation and careful listening. What’s the other person’s body language? What questions are they asking? What lies behind those questions?

The more that you can understand the messages that you are receiving, the more you can model your influencing style to the occasion and the person – and the more influence you will have.

Learn these concepts in depth and develop the ability to influence in every facet of your work by attending Simon's workshop, "Influencing Skills: How to Ensure That Your Insights Lead to Business Impact" at NEXT, June 1-2 in New York