Most managers have it easy. They have the authority to ask, and expect compliance. Unlike them, project managers have little or no formal authority over our team-members. So you have to get things done by persuasion and influence.
This doesn’t come naturally to many people. And we aren’t taught it at school, either. In fact, since your toddler days of tantrums and intransigence, how many new strategies have you developed?
What I hear from Project Managers is that it is these sort of soft skills that concern them most. Planning, monitoring, and risk management are easy to learn. It’s the soft stuff that’s really hard. Things like confidence and assertiveness, or persuasion and influence, are vital skills. Yet project management training rarely covers them.
So this article will introduce you to some key ideas around influence and persuasion. It can only be an introduction. This is a huge topic that is the subject of many books of different styles. They include my own best-selling Brilliant Influence. Its 2nd edition is How to Influence in Any Situation (US, UK).
Have you ever been right? Of course.
And you knew you were right? Indeed.
Yet you struggled to persuade other people? Yes.
Despite having a sound, structured, logical argument?
The simple answer is that being right is rarely enough to persuade anyone. And that’s because we don’t make up our minds based on the facts.
No. We make decisions based on feelings and emotions. If you don’t address those, you can’t persuade people.
Logical reasoning is just a starting point for influencing them. It gives people a justification for making the decision they want to make. Persuasion and influence need to focus on what people want.
If you’re a Project Manager, persuasion and influence are a big part of your job. Think about all the people who will make decisions tat affect your project. And everyone who can help or hinder you. These are your stakeholders, and the objects of daily influence and convincing persuasion:
The list goes on, and they all have their own opinions. Where those opinions differ from yours… That’s where you need to persuade.
Three things underpin your influence. These are your:
They say ‘actions speak louder than words’ and that we should ‘walk the walk’ and not just ‘talk the talk’. These are cliches for a reason!
If you want to lead people, you need them to like and respect you. This means you actions must have integrity. They need to match your convictions all the time.
Here are some of the basics:
1: Courtesy and Respectfulness.
It costs nothing to be polite. But many PMs let stress lead to short tempers. They expect loyalty from their teams without earning it. And they have low tolerance for mistakes or uncertainty. But a little courtesy goes a long way, and the harder it feels, the more impact it will have.
A generous attitude is also a valuable asset. People remember favours and simple concessions. You may be surprised how powerful the ‘I’ve scratched your back…’ principle can be in building loyalty.
People have a refined sense of fairness. If you breach it, there will be a strong sense of grievance. So you must be sure you follow-through on your promises and commitments. If you don’t, you invite a reciprocal approach. And your influence will drop because people will no longer trust that you will keep your word.
Have you noticed that some people draw you to them?
There are some attitudes that we find attractive. And people who are attractive are more influential.
So, if you can adopt the right attitudes, persuasion and influence will follow easily.
For example, people respect calm detachment and a realistic assessment of the situation,. But they are drawn to optimism. So if you can find your own way to balance these two attitudes, you can win both respect and liking.
Tenacity is another character trait that we both like and respect. But you can take it too far. A dogmatic attitude and a refusal to compromise can undermine your reputation. Knowing what matters will allow you to stick to your guns where it counts. Elsewhere, a pragmatic adaptability will encourage stakeholders and team members to follow your lead.
For some people, the need to persuade and influence can lead to the Dark Side. So you have to ask, what sort of Project Manager do you want to be?
There are three approaches to influence, that I call ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’. And I’m sure you have met them all in the course of your career.
This style of influence depends on asserting yourself. It can soon become controlling, and even aggressive. Some projects managers seem as though they can’ help but throw their weight around. They try to coerce and compel actions. So they either promise rewards (bribery) or they threaten sanctions.
Clearly, celebrating and rewarding success are a valuable part of good project management. But when promises are hollow and threats get personal, that’s different. There is only one name for this behavior: bullying.
Some Project Managers are far more subtle. They make you feel as though you want to do something for them. But, these aren’t people you like and respect. Instead, you don’t feel good about it. Often, you cannot put your finger on what feels wrong. But yo may have a sense that you don’t have a choice. That’s because you are a victim of manipulation.
When your influence has total integrity, people feel good about helping you. They accept your advice and respect your opinion. You offer genuine choice, and people do as you ask because they want to.
Indeed, when we feel this kind of loyalty to someone we trust and respect, we will more for you than you ask. So, make long-term investments in your reputation. Get yourself known as a generous, respectful, and optimistic leader. Be someone who perseveres when it’s right, and who meets your commitments. This is the best professional investment you can make.
The gold standard for persuasion and influence is an inflential personality. With that, you’ll find you won’t need to do much persuading.
But, no matter how influential you are, it always helps to have a few extra tactics up your sleeve. So here are some of my favourite tips to help you with persuasion. I’ve chosen them from my book, ‘How to Influence in Any Situation (Brilliant Influence)’.
People don’t make choices based on reason, facts and logic. Recent world events show that.
Instead, we decide based on our emotional response to the situation. Then we use the evidence and reasoning that you give us, to justify our choice. And this is both for others and for ourselves. If you want to influence and persuade, neglect the emotional dimension at your peril. So it’s not true that emotions have no place in project management.
In the Disney movie, Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket became Pinocchio’s conscience. We all* have a Jiminy Cricket organ. It’s the part of your brains that makes you feel bad if you break a promise or renege on a commitment.
You can trigger that uncomfortable feeling, and make me want to comply. Psychologists call the feeling ‘cognitive dissonance’. It’s the discomfort of a conflict between two opposing truths. In this case:
Ooops! To trigger the Jiminy Cricket effect, you need to secure a clear commitment. And the more prominent it is, then the stronger the effect will be.
Look them in the eye and ask for a ‘yes’. And wait for them to say it out loud. Treat anything less than a clear yes as a ‘no’. Don’t accept it, but explore it and look for that yes.
Step up the effect by asking in a formal setting. And, better still, do it in front of colleagues. Amplify it to the max by asking in writing, and getting a written response.
Finally, politely remind them of their commitment two or three times ahead of the deadline.
* Actually, not quite everyone. Some personalities lack the feelings of guilt that most of us have, when we let other people down. Sadly, these people are not susceptible to most forms of influence. They are only persuaded by compulsion or self-interest.
As far back as the ancient Greeks, people have known a simple truth. Before I’ll even listen to your argument, you need to establish why I should listen to you.
I want to know the credentials of anyone who is trying to persuade me. Can I trust you? Do you understand my position? Do you know what you are talking about?
Are you one of us?
This is what skilled politicians focus on. Certainly, they spend more time on this than on their policy arguments. And the reason is simple. If they don’t establish their character and credibility, we won’t listen to anything else.
Why do we trust doctors and follow their advice?
We trust them because we know that they have had years’ of relevant training and experience. Well so have you.
As a project manager you have gained the scars and war stories. You’ll have access to the experience and knowledge of your team members and experts. And you are deeply immersed in the detail of your project. When you deploy these together, you have a massive level of credibility.
We are influenced by the character and authority of people, rather than the stuff they know. So, without being arrogant, make sure the people you need to persuade are aware of your credibility.
In my childhood, a UK TV advert asserted that:
“Eight out of ten cat owners, who expressed a preference, said their cat prefers…”
Why would this advert work?
Let me ask you another question… How many cat or dog owners taste their pet’s food?
So how do they know what to buy? Maybe the safest option is to go with what other pet owners do. This is known as ‘social proof’. And, where the stakes are low, it feels like the safe option. It saves making a decision for ourselves.
So engage others with your arguments, and build up a bank of social proof. Let other people do your persuasion for you.
People like to follow crowds, but they prefer to follow a leader. So, if you lead well, others will follow you.
When you show enough confidence in yourself, and you expect people to follow, they often will. Leading from the front is a powerful persuader. Often, the most powerful way to deploy this is to not even ask: just do it. This is sometimes called ‘role model leadership’.
Noting persuades as well as self interest. And WAM stands for ‘what about me?’
If you can align your request with my self-interest, I will happily comply . So put yourself in my shoes and ask:
‘What’s in it for you?’
When you understand the answer, persuasion and influence become easy.
Does your writing pass the 12 year-old test?
I pitch these articles at Grade 5 to 7; sometimes Grade 8. I aim for writing that’s accessible to 10 to 13 year-olds*. Not because they’re my audience, but because I know that if they can read it, you can too. And easily.
When you make your argument, make it as clear and concise as possible. The more confusing you are, the less you’ll persuade me. The more you repeat yourself, the lower your influence will be. The harder I have to work, the less I’ll trust you. So take care to structure your advocacy or your responses. And use easy words and short sentences.
* HemingwayApp rates this article as Grade 5; 10-11 year-olds.
In my years of training new and experienced Project Managers, I’ve found one thing they fear most of all. It’s resistance. In particular, Project managers fear resistance from our team members and our stakeholders.
But resistance is a good thing. It means people are engaging with your ideas. So welcome it. and listen to it. Because you may learn something useful.
But if you believe you are right, the simple strategy is always to keep inviting every last objection. This is what salespeople do. And when you’ve dealt with them every objection, there’s none left. You’ve ‘emptied the hopper’. What’s left is pure emotion.
You’re pretty smart. And so are the experts and specialists on your project.
And you all have a tendency to show this off. So you use long words, jargon, and even maths to prove it. Wrong!
People won’t trust you if they don’t understand you. And if they don’t trust you, they won’t do or think as you ask. You will fail to persuade them.
On the other hand, if the think they understand you, then they will feel smart. Then, they’ll trust you, and they will say to themselves ‘yes, that’s right; I get it.’
I’d love to hear your persuasion and influence tips, tactics and advice. Use the comments below to share you you influence and persuade. I’ll respond to every comment.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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