When I was young my parents would tell me in advance that we would be going to the state fair in the summer, so saved my nickels, dimes, and quarters so I could play all the games. There was a rush of excitement as I walked towards the midway, the center of the fair where all of the games were. The lights, the sounds, the smell of the food, the excitement of winning stuff no matter what it was, and the Carnys, the people who ran the games, would call out to entice you to test your skills.
I would toss coins to win plates, mugs, glasses, and bowls, throw darts to pop balloons, shoot moving targets with a BB gun, throw balls at bowling pins, toss a ring around a post, and shoot baskets with an overinflated basketball into a hoop barely larger than the ball all to win stuff that I didn’t need. Oh, the fun of it all.
As I got older, I would watch the people who ran the games. As soon as you got within earshot they began to call you friend, they complimented you, they told you that you looked like someone smart who could beat the game and win the prize. Then, to add to the, be my friend approach, they would demonstrate how easy it was to win and even give you some hints on how to win. Yeah, they left out the important stuff of how to beat the game. When you ran out of money they told you to go ask your parents for a few more dollars because you were sooooooooo close to winning the giant stuffed animal you want to give to your girlfriend. Influence or manipulation?
Will you be my friend and follow me?
Las Vegas the adult carnival. Walk into any casino and you are smacked in the face with the ugliest carpet imaginable designed to keep you from looking down so you will look at the machines, the flashing lights, hear the winning bells ringing all over the place, and people yelling as they win. If you are spending money, free drinks and a buffet loaded with food. All the action is designed to get you to stay in their casino and be excited to give them all your money. Influence or manipulation?
Now there is the internet carnival. Influencers hawking items or themselves. They want you to be their friend and follow them. They work at entertaining, selling, and pushing products, services, opinions, and their image, they are critics who criticize others for entertainment and will do anything else that they can make money. Heck, they will share five easy steps on how to be an influencer for a price, but they never give you the whole story because they want you to come back and buy more training. If they’re good at it they can make a lot of money and there is nothing wrong with making money, but the reason behind all of it comes into question. Are they influencers or manipulators?
I spent over 20 years in advertising and during that time the line between influencing and manipulation became very blurred. One of my jobs was to make sure advertising campaigns were developed and designed to get people to buy things they didn’t need, didn’t want, or had no idea existed and now they have to have whatever it was we were selling. Influencing or manipulation?
I want you to follow me for a reason
Not all people on the internet are looking to make an easy dollar. Some people truly want to share information, educate others on better or right ways to do things, they want to share their skill, talent, and knowledge, and in some cases for entertainment, and they do it because it means something to them and they hope it means something to the viewer or the listener. If they make money from what they are doing it becomes a by-product of their effort or passion, not the reason.
I watch and follow a lot of artists, bloggers, and musicians, and I watch and listen to podcasts and videos to learn stuff. There is a lot of value once you get past the carnival. To me, these people are the real influencers, the teachers, idea presenters, learning challengers, and the people who freely share their knowledge to help others better themselves.
The search for the line between influence and manipulation
About 10 years ago a book came out on the New York Times Bestseller list titled, Influencer, The New Science of Leading Change. I thought wow, I want to read what the authors have to say about this after all they wrote the two books, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Accountability and I enjoyed these books. I read the first two chapters of Influencer and decided it was a book about manipulation, I threw it on my bookshelf and never picked it up again. How wrong I was.
I was assisting an organization through a change initiative and I got an opportunity to work with a master facilitator, I will call him Mark, from the organization called Crucial Learning, yes this learning organization was developed by the authors who wrote all three books including Influencer. The problem was I never got over the idea that the book Influencer was about manipulation.
At the beginning of the training I was involved in with Crucial Learning, I had to ask Mark if he could tell me the difference between influencing and manipulation. I had to get it out of my system to move forward. He said I can tell you in one word the difference between influencing and manipulation.
I knew what Mark was going to tell me I just didn’t want to hear it because I didn’t want to be wrong. You probably know what Mark told me, he said, intent. He asked me when I develop training using a certain business or leadership model, what’s my intent? I said my intent was to present alternative ways to do business or develop better leadership skills. He asked me if I was manipulating them into using a certain model. I said no, I’m sharing different ways they can better themselves based on their needs, and I’m giving them alternatives to consider.
He looked right at me and asked me again what my intent was. I paused for a moment and actually out of frustration I blurted out, to create an environment where others can choose to change their behaviors for their personal or professional benefit. He said, yes, you are influencing others to better themselves. Manipulators use their power of influence to get what they want.
What I learned about influencing change
Mark went on to teach me about how to use influence to create an environment where we can identify individual and team behaviors to help change the way we react to change and the effects change has on us.
I am a change agent meaning I work to promote and enable change within any group or organization. Does that mean I agree with all the changes all the time? No. There have been many strategic change initiatives that I didn’t agree with. Even though I didn’t agree with the change I needed to support it and I needed to help my team to support it as well.
As leaders, we influence people every day and yes, sometimes we manipulate people as well. What is our intent? Is it to make us look good as leaders? Is it to help the team mitigate destructive habits or behaviors that derail a change initiative? Do we manipulate people in a way to make our job easier? Do we use our time to coach someone to help build or reinforce good behavior for them?
When you are about to do something that affects people, ask yourself, “What is my intent?”
Exercise | Deliberate practice
This is a deliberate practice that you need to do for yourself. Before you walk through the office doors or sit down at your computer, ask yourself what’s your intent for the day. There is nothing wrong with wanting things to go better for yourself, just remember to ask what is in it for them as well.
Practice influencing yourself. Pick two behaviors that you can practice.
Behavior has these three elements:
- It’s specific
- It’s observable
- It’s repeatable
Let’s say you decided to pick two personal challenges to work on:
- You want to improve your active listening so people feel more included in conversations with you.
- You want to improve a leader coach skill to better identify challenges.
Behavior – listening skill
To improve your active listening skills you decided to focus on giving your full attention to whoever is talking with you.
Your behavior is, giving your full attention. Does it meet the three requirements?
- It’s specific, it means you stop what you are doing and divert your attention and focus to that person. You are focusing on one skill, not all six active listening skills and you know when you are listening.
- It’s observable, yes, especially to anyone speaking with you.
- It’s repeatable, yes, every time you are engaged with people you practice this behavior.
Now, you look for the crucial moments when you practice this behavior. A crucial moment is a point in time when you practice this behavior to get the results you want. Here are some possible crucial moments:
- You are working on your computer and someone wants to ask you a question.
- You are talking with someone and your cell phone rings.
- Your spouse is talking to you and you are thinking of the next thing to say before they finish.
- You are sitting at the dinner table, or out to lunch with other people and someone texts you.
- You are talking to someone, you get a text and tell the person you are talking with to hold on while you respond to the text.
Each of these is a crucial moment where you practice your behavior of giving your full attention.
Behavior – leader coach skill
To improve your leader coach skill you decided to focus on asking clarifying questions. You often find yourself assuming you know what is going on which has resulted in ineffective suggestions or directions.
Your behavior is, asking clarifying questions. Does it meet the three requirements?
- It’s specific because you set aside what you think you know and instead ask yourself what you don’t know.
- It’s observable, especially to anyone speaking with you because you ask questions to better understand the situation.
- It’s repeatable because every time you are engaged with people or are faced with a challenge you practice this behavior.
Now, you look for the crucial moments when you practice this behavior.
- Two employees are at odds with each other.
- The team is pushing back on a change.
- There is a conflict or confusion over what was said in a meeting.
- A staff member is struggling with a job assignment.
- A staff member fails an assignment that they are usually successful with.
Each of these is a crucial moment where you practice your behavior of asking clarifying questions and as a bonus, you get to practice your other behavior of giving your full attention.
The point of this exercise is to identify one to three crucial behaviors to focus on instead of a bunch of behaviors that may not give you the return that you are looking for.
What does this have to do with influencing? If you can identify behaviors within yourself that you can practice to influence your ability to lead, then you can begin to identify behaviors within your team to help the team to perform better or be able to handle difficult situations.
So ask yourself,
- What is the crucial challenge, what do you want to see happen or change? Understand the intent, is this for you, or your staff, team, department, or organization?
- Choose only a couple of crucial behaviors that everyone can agree to and practice to reach the desired outcome.
- Look for the crucial moments, the points in time where the behavior can be practiced.
- Support each other, hold each other accountable for the practice of the behaviors, and celebrate the victories.
Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.