How Leaders Can Help Others Influence Them

Roger Schwarz

Recently, I was talking with a senior leader from a world-class global learning and development company. We were discussing his firm’s approach to teaching leadership. He was talking about how to help leaders influence others. I asked him, “Do you also teach leaders how to be influenced by others?” He thought for a moment and replied, “No, we really don’t.”

This is a fundamental gap in leadership approaches. Over the years, we’ve shifted from thinking of the leader as hero, to thinking of the leader as visionary, strategist, creator of culture, and team builder. Yet, as our images of leaders have shifted and evolved, we still seem frozen in the mindset of Dale Carnegie’s 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People. We still believe that the essence of leadership is about influencing others to do what we want them to do. We have a less admirable word for people who are influenced by others—followers.

The allure of influencing others and the aversion to being influenced by others shows up often in the leadership literature. My Google search of “how to influence others” yielded 288,000 results; my search of “how to be influenced by others” yielded a much smaller number. The same searches of the HBR.org website yielded 235 results, and 6 results, respectively.

Our leadership measures and language also illustrate this gap. We have many ways of assessing the extent to which leaders are successful at influencing others. For example, we assess whether leaders are able to generate compliance with or genuine commitment to their plans. We measure how quickly leaders can implement and overcome resistance to change. But my peer-review literature search revealed no similar ways to assess how willing leaders are to be influenced or how transparent they are about how they can best be influenced. And beyond the general term “open-minded,” we don’t have common words for talking about degrees to which we are open to being influenced.

Our unwillingness or inability to help others influence us prevents teams and organization from achieving better results. Over the years, we have turned our attention to different leadership practices that require us as leaders to be open to being influenced. In the 1960s and 1970s, we embraced participative leadership; in the 1990s, we were lured by the learning organization. More recently, we have focused on the value of Lean, Six Sigma, and diversity. Underlying all of these leadership and organizational practices is a powerful premise: we get much better results if we hear from and are influenced by those who are in different positions and have different perspectives, rather than relying only on the thoughts of those in power.

But this premise is not often openly addressed, let alone put into practice. Unless you are genuinely open to being influenced by others, any leadership approach you use that relies on your team’s collective knowledge is likely to fail.

If you believe that diversity of thought and mutual influence are essential to effective leadership and stronger team performance — that it leads to more creative problem-solving, higher-quality decision making, and greater innovation — then a key question to ask yourself is: “How can I develop and model openness to being influenced by others?” This openness is a function of two related factors: 1) the extent to which you are willing to be influenced; and 2) the degree to which you are transparent about how others can influence you.

The extent to which you’re willing to be influenced increases as you consider perspectives outside your own core set of beliefs. For example, you may be willing to entertain the idea that you are missing some relevant information about a situation or even that you have some of the facts wrong, but you may not be open to reconsidering whether your core assumptions about the situation are accurate. So, you’re willing to be influenced by others — but only to the extent that they don’t fundamentally change your initial beliefs about a situation.

But even if you are fully open to being influenced, you may not be transparent about how others can influence you. Here are four levels that show increasing transparency about how you can be influenced. Each level describes a strategy that many leaders use, and the thinking behind it:

  1. I will not tell you that I am open to being influenced. At this level, you provide no help to others. If they want to influence you, they will have to figure out that you’re open to being influenced. If they can’t do that, they don’t deserve to influence you.
  2. I will tell you that I am open to being influenced, but not what will influence me. At this level, you provide only minimal help. It’s up to others to figure out what will lead you to change your mind and what won’t. For example, you don’t tell people that your primary interest is reducing project implementation time and that the only ideas that will influence you are ones that achieve that goal.
  3. I will tell you what will influence me, but I will not help you make your case. Here, you tell others what kinds of information or reasoning will influence you, but you believe it’s entirely others’ responsibility to make their case. Whoever can debate better wins. I worked with a CEO who used this approach. He was willing to tell his executive team what it would take for him to change his mind, but his entire team recognized that he was so smart and could think so quickly that they rarely “won an argument” with him.
  4. I will tell you what will influence me and I will help you make your case. At this level, you are a full partner in helping others influence you. You tell others what kinds of information will lead you to change your mind. And if others don’t have the same rhetorical ability make their case as compellingly as you would, you don’t use your rhetorical skills to weaken their case—you use them to strengthen their case. For example, when your CFO tells you that you must reduce headcount immediately, but you disagree, you help her make her case by saying something like, “I was disagreeing with you because I thought you were saying we’re facing two quarters of lower earnings. If that’s the situation, I’m willing to deal with the Wall Street analysts. But if you’re saying we’re really looking at four quarters of lower than expected earnings, then I’m willing to make cuts now. Help me understand, is it two, four or some other number of quarters? And what’s your projected time for getting back to our current headcount?”

In case you’re wondering why you should bother helping others to persuade you to see something differently, you have arrived at the cause of the problem: your mindset. You may see different viewpoints as opportunities for winning an argument and being right, rather than as opportunities for learning. You may see being influenced as a weakness, rather than a strength.

If you’re genuinely open to being influenced, then you should logically make it as easy as possible for others to provide the kind of information that would best influence you. It’s simply more efficient. The more others know what will influence you and the more you help them articulate their case, the sooner you can decide whether that information and reasoning warrants changing your mind. Until your interest in being influenced by others is at least as great as your interest in influencing others, you’re missing half of what it means to be a leader. And those who report to you can feel its absence.

Just as you can be more transparent about how others can influence you, you can also learn whether others are open to being influenced by you. You might say something like, “Are you open to being influenced on this issue? I’m asking because I want to use your time and my time efficiently. If you’re not open to being influenced, just let me know and I’ll drop it. If you’re open to being influenced, then would you be willing to tell me what would lead you to consider changing your mind? That will help me quickly focus only on the factors you consider relevant. If I don’t have any information about those factors, I’ll let you know. How does that sound?”

For too long, many leaders have sought the benefits from approaches that require diversity of thought without having to change their own views. When these approaches fail, they wonder why. You can’t have it both ways. If you want others to be open to your influence, you need to be open to theirs.

originally published on HBR blog on August 24, 2016