Executive Careers Blog

How To Influence


“When presidents arrive on Capitol Hill with legislation chiseled into stone, it’s not well received. You have to give people a sense of ownership.” (David Axelrod, senior strategist to President Obama, quoted in New York Times Magazine, 6/7/09)

On my way home from work, my wife phones: “Is there any way you could possibly pick up some milk?” she asks.

I know right away that I’m headed for the supermarket. But my wife has a sweet way of asking - she gives me the illusion of control. I don’t even drink milk, but I support the concept.

“Yes,” I think, “there is a way I could get milk – even though there’s not a supermarket in sight, it’s been a long day, and I’m extremely lactose intolerant.”

Business people, eye contact

No one likes being told what to do, so people who are skilled influencers avoid the “tell” mode.

But suppose you’ve made a non-negotiable, command decision: “We need vast quantities of low fat, all natural, farm fresh milk in this house right away!”

Well, most decisions are multi-dimensional: there’s a “what,” “how,” “when,” “where,” “who.” Can you find somewhere to flex?

Recently, for example, I was working with a manager who needed to send someone to a client meeting in North Dakota.

But no one wanted to go.

The manager knew the “what” (meet client), “how” (face-to-face), and “where” (North Dakota) but everything else was flexible. She really didn’t care who went, or whether it was this week or next.

So she threw the problem out to her staff, and let them decide. They decided to draw straws after work, over a drink. Probably not milk.

Tip: To increase your influence, give away some control.

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Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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