The Power of Influence

The ability to sway, not dictate to others, can make or break a corporate chief, says emotional intelligence pro Dan Goleman.

Emotional intelligence remains a key ingredient in the development of corporate leaders. In this series, best-selling author and Korn Ferry columnist Daniel Goleman reveals the 12 key skills behind EI. This is an edited excerpt from his introduction to Influence: A Primer.

Influence as a competency refers to the ability to have a positive impact on others, to persuade or convince them to gain their support. With the Influence competency, you're persuasive and engaging, and you can build buy-in from key people.

Take this example:

A CEO who led a company based in Manhattan decided to move the company to a small city 1,000 miles away. He hoped to save money because there were tax benefits and labor was cheaper. Also, he had grown up there and never felt comfortable in Manhattan. But when he announced the move, it resulted in a wave of people quitting. They didn't want to go to that small city. He particularly lost people in the IT staff. With them went a lot of crucial, unwritten information about how IT operated at that company. The company ended up having to hire the former employees for a high consulting fee to retrieve the crucial information.

That CEO’s lack of skill at the Influence competency cost his company a great deal of money and lost revenue.

There is scientific data about the important impact of influence. In a study of financial service sales executives, the Influence competency predicted greater sales revenue. The ability to influence is essential to a successful sale. For the top salespeople and client managers, tellingly, building a strong, ongoing relationship turns out to be more important than making a specific sale. The stars would rather keep the customer or client than sell them something they would be unhappy with, a conclusion backed up by the analysis of 650 different jobs by Lyle M. Spencer, Jr., and Signe M. Spencer did in their highly-regarded research, Competence at Work: Models for Superior Performance.

This points to the importance of the relationship itself for the ability to influence. Establishing trust, says noted social psychologist Robert Cialdini, seems a precondition for the ease of influence. To change someone’s mind, it helps to first build a connection where they will be more open to hearing what you have to say.

Among the helping professions—such as healthcare or education—Spencer and Spencer found that Influence was the strongest competency distinguishing outstanding performers. In a helping role, success comes down to whether you can connect with people's understanding of what matters, see their perspective, and use that insight to communicate powerfully. For physicians, it means that their patients comply with what the doctor tells them to do, whether it is to exercise more or take their medicine.

Influence has a strongly positive impact in the success of any executive. This may be particularly true for leaders who, for example, have many different groups reporting to them. Remember, leadership is the art of getting work done well through other people. And influence is the most powerful way to do that. By the same token, influence is also crucial when you work with a division over which you have no direct authority, yet their work is necessary to your own success. You can't order them to do what you want, you must persuade or inspire them to put forth their best efforts toward the clear objective you have defined.

To the extent each one of us has a personal sphere of influence, we are all leaders.  When it comes to leadership styles, the visionary leader—who articulates a deeply felt vision that resonates with and motivates others—shows one obvious use of influence. But acting as a coach and mentor, another leadership style (and another competence), opens the way to a personal connection that can itself be a highway to influencing that person. Two other leadership styles—the consensus-seeker and the affiliative leader who sees the value in having a good time together—build the kind of positive relationships that allow them to exert influence during their ordinary interactions. All these styles have a positive impact on emotional climate through the use of influence.