Influence is a critical leadership skill, says Prof Marwan Sinaceur


Professor Marwan Sinaceur believes the size of interactions should dictate the change strategy one employs.

The strategy and behaviours you adopt to get people to help you achieve your goals should depend on the size and type of that interaction, suggests Prof Marwan Sinaceur, full professor at ESSEC Business School in Paris, and a former professor at INSEAD for 13 years.

Marwan also teaches a course on Leadership: Influencing People and Managing Change at the Amsterdam Institute of Finance and says that interactions can be classified in many ways, but arguably the most helpful when it comes to influencing people is by size.

“You have three types of situations where you might be trying to influence people: one-on-one, which is an interpersonal influence situation; small groups, such as your team or a group of people in a meeting; and large collectives of people, such as a whole organisation,” he says. “The way you deal with each of these situations will be different.”

Influence is a critical leadership skill because none of us can accomplish everything we need to do on our own. Achieving goals and targets requires working with others, whether it’s getting people to change their minds, getting them to change their behaviours, launching a new project or product, or even effecting change at a global level. Adopting the right strategies to get people to pull in the same direction starts with understanding the type of situation you’re in.

Size and complexity – key factors
“The nature of the interaction, which can be determined by size and complexity, dictates your strategy,” says Marwan. “One-on-one, interpersonal influence is very interactive – you have the most control and the most chance to influence the person with whom you are dealing. In a group or team situation, you’re trying to move a group of people towards a particular direction. When it comes to large collectives, you might not have any direct communication with recipients and there are multiple complexities that come into play.”

Each of these situations requires a different strategy and tactics. For example, if you are in an interpersonal influence situation, it tends to centre on relationship or conflict issues. It’s important to listen to the other party and to understand their concerns and interests.

The challenge here, Marwan suggests, is not understanding how to handle the situation, but actually putting it into practice. “For example, if you are dealing with an unhappy client, colleague, or stakeholder, you know it’s important to listen, but understanding that doesn’t mean we do it well. Practicing and mastering effective behaviours is critical here,” he says.

In a group situation, there’s an additional level of complexity that comes into play – social dynamics. “Who has the power and what are the sources of power? Are the majority with you or against you? How does social pressure play out? And, concretely, how to start a meeting effectively if you’re not in a position of power? Those are the types of questions that need to be dealt with,” says Marwan.

“Then how can you influence people so that the group moves towards your direction? Questions you could entertain are things like how to organise the discussion so that everyone talks and it’s not monopolised by dominant people, or how to structure the discussion so it does not get stuck in details instead of the real issues. For example, you might make a rule that no personal attacks are allowed, or agree that you will map all the issues and scenarios before you start speaking about possible solutions. Discussing processes and ways of working first is particularly effective across many group situations. And understanding how social pressure plays out is critical in all group situations.”

It’s important to interrogate the power dynamics carefully. “For example, it’s important to understand that the extent to which people speak up doesn’t necessarily represent real power,” says Marwan. “You can have experts and stakeholders, for example, who may be reserved, but who could have a big influence on the project.”

Trying to influence large collectives is the most complex situation, as you have the least control and interaction with the people whose behaviour you are trying to change. This is essentially a change management process, which requires understanding the psychological as well as the organisational barriers to change as a starting point.

For example, when it comes to vaccine hesitancy, is it a case of people not believing the messaging of vaccination campaigns, or is it an issue of access to the message? Studies show that facilitating access (making it easy to adopt the behaviour) has a dramatic effect on vaccination rates.

“A good example of the multiplicity of factors that need to be taken into account is the issue of global warming,” says Marwan. “We agree collectively that people need to change their behaviours, but there is no one recipe for success.”

He adds that a critical area to consider is the timing of your change management programme. “For example, are you going to roll it out over a long period, or all at once? This will depend on what you are trying to achieve and whether you are targeting incremental change or revolution. For example, you might put in place several measures to encourage behavioural change (a step-by-step approach) or, alternatively, implement a new policy to effect immediate change (an all-at-once approach). Other strategies for effective change include how to approach different types of resisters – those people who resist your change management programme and may sabotage it, how to make use of different types of allies and leverage your organisational influence, and how to use pilot testing and proof-of-concept data effectively.”

Influence and ethics
Marwan is quick to note that when he teaches people about the tools of influence, he is not focusing on the ethics of influence.

“We don’t discuss whether your goal is ethical or not, but I think what makes the difference between influence and manipulation is not the way you use the tool, but the goal you have in mind. A very simple example that relates to one-on-one influence: my daughter doesn’t like eating broccoli. When I ask her, ‘Do you want to eat broccoli?’ she says no. When I ask her, ‘Do you want to eat spinach?’, she says no. When I ask her, ‘Do you prefer eating spinach or broccoli?’ she’s more likely to pick one of them. This is manipulation, although of course, you understand that my intention here is not really anything bad.”

Marwan says his approach is quite unique. “Usually, you have people looking at this from the micro side (interpersonal influence and groups) and experts from the macro side (large collectives). These people tend to be psychologists on the micro side and sociologists on the macro side. I try to look at this subject from a manager's perspective, where the disciplinary background is not important – what’s important is being able to tackle these different situations.”

Marwan teaches a course called Influencing People and Managing Change at the Amsterdam Institute of Finance. Find out more.

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