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Getting What You Need When You Don't Have the Title to Back You Up

Many emerging leaders, or people who are not in official positions of leadership, often ask me how to influence people over which they have no formal authority. Leadership experts Allen R. Cohen and David L. Bradford created a model that helps people to build mutually beneficial relationships. It is based on the Law of Reciprocity, which essentially states that one good turn deserves another, or you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Allow me to take you through the steps of the model.

Step 1- Assume all are potential allies. Start by seeing every single person around you as having something to bring to the table and who could be a potential ally to you. You just never know who or what people know that can be beneficial to you, to the team or to the project.

Give everybody a fair chance to prove their value including the most challenging person in the room. Writing off someone too soon can lead to missed opportunities, so start by figuring out where you might share common interests, and make it clear by your words and actions that you truly are interested in building a relationship with them.

It’s important at these beginning stages to always take the first step to trust the people around you; if you want to be trusted, you have to trust first. This means sharing important information openly and being willing to really listen to the ideas of others and seeing how you might create win-win situations every time.

Step 2 – Clarify your goals and priorities. Stay focused and remember the reason why you want to influence these people.

What is the benefit of having these people on your side? What is your ultimate goal? And do you know yourself well enough to know what is most important to you personally? Is your priority task accomplishment, or building a relationship? Remember that people don’t like to feel used, so be sure to be transparent about what you are wanting from them.

You also need to separate your personal needs and desires from what is truly necessary for the project, otherwise your personal desires can get in the way of a successful outcome. For example, if you are intent on having people do things your way, your personal preferences can actually hinder the project’s success and may even damage the relationships. So be clear about what you want from the people you are trying to influence and be honest with yourself about what you are willing to trade off to get it.

Ask yourself:

• What are my long and short term goals?

• Is what I’m wanting a “must have” or a “nice to have” that can be negotiated?

Step 3 – Diagnose the world of the other person. The key to cooperation lies in identifying what drives the person in front of you. By working hard to understand where the other person is coming from, and listening to what they have to say, you can learn about what they want. And that’s valuable information.

It’s worth taking the time to determine what is going on in their world and how it impacts their decisions. Try to find out what’s happening in their environment that likely shapes their goals, concerns and/or needs. For example, what matters to them about how they are evaluated or rewarded? What expectations do they have of themselves and others? How might where they are in their career influence their decisions? All these things have a powerful effect on what someone might want in exchange for their cooperation.

Remember that they are considering the costs for giving you what you want, and unless you understand their world, you won’t understand the weight of those costs. And the more you understand about what they’re up against, the less likely you are to blame their choices on bad character, a challenging personality, or a hidden agenda, thereby increasing trust, and helping them to become an ally.

Understanding the pressures people are under can help you see how what you are wanting fits into the larger context of their life, and how you might work together to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship.

Another way to find out what is important to a potential ally is to find out what their currencies are.

Step 4 – Identify relevant currencies. Cohen and Bradford explain that they name the things people care about “currencies” because the term equates a willingness to trade something you value for something the other person values. For example, we all pay money to have food. Both money and food are valuable, and we are willing to exchange one for the other when there is a need. Similarly, many people recognize that having a job means that you trade your time for money. Time is very valuable, but so is money when you have bills to pay. So, we must recognize that people care about more than one thing and are willing to trade various things to get what they need when they need it.

The more of someone’s currencies you can identify, the wider range of possibilities you will have to offer in exchange – and don’t underestimate what you have to offer. Because many people underestimate the resources they can muster, they jump to the conclusion that they can’t give back. But a careful look at the many things you can do without a budget or formal permission can reveal potential bargaining chips. For example, saving someone time or money, allowing them to learn valuable knowledge or information, meeting high profile people or boosting one’s credibility or reputation, are all examples of currencies.

Let’s take a look at what specifically the currencies are.

Cohen and Bradford do admit that this list is not exhaustive but provide it as a starting point for what many people value.

  • Inspiration related currencies are things that add meaning to the work a person does. They include:

o a compelling and inspiring vision

o the chance to accomplish important work with excellence

o pride in craftmanship, and

o doing work that has positive ethical or moral implications because it is the right thing to do

  • Position related currencies enhance a person’s position in an organization or aid with career advancement. These include:

o the chance to be recognized for their contributions

o exposure to powerful people, and

o a boost in their reputation for the work they did

  • Relationship currencies are about strengthening the relationship with someone more than completing the task (without diminishing the importance of the task of course). These include:

o the chance to feel accepted and included

o a sense of belonging

o being sincerely heard and understood, and

o being personal supported, especially when stressed

  • Task related currencies are directly connected to getting the job done and the feelings of accomplishment that come with it. They include:

o access to the proper resources to get the job done

o the chance to be provided with a challenge or stretch assignment where they must overcome an obstacle and learn

o the opportunity to ditch work that does NOT appeal to them, or getting help on less desirable tasks

o being backed up by someone in a respected position so they feel supported

o being responded to quickly, and

o having access to information that is not common knowledge

  • Personal currencies are things that enhance the person’s sense of self. Among these are:

o sincere gratitude and appreciation not just for the job done, but for giving of themselves, (a word of caution: if overused, can be quickly devalued and have the adverse effect)

o being involved in something interesting

o the chance to reinforce their self-concept by doing work that fits it, and

o staying out of the limelight, and just working in the background

A useful way of knowing what is important to potential allies is to examine how they interact with others. What do they seem to care about? What do they signal by their language? What do they talk about first when explaining why they do not want to cooperate? Does your analysis of their world and how they are measured and rewarded help? You may even ask directly—in a collaborative way, with an aim at finding ways to help them so they can help you.

Be careful not to underestimate how important currencies are. Just because a currency may not be important to you, doesn’t mean it isn’t important to them! Respect the currencies that people bring – it makes the difference between having their cooperation and not having it.

Step 5 – Deal with relationships. While it’s important to know the other person’s currency, you also need to be realistic about your relationship with them.

This has two elements: (1) The nature of your relationship, whether positive, negative, or neutral (2) How the person wants to be related to

You might have a prior relationship, and if it is a good one, then it will be easier to ask for what you want without having to prove your good intentions. If, however, the relationship is damaged, or there has been no prior contact, this will likely slow you down. You will need to pay attention to building the requisite trust and credibility before you jump into asking for their full cooperation.

Also, each person has preferred ways of being related to. Some prefer that you bring a thorough analysis before you launch into discussion with them, while others would rather hear preliminary ideas with a chance to brainstorm. Some want to see alternative solutions, whereas others want only your final conclusion. Be careful not to relate to them in your most preferred style – instead, find out the other person’s preferences, and go with that. You will have more influence if you use an approach the other person is comfortable with.

To be successful, you will need to develop your communication and emotional intelligence skills by using active listening techniques during conversations in order to get the relationship to a level where they feel good about being your ally and cooperating fully with your requests.

Step 6 – Influence through give and take. Once you have established that your offer is valuable to your ally, then you can make “the exchange” by asking for what you want in return.

Remember to keep building your relationships by maintaining mutual respect for each person you encounter, both before, during, and even after the engagement. Stay committed to continuously trusting, understanding, and empathizing with the other person so you may keep the relationship in good standing. It’s also a good idea to stay on the lookout for more ways you can help them. The more you give, the more your ‘credit’ grows, and when it comes to the Law of Reciprocity, it really can be better to give than to receive.


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