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Influencing Up Starts With Trust

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

I recently conducted a LinkedIn poll asking members who they would want to gain more influence with over the next 6 months. Of the 81 voters, 42% said they would like more influence with their leader or board over more influence with other groups. What does this say about the current state of work?

Influencing up is an important skill, and over my career I have not seen a lot of literature on the topic. The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey does a great job of providing a framework for developing trust but does not directly show you how to convert that trust into influence. Conversely there are bookshelves full of instructional guides for leaders providing steps for influencing down. Some of my favorites are Radical Candor by Kim Scott and The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle by James Hunter. Kim Scott evangelizes the power of communication, honesty and establishing clear expectations. James Hunter advocates for the power of service first leadership. Both books are very helpful for building skills for influencing down when you have the power to dictate how people spend their time, oversee rewards, distribute performance evaluations, and are generally seen as the leader. But when you are not in a position of power, it can be more difficult to get time on your leader’s calendar, to drive the agenda of meetings, or demand solutions to unmet needs.

The first thing to acknowledge is people are people, whether they are your boss, direct report, peer, or indirect report. The best way to influence people is to find out what they care about and seek ways to align what you want accomplished to their needs. This is where a good understanding of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be helpful. Maslow asserted that all humans have needs starting with physiological needs like food and water and ending at self-actualization such as reaching your full potential. If you are trying to influence people, a great place to start is to understand where they are on Maslow’s pyramid and identify how you can help them fulfill their need. This can be easier said than done, but a good place to start is with tip 5 from Stephen Covey’s book the 7 Habits of Highly Successful people. Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.

Over the next week, I encourage you to request 15 minutes on your leader’s calendar. State that you want to touch base on current priorities. During the meeting ask this question “What is the number 1 thing that I could do to help you be more successful?” During my career, I have asked my leaders variations of this question and it does two things. First, you demonstrate to your leader that you care about their success and are willing to take the time to learn more about how you can help them be successful. Second, your role modeling the behavior of perspective taking that you would like to see from them. Depending on your leader’s social skills, they may immediately reciprocate the question back to you. In some cases, the leader will not be influenced by just one experience of you showing interest in their success. Much like putting a coat of paint on the wall, sometimes you must go over the same spot more than once, but in most cases if you consistently role model a desired behavior others will reciprocate.

If your leader takes the time to meet with you and answers the aforementioned question, you must make every effort to accomplish their ask, and update them on your progress. Offering to help, but not helping will not gain you influence. Influence comes from you building creditability by doing the things you commit to doing. The foundation of influence is trust, and we tend to trust people that we believe care about us, and that deliver on commitments. If you want more influence with your leader, focus on building creditability through action. It could be a long road to hoe, but it is a road worth hoeing because it will give you the influence you are looking for.


Dorian Cunion is an Executive Business Coach with your Path Coaching and Consulting. He specializes in coaching service for managers, executives and small business owner.

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