Have you ever received widely varying feedback from a group of stakeholders?  You might be making some assumptions that are ultimately taking you further from achieving your objectives.  Before getting stuck on “they just don’t know me well” or “I’ve never gotten this feedback before”, check my scenarios to see if you are working in the wrong direction. For some immediate takeaway application: I’ve included a few lessons on influencing from what may seem like an unlikely source – Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer.

Succession planning, M&A scenarios, turnover, promotion or a crisis are catalysts for a rebalancing of who are your key stakeholders and how should you best influence and interact with them.  Best case scenario = consistent and conscious calibration of your influencing plan and seeking ongoing feedback on whether or not you are being effective.  Too often it is not until a stakeholder analysis reveals widely varied responses on how someone is perceived – How can they be “too assertive” sometimes and “not nearly assertive enough” with others?  Effectively influencing depends on the person and the situation at hand.  I observe people making several incorrect assumptions when trying to influence outcomes:

Incorrect Assumption #1 – The Match – incorrectly assuming one should always match their level of assertiveness to the other person’s level –   Typical poor result: the conversation gets stuck.  Examples:

  • Your peer always speaks their mind so you *match* by being outspoken in order to influence them. You get stuck in an argument and get nowhere.
  • Your direct report is not assertive so you *match* by tempering down your level of direction.  You get stuck because they take no action.

Incorrect Assumption #2 – The Push – incorrectly assuming that an increase in your energy level or efforts will always equate to being more influential – Typical poor result: others attack or withdraw leaving you with lost credibility.  Examples:

  • You push for something you deem important without realizing that the group has already decided. People stop listening to you.
  • You work longer and longer hours on an issue and learn that the stakeholder gets angry that you have overstepped your boundaries.  You’ve lost time and colleagues stop asking for your help.

Incorrect Assumption #3 – You are in control – incorrectly assuming that your title, tenure, authority to sign a paycheck or high IQ gives you automatic influence in a situation. Typical poor result: you are no longer chosen as the strongest candidate to accomplish a future objective.  Examples:

  • You make decisions because “it is your assigned territory” without seeking input outside your territory. Senior leadership expresses concern that you are not a team player
  • You share a FTE who technically reports to you yet the matrixed manager complains you are a bottleneck to decisions. You are deemed a micromanager.

Tips for How to Influence the Rest of the Pack
I have no fewer than 3 sisters who are veterinarians so comparisons of human behavior to animal behavior is nothing new to me.  There are many behavioral comparisons that do not apply (though you might be surprised!) – however I see direct application from our canine comrades and The Dog Whisperer’s work around assertiveness, influence and applying the concept of Who is Alpha to choose behaviors for different situations. In my understanding, the Alpha is the one in control and, if influenced well, promotes a highly collaborative relationship for working towards an objective.  This so-called Alpha can be female or male, and WILL CHANGE depending on the situation and the evolution of the relationship.  Perhaps you are Alpha which means you are influencing correctly in some situations.  However, that can change if you are not conscious about it.  I believe the following lessons from the canine world might be applicable:

Realize that anyone can be Alpha at any time –  sometimes you are Alpha, sometimes you aren’t.  Alpha has more to do with level of influence and ability to gain buy-in for results than title. This is essentially relationship power vs. title power.  One of my clients sadly found out 6 months into a new role that she had been trying to influence a situation through her boss and had neglected the person who was actually gaining buy-in from senior leadership – her peer.

Remain calm, yet assertive – being overly aggressive or unassertive doesn’t work.  When approaching the person of influence- remain calm, stay conscious of emotion or frustration, and assert yourself.   One of my clients encountered an Alpha who made him crazy by being very indecisive “hmmm, let me think about that”.  Weeks would go by and the more he fought, the longer the pauses and indecision.  When he calmed down and visibly didn’t let it get the better of him – he was accepted and the behavior disappeared.

Learn the boundaries and respect them – working across boundaries without giving or taking too much is ultimately important to working relationships.  There are volumes of work on boundary setting but one key that seems universal is to establish a feedback mechanism to consistently calibrate roles and responsibilities. Boundaries are dynamic and require communication and willingness to recalibrate to work.

So, a few takeaways for you humans out there:

  • Canines can tell you right away who is Alpha. Can you?
  • Canines get kicked out of the pack if they don’t pass the calm but assertive test.  Relax and you will go farther.
  • Canines spend a good portion of their life communicating about boundaries and making sure they know the limits.  When was the last time you rebalanced your influence plan?

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