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What It Takes to Build Influence at Work

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you.

Do you know how to influence people who don’t report to you at work? Maybe it’s your boss or clients even your peers. Nashater Deu Solheim is a forensic psychologist and a leadership coach who studies how people gain influence within organizations. She argues that this has become more difficult in virtual work settings. But she says there are proven techniques to help you understand others’ thinking and win their respect.

In this episode, you’ll learn why it’s so important to understand who you’re trying to influence – what are their priorities, how busy are they, and what’s the best way to reach out to them? That might mean you study their background or ask around to learn more about them. Think of it like prepping for a job interview.

You’ll also learn how to keep your body language relaxed and open – even if you’re feeling intimidated. This episode originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in December 2020. Here it is.

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

In the 1980s, Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye came up with the term soft power. It describes how countries are able to influence others without the use of force or hard power. And since then, that idea has influenced how people think about managing people, not just countries. As Nye put it, “soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.” So as a team leader, even when you’re managing people who have to answer to you, can you motivate them through other means than threatening to fire them or rewarding them with promotions? And that ability to shape the preferences of others is even harder and more prized when you’re trying to influence people you don’t manage. Maybe your boss or organizational leaders, managing up, or your peers or people you don’t work with directly, managing out.

Today’s guest has done a lot of work on how to convince people to come over to your side and she’s here to share and explain her best practices. Nashater Deu Solheim is a forensic psychologist and leadership coach, and she wrote the book, The Leadership PIN Code: Unlocking the Key to Willing and Winning Relationships. Nashater, thanks for being here.

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: It’s my pleasure Curt, thanks for inviting me to the show.

CURT NICKISCH: So your career started in forensic psychology, where you were working literally with psychopaths. And then you also worked with returning veterans at the British Ministry of Defense, people who’d been traumatized by experiences in war zones or conflict zones in other countries and now you work as an executive coach and leadership coach and you work with companies, draw a line there between your experience as a forensic psychologist and a leadership coach.

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: I guess my interest in working with people who are classified as psychopaths, I was really having to use my training and skills in the art of, shall we say, investigative questioning, trying to build rapport and trust. And so a lot of the skills that I was trained in had to do with how do you, even when somebody is resistant or not necessarily motivated to engage with you, how do you try and build a trusting relationship and build rapport with somebody so that you can work cooperatively together? And within that toolkit, it certainly was things like getting to know the other person, helping them to figure out their own journeys, perhaps links between past experiences and current behaviors, and also using my own skills in questioning and empathy and trying to validate their experiences while also encouraging them to change, perhaps to be able to be living a healthy life going forward.

And when I found myself, many years later, working in business, in essence, I found myself using the same skills, albeit with a population that weren’t as challenging to work with, but certainly leaders were sometimes resistant to changing their own behaviors or working with people who they found were resistant to following their lead. And the same skills were very useful on how to engage and then create a change journey with these people I was working with.

CURT NICKISCH: I’m just fascinated how you can think about this similarly, to walk into a maximum security prison and meet with somebody that you’re trying to build trust with and how that can be applied in a business setting. What are the sorts of things you would do?

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: So really there were, I guess, three things that I crystallized from those experiences that I have certainly worked then with leaders later on, and put into the book that I wrote, and they were what I refer to as the ABC, if you like. And I remember a lot of my training as a forensic psychologist was in preparation, how much research you did before you walked into a room with somebody who had perhaps a propensity to be violent, may have had some symptoms of mental illness, may have had some kind of biases or reactions to either my role as a psychologist or me being a woman, or whatever that reaction may be. But I really needed to do my research of the person I was going to meet. So reading their files, speaking to the staff who were either in the hospital that they were in or the prison that they were in, and getting as much information as I could about this person’s interests, their motivations, the kind of day they were having the day I was going to meet with them.

And the purpose of that research was always to try and find out what would motivate and drive this person to want to do the work that was going to be our work together, which was to perhaps understand what had happened, what had led to these egregious behaviors, and then perhaps even beginning to think about changing and move forward to a better or healthier life. The A really was my advanced preparation. And if we’re going to put a number to it, at least about 80% of the effectiveness of the work that I did came from thorough preparation. And then I would think consciously about my body language. How can I make sure that I am encouraging as much of a collaborative atmosphere between the two of us as possible? So is my body language relaxed and open? Not showing tension or stress or disinterest?

CURT NICKISCH: Okay. So the B in your framework is for body language and behavior. The C is for conversation. And I’m just curious, what is the first question you would ask when you walk in and meet one of these folks for the first time?

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: You know, you probably imagine, a lot of people imagine, that we are asking very difficult or clever or very technical questions, but really it starts with building rapport as you would with anybody you meet and a simple, “How are you?” or “It’s nice to meet you”, or “My name is”, and explaining who you are and why you’re there was always really the first point of entry.

CURT NICKISCH: I read that you would often ask the question, “How do you feel about meeting me today?”


CURT NICKISCH: And why did you ask that?

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: Because it’s really about ensuring that the other person is consenting and engaging as much as they can at that moment in time in the work that you want to do. Because if you ask somebody, how do you feel about meeting me today, and the person feels somehow coerced because they’re locked up or perhaps they are subordinate and they don’t feel that they have a choice to say no to the leader, it immediately gives you information as to how much they know about why they are having the conversation with you, how much they are motivated, engaged to engage in this journey with you. And you can start to work on then building knowledge, or information, or getting clarification so that you can make that engagement, commitment to the process stronger. So if, when I would ask that question, how do you feel about meeting me today?

And if the answer to that, which often was the case, which was, “Well I’m suspicious. What are you here for? If I say something, is it going to make it worse for me?” And that lack of trust, which would be natural in those settings, that I don’t know you, and I don’t know what your agenda is, that it was a great place to start with. Well, let’s get some clarification then about what my role is. What do you want to know? What can I share with you that will help you to understand what our contract of work is going to look like?

CURT NICKISCH: So how do these concepts apply to a business context where you are trying to manage up superiors, company leaders or people that are lateral?

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: So you’re relying on kind of goodwill and cooperation and kind of those lateral relationships where you need to work together. I think one of the things that I see often in the workplace is that you’re in your own head, you’re really wrapped up with what it is that I need. What’s my agenda? What’s my goal in this conversation in discussing this with a person or asking for their support and help? And certainly if it’s by email, it’s even tougher. In today’s world, we really are doing a lot more cold calling, I guess, in that sense, where we are reaching out to people who may not know us, and we’re trying to connect and trying to get our needs across. And I think one of the challenges and where we, I think, go wrong often is by starting with what’s most important to us in the conversation and forgetting that what we really want to also do is figure out what’s in it for the other person to be of help or support to me, or give the time for a response, whatever it is I’m asking for.

And in doing that, you’re not doing what I was saying earlier, which is so important, which is your real preparation and figuring out, “Well, I’m going to reach out to this person who doesn’t know me, what’s going on for them right now? What are they interested in? What’s their priorities? Perhaps even what are they stressed by or what is kind of keeping them busy at the moment? So that when I put out my request for support or help, then I’m able to create the hook that both meets my needs, but also meets them where they are.” But in order to do that, I need to suspend my needs, what’s going on in my head and my agenda and not come straight out with that.

CURT NICKISCH: I need this by such and such date.

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: I see it often, “Hi, it’s great to meet you.” And then they go straight in, “I need your advice with and great if you could send it by the end of the week. Thanks so much for your help. Kind regards.” And in that, it’s a very egocentric request in lots of ways. It’s about hi, you’re useful to me, here’s my request. I’m sure you don’t mind helping me. Look forward to your response. And really you can be lucky in that regard. You might meet somebody who has the time and the motivation to help you, but actually you’ll have more predictable success if you do take the time to figure out what that person is dealing with now and why they might be motivated to help you.

So if you say, let’s say for an example, you need some extra resources for a project, and the other person is very, very busy, but at the same time, they would benefit from giving somebody the kind of exposure to the work that you do. So you might hang your request on that and say, “I know you’re really busy and I know you have these people and you’re looking for some kind of opportunity to expose them to the work in my arena. Hey, I’ve got a request. I could really do with this support. And I think this could be a great opportunity for you to send over one of your people and I can also train them on the job, or they can have some exposure to the work that we do.” Trying to find the, it sounds cliche, but the win-win, the what’s in it for you in order for me to get what I need.

CURT NICKISCH: You have to take it away from the egocentric. How do you do that though? How do you find all that out?

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: I love that question because a few people have said to me, “Doesn’t it sound a little sneaky doing research on people before you reach out to them?” And I kind of find that surprising because I’m thinking, well, when you interview people for a job, you do a ton of research before you bring them into the room.

CURT NICKISCH: To be flattering. yeah.

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: And is shows interest. So you can simply, if they’re in your organization, of course, I guess there’s information available on their role and their responsibilities, but more simply, figuring out people that they know and speaking to them about what is this person working with? What are their priorities? Are they really busy at the moment? Is this a good time for me to reach out? And certainly actually reaching out to the person, this one is a more sophisticated, I think, technique for influence, which is when you are thinking about your role, play ahead of the game. And what I mean by that is identify the stakeholders who are likely to be of interest and use to you in your work going forward early on long before you may actually need their help and support.

CURT NICKISCH: Doing your homework. It’s one of those things that everybody knows they should do, but it’s always just great to get a reminder of how effective it can be. Body language and behavior are things that people probably know or think they know as well. What about that do you find that people get wrong when it comes to these managing up or out kinds of situations?

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: It’s as simple, I think, as just not being very conscious of the fact that what is going on in your mind is showing up in your body language and people often aren’t really very conscious of the fact that if they are feeling stressed and irritated as they’re about to go into conversation with their boss or with a senior stakeholder that they maybe find intimidating or overwhelming, that those thoughts and anxieties or feelings will show up in their body language, if they’re not conscious about that, and that can then affect the conversation and the dynamic that you’re setting up for yourself. So I think it’s just being very mindful that if I’m going to go into the conversation, how can I also prepare my mindset as much as I am preparing the case and the questions and the task that I’m going in for?

So that’s the first thing. And the other thing I think people are perhaps not paying attention to is how should I approach this person in terms of when I call it the room, should I send a mail? Should I pick up the phone? Should I call for a meeting? Should this be a physical meeting? COVID aside, if there was an opportunity for physical meetings. How do I approach a senior stakeholder or a stakeholder in my lateral arena for a request? What’s the best room, whether that’s a video call or email or physical conversation? And I think doing your preparation is key, which is about how much time do they have? What is their preference? Some people have a preference, for example, you picking up the phone rather than sending long emails or vice versa and asking people around them so you can figure out the best way to make contact with them.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. You have a lot of advice for just how to set up a room or where to sit with chairs that are in a room. It’s probably easier in managing out or up situations because you’re definitely not going to sit at the head of the table for that type of conversation, but what do people often get wrong in this approach? What do you think people can do better when you’re actually meeting physically?


NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: So one of the things I see over and over and over, and probably one of the greatest aha moments I get feedback on in this part of the ABC is how simple something like moving your chairs is, and yet the normative the impact it can have. And so what I find most people do is they naturally want to sit across the table at 180 degrees when they’re having meetings or conversations. And particularly when it’s a difficult conversation, perhaps you need to give feedback to somebody on their performance, and it’s negative feedback and you’re worried about that. So people have a tendency to want to be very formal in those arenas. And yet that creates even more guardedness and defensiveness in the conversation, because now you have a big barrier between you, which is a table, and maybe you’re sitting directly opposite, which creates very intense eye contact.

And it’s very hard to kind of create a collaborative atmosphere where you really feel that you’re trying to be solution orientated and collaborative in this conversation. So I simply encourage people where they’re having what I call collegiate conversations, so where you are working together and you’re going to continue working together and you need to sort out a challenge or a problem, to sit in this 90 degree angle, I call it, or in a V, and maybe not even have a table if it’s not necessary, but you create a natural angle between the two people talking that allows for easy eye contact, your body language actually immediately relaxes in that situation compared to sitting across from each other, with or without a table.

And so I’ve seen it myself, oddly enough, now when I’m doing coaching, when I walk into a room, having coached somebody in some of these techniques, I’ll notice that they’ve moved the chairs and we might laugh about it that has been a very conscious decision on their part, but they will often say that it changed the feel of the conversation, which sounds a little soft, but it actually moves away from this power based hierarchical relationship, me versus you in the conversation at 180 degrees, to this collegiate, “We’re in this together, what is it we’re trying to solve?”

CURT NICKISCH: So many of us are working remotely right now, and when you are working remotely or you’re doing a video conference, you can’t sit kitty corner from them. How do you create that same kind of collaborative, collegiate feel that you’re describing here in a virtual setting?

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: So I think the important thing here is if they are known to you, if they are already colleagues of yours, then it’s a little bit easier to know what the other person’s preference is. And when you do have these virtual meetings, I think it’s really important that we use the same mode and I encourage people to use the video because it gives as much physical information as we would normally get in an everyday interaction if we were sitting with somebody. So you can see the body language, you can see facial expressions, you can pick up a little bit of the non-verbal communication, as well as obviously the spontaneity of language.

What I also encourage people to do is to try and mirror the same visual as you have as with the person on camera. So if they’re showing their head and shoulders, then you would show your head and shoulders. If they’re showing the whole of their body, then you may want to mirror that and show the whole of your body. So you’re trying to recreate this reciprocal feeling of, “We’re in the same mode with each other, and we’re trying to replicate a physical interaction.” Because it’s a very easy way of validating the other person saying, “I’m here with you and I’m kind of trying to mirror what you’re doing and be empathic in a way.”

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Let’s talk about the C in your framework, conversation. How do you show empathy? How do you, through conversation, build trust and get a sense of the situation somebody else’s in to be able to use that soft power to get them to help you out?

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: So I think my favorite tool for empathy is curiosity, because for me, empathy doesn’t have to be about joining in or agreeing with what the other person is sharing with you, but keeping an open mind and being curious about what they want to share with you. So asking very open questions, digging a little deeper when they share, picking up perhaps on the feelings in what they’re sharing, as much as the facts in what they’re sharing, being able to listen so well that you can summarize what the other person said to you and reflect it back to them in your own words, and in doing so, you’re able to both check out that you have picked up the essence of what they said, and they can correct if not, or add on. And also it really shows the other person that you’ve paid enough attention that they feel validated and heard and understood. You don’t have to necessarily agree with what they’ve said, but you are showing that you have listened and paid attention to the essence of their message.

CURT NICKISCH: How does all of this change when you are managing up rather than managing out?

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: It really is the same thing. It’s a great question because I think context is really important here rather than the skills themselves. So we tend to think that leadership skills, and I’ve written the book for leaders, but that leadership skills only apply to leaders. But if we think about these skills, it’s easy to forget that the rules of what is the other person interested in? Why should they be interested in helping me? How can I hook what I need onto what they’re also dealing with right now? How can I prepare my message in such a way that it appeals to them and it’s delivered in the way they would like to hear it rather than the way I want to deliver it? I think those are all very common and transferable skills, whether you’re managing up or managing down.

CURT NICKISCH: One thing that you often see with people who are trying to manage up or out is just this desire to feel like they’re important enough to be heard, and it gets into self-promotion territory. People often feel like they have to kind of justify why they’re worth helping or what they’re doing is so great. I’m just curious what you make of that and what you recommend for people who have that inclination, and maybe don’t always have the success with it that they expect.

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: I see that, and I recognize that, and it’s something that, on the one hand, we encourage people to do, which is don’t hide your light under a bushel, make sure that you’re able to communicate your strengths and your achievements towards others, that’s how you’ll get recognized. And at the same time, that can go too far, or sometimes it doesn’t work. It lands in the wrong way. And my feedback to people is when you’re trying to communicate your achievements or your strengths, think about it in a way that meets the other person’s context. So rather than simply stating, “This is what I’m good at. This is what I think I can do. This is what I think I can contribute.” Start with where it will meet the other person or the other person’s context now.

Let me give you an example. So let’s say that you are really keen to join a team, it would be a promotion, and you would love them to see that you have the right competence and skills to be able to work with them. And rather than presenting that as an offer to them, “Here I am, and I can do all of these things.” I might encourage the other person to do their homework and figure out what this team is really working with right now. What are their key priorities? What are their key projects or initiatives that they’re really kind of either struggling with or really involved and excited by? And then talk about your skills, your abilities, that self promoting part, in the context of how you can contribute to that. What you could add value to, or how you could add that value.

I think where I find it falls flat is where people do it out of context and it just feels like a self promotional brag at worst, without really it meeting anybody else’s needs. And I often think bragging is seen as bragging when it doesn’t really have a context to it, it’s just about you’re saying what you’re great at, but it’s not landing for the person that you’re saying it to in any way that’s valuable to them.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s that egocentric thing that you were talking before.

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: It’s back to that. I was just going to say exactly, it comes back to the if you’re not speaking to other people’s interests and contexts, then you’re on your own. And you may not be understood or your intentions may not be well understood or met with the kind of support you’re looking for.

CURT NICKISCH: Well, Nashater, thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about why soft power is so hard and to make it a little bit easier for us.

NASHATER DEU SOLHEIM: Oh, it was my pleasure to be with you, and thank you so much for having me.

HANNAH BATES: That was forensic psychologist and leadership coach Nashater Deu Solheim in conversation with Curt Nickisch on the HBR IdeaCast. She’s the author of the book The Leadership PIN Code: Unlocking the Key to Willing and Winning Relationships.

We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review.

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This episode was produced by Mary Dooe Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Rob Eckhardt, Adam Buchholz, Maureen Hoch, Erica Truxler, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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