The Art of Influence

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

We spend roughly 23 minutes of every hour at work trying to move people in a certain direction. We might be driven by selfish motives or we might be altruistic in nature. Either way, the process of exerting influence over another human being is something we spend close to half of our working time trying to accomplish. Tom Bird, best-selling author and speaker on the art of influence, speaks to CONQA and outlines the key attributes a leader must possess in order to influence people. As you would imagine, there is no one size fits all model but by following a general formula, anyone can become influential. 

Pep Guardiola, Manchester City's Spanish manager, has found life a lot tougher in the Premier League than he did in Spain and Germany when the world beaters he was coaching swept all before them. 

Pep Guardiola, Manchester City's Spanish manager, has found life a lot tougher in the Premier League than he did in Spain and Germany when the world beaters he was coaching swept all before them. 

By the time the fourth Everton goal went in last Sunday, Pep Guardiola already looked like a beaten man. It was Manchester City’s worst defeat in the league since their 8-1 humiliation at the hands of Middlesbrough in 2008 and you didn’t need to be a behavioural expert to know just what their beleaguered boss thought of his side’s performance.

Slouched in his chair in the visiting team’s dugout, Guardiola’s bottom lip hung well below its usual resting place. Seemingly on the verge of tears, the manager, until very recently considered the best in the world, must have been hoping for the pitch to open up and swallow him whole.

After initially setting the Premier League alight with ten wins in his first ten games, Guardiola has since found life in England rather more difficult than in Spain and Germany. Now in fifth position and out of the Champions League spots, some harsh critics are starting to wonder if Guardiola has made a reputation by coaching great teams rather than being a great coach.

This theory would surely be rubbished by one of his former stars, Xavi Hernandez. The ex-Barcelona talisman told ESPN in October last year that Guardiola is categorically “the most influential person in world football for the last ten years.” He went on to add, “If anyone can change the dynamic of English football, it’s Guardiola.”

High praise indeed but judging from the body language on display, the two time winning Champions League coach seems out of his depth and out of ideas. It would appear that English football is changing the dynamic of Guardiola.

But there is a way out of the darkness. Xavi used the word ‘influence’ and it is precisely the variable that Guardiola should focus on. As the leader of the team with a weight of credibility behind him, the Spaniard needs to find his groove and start wielding some of that influence on his charges.

According to Tom Bird, best-selling author, speaker and trainer on influencing and business development, the first step towards influencing others is giving the impression of confidence. That starts with body language. As Bird says, “No matter how much credibility a leader has, either from his track record or his current set of results, if the message is not communicated with a body language and a tone of voice that matches that credibility, the message is lost.”

It’s hard to imagine that a Manchester City player was entirely on board with Guardiola’s message, either after the game or on the training pitch the next day, after watching their leader sulk like a child without his toy on the sidelines. “If I’m looking to someone for leadership, before I even have time to think I subconsciously make a judgement based on how they come across,” Bird says. “Therefore the first step to building influence [something Guardiola and all elite managers, coaches and captains are constantly striving to do] is maintaining positive body language.”

But what is influence anyway? Like any other word or phrase that defines an abstract concept such as grit, determination or mental toughness, it is easy to dismiss influence as a throwaway term reserved for power point presentations and cable television punditry.

While Bird admits that influence can take on many different shapes and sizes, he has no trouble succinctly defining the term: “Influence is the process of unconsciously changing the attitudes, behaviours and mind-sets of an individual.” Holding a gun to someone’s head and making them do something is not the same as influence.

Ultimately, influence results in change and usually occurs when things are not going well. “The difference between influence and manipulation is that influence results in an outcome that is beneficial for both parties,” Bird explains. “If I change your behaviour or thinking in a way that will only benefit myself or is to your detriment, that is manipulation. Both require the same skill sets but have contrasting motives.”

As manager of Barcelona between 2008-2012, Guardiola (mid-air) won it all. Fourteen titles is a mighty hall but critics are starting to wonder how much of that success should be attributed to his influence or to the glut of world class talent he had at his disposal.

As manager of Barcelona between 2008-2012, Guardiola (mid-air) won it all. Fourteen titles is a mighty hall but critics are starting to wonder how much of that success should be attributed to his influence or to the glut of world class talent he had at his disposal.

That skill sets is rooted in confidence and conviction. In order to influence another individual you need to have their buy-in to the concept and that will never happen if you don’t genuinely believe in the change you are trying to perpetuate.

Managers and coaches of elite sports teams often talk about the “philosophy”. What they are referring to is a blend of ideas and beliefs on how the game should be played and how the players under them should be managed. Whenever a coach finds that his style of leadership is not working in a team they encounter a problem. They might recognise that change is necessary but often battle with deviating from their core beliefs.

Manchester City, as rich with resources as they are, is not Barcelona or Bayern Munich. Likewise the English Premier League is not the Spanish La Liga or the German Bundesliga. Pep Guardiola needs to make changes to philosophies that have brought him nothing but success. It will be a monumental achievement to bring together his players under a unified ethos that he himself might not inherently believe himself.

Once buy-in from all parties is established, the process of enacting influence can begin. Bird boils the process down to four key steps. “First, the person you’re trying to influence needs to know why they need to change,” he says. Change for the sake of change leads people down an aimless path. Raising self-awareness is arguably the most important role that any leader assumes. By helping a player reach enlightenment in this regard, a coach creates a link between the change and the result.

Once that’s done, a clear vision needs to be established. “What will that change look like during the process?” Bird asks. Plan the process, set goals, speak about it, address the challenges that will be encountered and be honest about the journey. Change is difficult because it often means reworking habits that have slowly rooted themselves in an individual.

A cricket batsman might be struggling with runs because of a technical weakness in his game. Understanding and speaking about the process will help the player envision the road towards athletic redemption.

It is however imperative that the goals that are set are achievable and within the capabilities of the individual. As Bird stresses, “The need to know that they have the ability to change otherwise they will become frustrated and disenchanted with the process.”

Finally, the process needs to begin. “You need to give people some clear first steps,” Bird says. Change can be painful and taking that leap towards it can be the most difficult step in the journey. An individual needs to be bought in to the change, needs to believe that change is mutually beneficial and must be able to envision the process and back the abilities they possess, but without actually taking the plunge towards that change, everything else is simply theory.

“When trying to influence people, most of us will use logic and reasoning,” Bird says. “That is a mistake. We need to tap into the emotional part of our brains and help the person we’re trying to influence want to do it. You can push people over the edge but positive results tend to occur when the person has voluntarily and enthusiastically jumped on their own accord. All you’re trying to do is help them see the benefits.”

Unsurprisingly, Bird points out that there is no one size fits all model to becoming influential. “The only thing all senior influencers have in common is willing followers,” he says. Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Adolf Hitler and Pep Guardiola are all considered influential people but all have starkly contrasting styles and leadership qualities.

Influence is about belief. A belief that you as the influencer are the right person to lead the way, a belief that the message you are giving will result in a positive outcome for all concerned, a belief that the manner in which you are giving that message is filled with confidence and a belief that the course you have set is achievable and realistic. Everything else will depend on the unique personalities involved.

So can Guardiola turn things around and show those qualities that Xavi attributed to the City manager? According to Bird, there is no reason why not. “Influence is not about you, it’s about the people you’re trying to influence,” he says. Guardiola has the track record and he has the personnel at his disposal, all he has to do is start the process and believe in it.