When is the last time you were wholly responsible for a project at work, without having to rely on anyone else at any point in the process? For a lot of you the answer is probably, “I’m never wholly responsible for anything at work anymore! I always have to rely on other people—on my team, in other departments, or even outside my organization.”
If you’re like most people in today’s high-collaboration workplace, you rely on other people to get your own work done every single day. And, if you’re like most people, that means managing these working relationships is an increasing aspect of your job.
The problem is, the people upon whom you’re relying are almost always people over whom you have no formal authority. They’re your colleagues sideways and diagonally on the organization chart. You’re more or less equals. And without formal authority, getting what you need from those people can be that much harder.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can simply pass the buck on responsibility. You’re still the one who has to answer to your boss when things aren’t done on time or on spec, regardless of whether you are being held up or let down by someone else. So, how do you get what you need from others, when you don’t have authority?
You’ve got to use influence.
But there’s real influence, and then there’s false influence. Understanding the difference is critical to succeeding when lines of authority are so often unclear.
“Sometimes false influence works—until it doesn’t.”
If you were to try to use your influence to get your way with colleagues, you might try to:
- Bribe your colleagues or otherwise seek to establish a quid pro quo
- Threaten to withhold support for them in the future
- Badger, bully, and/or manipulate them
- Charm and flatter or otherwise seek to ingratiate yourself with them
- Point fingers, blame, complain, or otherwise undermine them
- Go over their heads
The problem is that these tactics are all akin to “influence peddling”—putting one form or another of pressure on people to get them to comply. They are poor stand-ins for authority—efforts to wield rewards and punishments without official position power. They might get you what you want in the very short term or even for a while. But do you really want to be the “con man” at work? None of the things on that list will result in people wanting to do things for you. More likely, they’ll make colleagues root against you.
That’s why I call such tactics “false influence.” Unfortunately, many people employ them in hopes of getting what they need within the free fall of high-collaboration, self-managed teams, and interdependence. And sometimes false influence works—until it doesn’t.
Real influence, on the other hand, fosters authentic power that enables you to succeed, regardless of how much organizational authority you might or might not have. Real influence tactics are those that stand the test of time, helping to strengthen your working relationships in the long-term, rather than damage them.
So, how do you build real influence? How do you make other people want you to gain power and help you to succeed? How do you make others want to contribute to your success, make valuable use of your time, and work in smart ways on your behalf?
The answer, based on decades of research among more than a half-million people in more than four hundred organizations with which we’ve worked, is simple: serve others. Stop focusing on what other people can do for you and focus instead on what you can do for other people. Make yourself super valuable to others. The more value you add, the more truly invested others become in your success.
That’s how you become indispensable. That’s how you use real influence and become a true go-to person.
Go-to people come in every variety and work at every level, and are found in organizations of all shapes and sizes, in every industry. There are as many different styles and stories as there are go-to people. But when I look for the common denominators, what unites them all is that they know how to make themselves valuable to others, consistently, in most every interaction, and they do so over time. So, you might think that go-to people must be technical experts with very sharp skills for important tasks, responsibilities, and projects. And, of course, go-to people must certainly be very good at their jobs. But that’s just table stakes for the go-to person, like hard work and a positive attitude.
More to the point, not all technical experts are go-to people. I’ve seen a zillion cases where an employee is, by far, the most technically skilled at doing their job, but nobody’s first choice of somebody to go to. Perhaps they have a bad attitude and are not very good at interpersonal relations. Perhaps they just don’t get enough done.
Sometimes, the technical expert is an annoying know-it-all. They can be so convinced they’re more qualified than everyone else, they spend too much of their time complaining and finger-pointing about everything they see wrong in the company, its management, its processes, and its personnel. Then, when they themselves fail to deliver, they can always tell you why it’s somebody else’s fault.
Nobody wants to work with—much less for—that person.
“Stop focusing on what other people can do for you and focus instead on what you can do for other people.”
Most people prefer instead to go to colleagues who know how to work professionally and methodically within the system, follow the rules, and stay in alignment with the chain of command. Things tend to work out so much better that way.
- Make themselves incredibly valuable to others
- Are very good at their jobs
- Maintain a positive attitude and double down on hard work
- Take personal responsibility and get things done
- Are creative and tenacious but do things by the book and follow orders
- Do all those things consistently, in most every interaction, over time
Of course, at this point, you may be thinking, “What you are saying is impossible to maintain. All these extra relationships and all the extra work. Working double-time, triple-booked, missing vacations, never sleeping. It’s unsustainable. There has to be a limit.”
And, of course, you are 1,000 percent right.
The key thing to remember is this: Yes, you have to be of service. But you’re not serving anyone when you overcommit and overpromise.
Truly serving others isn’t about being great at what you do, doing it with the best attitude, or saying “yes” to every single ask. In fact, relying on those things absolves you of engaging with your colleagues and building authentic working relationships.
“You’re not serving anyone when you overcommit and overpromise.”
In order to serve others and, therefore, establish real influence, you’ve got to accept some hard realities of the high-collaboration workplace:
- Positive attitude, hard work, personal responsibility, and being great at your job are just table stakes.
- You cannot ever do everything for everybody. Overpromising may please people up front, but if you fail to deliver, that’s all they will remember.
- You must make choices about what you are not going to do, so you get the right things done. Making no choice is still a choice, and no choice is almost as bad as a bad choice.
- To make good choices, you must do your due diligence, the sooner the better, every step of the way. That means establishing specific goals, next steps, and areas of responsibility for any project—big or small—before anyone gets started on the work.
- You can’t be great at everything, so you need to build a repertoire of things you are known for consistently doing very well and very fast.
- You only get credit for the results you deliver. You get a lot more credit when you deliver on time and on spec.
- People are your number-one asset, but they are also very high maintenance, so managing relationships is mission critical.
Play the long game with people to build real influence, but remember that the long game is played moment by moment by doing the right thing in one short-term interaction after another. The long game of real influence is a generous, other-centered focus that adds value to every interaction. And, in turn, the value you add makes the other person more valuable, including to you, instantly and over time.
If you understand the mathematics of real influence—and believe in it—you can make yourself incredibly rich in a very potent source of power by dedicating yourself to serving others, moment by moment, in every interaction.
Excerpted with permission from The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done (Harvard Business Review Press)