March 2023
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Making Waves

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Upward influence is an essential competency that leaders must learn.

A vital skill for modern leaders is the ability to influence upwardly to drive initiatives and strategic goals. The art of influence is commonly a desired attribute or competency for company leaders and should be a part of leadership development programs. Are your programs successfully teaching that skill to others? Are your initiatives including the impact of upward influence in your organization?


Interpreting influence

Effective leadership, regardless of title and authority, involves the ability to influence, which is directly related to a person's ability to get things done. Being seen as a credible resource builds trust and often results in promotions and raises.

Influence is reasonable and necessary in a majority of business practices and situations. It is mainly about who a person is—how they show up, ask questions, leverage their knowledge, take accountability for mistakes, and make people feel. And the pressure to influence at work continues to grow because of the demand for all employees to produce results consistently.

However, sometimes people view influence negatively, and influential behaviors may come across as manipulative and inauthentic. Suppose you ask an employee what comes to mind when they hear the word influence. They may mention a used car salesperson, a politician, or a co-worker who seems to propel their career forward without much demonstrated talent. Given that different people may interpret the term differently, development programs must clearly define positive influence and how it correlates to job effectiveness and relationship development.

Influence is not persuasion

A familiar mistake that leaders make is believing influence and persuasion are synonymous. Clearly define the differences in development programs so participants understand how to apply them in the work environment.

Influence is about people and relationships; it is the ability to affect decisions. And persuasion is a tactic to influence; it uses data and facts to drive a person to a conclusion. There is a people component behind persuasion—people trust an individual more when the person uses facts and data to relay information to drive a decision or change. When someone has a history of being transparent and truthful and presenting the correct points to persuade, it becomes easier and easier for that individual to influence in the future.

Persuasion is one of six well-established methods and tactics of influence. These are the others:

  • Assertiveness entails using firm tactics and even demands to coax a target into complying with a request or ask.
  • An exchange, or quid pro quo, promises a mutual benefit if the other person helps with a task.
  • A coalition involves getting a group together to help accomplish a task, tell a story, and move things along.
  • Ingratiation aims to get the other person into a cheerful mood before making any requests.
  • Upward appeal attempts to gain upper management's support and approval for an idea.

For some people, there is a fine line between influencing and manipulating. A lack of intentionality in a relationship is palpable, and no one wants to feel used for their knowledge or stature in an organization. Acting without integrity, being hyperbolic with facts and figures, and regularly interrupting someone does not show a commitment to the relationship. Being manipulative will take away the focus of the conversation. Influence is a process, not a single step. Leaders must establish trust, credibility, and reliability through authenticity and acting with care.

Teaching influence

To introduce the idea of influence and train leaders to leverage the skill effectively, first define influence as it relates to your organization, aligning it with leadership competencies and the company's mission statement. Many companies have words such as inspire, accelerate, change, connect, success, partner, and innovate in their mission statements. Those terms require employees to influence others to inspire them, accelerate ideas, and drive change. Influence also pushes people to partner and innovate, which can ultimately lead to reaching company goals. If influence is not an independent leadership competency in your organization, it should be or be connected to other competencies that exist.

An easy exercise to get training participants into the mindset of influence is for them to identify someone or something that has positively shaped their lives, supported them, helped them achieve their goals, and inspired and motivated them to do something challenging or different.

Frequently, talent development programs focus on self-awareness and emotional intelligence and miss connecting those skills to how they form relationships and allow space to influence. Self-awareness and situational awareness give a leader a broader understanding of their behaviors, how others interpret those behaviors, and how to better read the audience. Emotional intelligence is not only the ability to connect with others; it is also the ability to listen and understand what another person needs to succeed.

Influence is effortless when a leader can pick up on others' hesitation, is clear about what information someone needs to make decisions, and can connect with others on a deeper level outside of the task at hand. Likewise, influence is all about networking and establishing social capital. In today's virtual environment, finding ways to develop relationships is complex and even more critical than ever before. Leaders must be creative in building relationships and creating pathways to being influenced up, down, and across an organization. Promoting mentorship programs and informational interviews across departments and titles helps encourage relationship building and a greater understanding of what is going on in the company.

Upward influence is a philosophy and a skill

Establishing a culture of influence is critical for organizations. Leaders must learn to apply leverage in the right direction. They often influence their teams and peers; however, leaders are not always great at managing upwardly or practicing upward influence.

People at a high rank in an organization still need management, often from the employees below them. Upward influence is centered around an individual working to benefit themselves and their manager. It helps strengthen work relationships with the company's leaders that people often avoid because of rank and title. Someone who can powerfully manage up makes their manager's life easier because the individual knows what their manager needs and can do the work autonomously. The completed work benefits the employee, the manager, and hopefully others in the company.

How can a leader manage up more effectively, and how can the talent development function help? Let's examine that in terms of goals and goal setting. Most leaders focus on their goals and maybe their direct reports' goals. Individual goals are often aligned with department goals and may be aligned with management goals. However, is the leader aware and knowledgeable of their manager's goals and how the manager's performance is measured? Does the leader know what ambitions their manager holds and needs to meet to be successful? Has the leader learned how their day-to-day work enhances or supports their manager's goals?

Encourage leaders to meet with their manager to identify the manager's goals as a way for leaders to connect their work with the work happening above them. Doing so enables leaders to be more focused, and they can work to be more strategic and mindful of how their work affects the broader company. Understanding what is most important to their manager from a goal and project perspective is essential to upward influence.

Another key factor is ensuring that leaders learn about their manager and why they make certain decisions. Are leaders aware of the impact of those decisions and why that knowledge is important to becoming an excellent employee and a great supporter of their manager?

Promotions are about more than just doing a good job. They come from demonstrating specific skills required for the next level. What better way for someone to learn those level-up skills than to spend more time with the leadership above them? That is the value of upward influence. It helps individuals understand what needs to occur to move ahead.

Training participants must learn those critical pieces to upward influence. They likewise need to know what their managers need from them to succeed, such as:

  • Addressing real problems or particular issues together and avoiding complaints
  • Focusing on solutions and learning to radically accept that some things are out of their control
  • Not being a bottleneck but rather a resource

In addition, train individuals to be confident in sharing their talents and weaknesses with their supervisor. Is there a trusting relationship between a manager and their direct report? Employees should know and understand that implicitly.

Leaders having clarity about what aspect of their work or behavior may stress their manager is also important. For instance, does the leader lack tact in conversations? Are they confrontational or challenging to work with? Are they working for the good of the organization? Leaders and their managers should be on the same page; feedback is required for that to be clear. Last, knowing leader and employee pet peeves and work styles makes it easier to avoid bringing them up or acting in a way that brings those to the surface.

Other factors are fundamental to establishing tight relationships that open the door for more significant upward influence and support the building of social capital. The first is limiting complaints. Individuals must understand that whining is not an effective communication tactic, primarily when it is directed toward someone's poor performance, a broken process, or a flawed system. The problem to be solved should be worth solving. That also means individuals must present the relevant issues clearly and with documentation and data to support the problem description. Finding problems worth solving and solving them tells others that the individual is interested in doing what is best for the company and can be trusted to make meaningful and data-based decisions.


Second is taking the right things off people's plates, mainly if an individual is trying to manage up or support a peer. Does the manager need help with the slide review? Editing a process? Assessing vendors? A direct report's opinion and expertise could be helpful, and they should offer support and participate.

Also train participants to be clear about what they need in terms of support so that their requests are unambiguous. Doing so enables them to focus on what is necessary to get a project or idea off the ground. Being a bottleneck, particularly without a valid reason, will prevent individuals from being able to influence upwardly. Slowing down a project makes a person difficult to work with instead of an ally. That will weaken the ability to influence upwardly.

Leaders should be proactive and know when to push and when to pull back. They must learn to choose their battles; relationships are the basis of influence, and arguing to argue—mainly if done passive-aggressively—is ineffective for all.

Another critical aspect of leadership development programs is ensuring participants understand that dealing with assumptions and learning to work amid uncertainty is part of the job. Staying humble and taking accountability when things do not work out are elements of maintaining relationships and keeping the road open to upward influence. If a leader needs to make an assumption because so much is unknown, and it falls flat, owning the situation and the circumstance enables others to see the leader as human and relatable.

Talent programs should likewise focus on training participants to ask the right questions. That includes open-ended questions that drive dialogue and questions to gain insights into others' perspectives. It is difficult for leaders to influence if they are not open to hearing others' opinions, and they must create the space to allow for idea sharing.

360 degrees of influence

Upward influence tactics are techniques that leaders can learn. Regardless of the direction, the influence must be positive and beneficial to others. In its simplest form, influence is about relationships and caring about what those relationships mean to get the work done.

Relationship-Building Activities

One of the easiest ways for leaders to formulate relationships, particularly with new and unknown people, is to find a mentor or conduct informational interviews. Going about that can involve participating in their employer's existing mentoring program, which is effective when it uses software and technology that support mentor and mentee engagement.

Informational interviews are less about a formalized relationship. Still, they serve as an effective way for a leader to get to know others with the intent of learning about their role in the company, background and career history, and best practices for career success. Hearing how someone else has used relationships to grow their ability to influence is relatable and authentic. Building a mentoring relationship or finding a person to interview involves individuals:

  1. Finding the right contact by searching organizational directories or LinkedIn, leveraging keywords or industries of interest
  2. Preparing for the first discussion or interview by being clear about the conversation's purpose, the goals of the time spent together, and what the interviewee will gain from this meeting
  3. Drafting open-ended questions that can drive conversation and being a good listener throughout the discussion
  4. Following up with a thank-you for the time if the interaction brings a connection that opens the door to a permanent mentoring relationship; making a formal partnership should be a primary goal of the follow-up

Conceptualizing Social Capital

Social capital centers around relationships, where employees can work together well and have meaningful partnerships and connections on teams and throughout the company. The idea of social capital comes from leveraging known associations to open multiple doors and to get resources and support to get things done. It goes beyond the act of simple introductions.

Building social capital takes a work acquaintance to the next level by fostering a deeper relationship and building trust. It also means having a shared understanding of standard norms and values even when opinions may be on opposite ends of the spectrum. It is a partnership where give and take is shared on both sides.

About the Author

Carrie Berg is vice president of L&D for Teladoc Health. She has more than 20 years of healthcare experience in sales, sales training, marketing, strategy, commercial effectiveness, L&D, talent and organization development, and leadership. Before joining Teladoc Health, Berg held various leadership roles in sales training, education, and development and consulted several startup organizations to build dynamic learning programs. She has participated in multiple certificate programs, graduated from the KPMG Women in Executive Leadership program, Leadership California, and is accredited in Insights Discovery and Situational Leadership. Berg is also a member of Chief and the Forbes Human Resources Council. She graduated from Winona State University with an MBA from Anderson University and is a doctoral student in organizational development and leadership.

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