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Understanding Influence

Hi everyone,

As a kid, I used to feel frustrated that the rules were made by other people and I had little or no ability to affect them. My parents weren't overly strict, but there were still things I had to do: go to school, go to the doctor, etc. I think I was like a lot of kids in that I wanted to be grown up so I could make the rules, as if at some point someone would wave a magic wand and say, "it's your world now, do what you want." I've recognized this same pattern throughout my career. 

A less-experienced Nicholas was obsessed with being promoted. In my mind, it was that magic wand I was waiting for, the thing that imbued me with power. "Once I get promoted, everyone will listen to me," I thought. I craved the power of having minions scurrying about doing my bidding simply because I said so. Only after years of work and some solid mentoring did I realize how wrong-headed my beliefs were.

Unless you're in the government or military, a title doesn't give you any power. No one will listen to you just because they're supposed to; it's just not how people operate. There is no such thing as power at work, there is only influence.

Influence isn't about getting people to do what you want them to do, it's about backing up your opinions in a way that others can understand and in a way that gives them confidence. Where power says, "go pick up your toys," influence says, "I think it's a good idea to pick up our toys because someone might trip on a toy and hurt themselves. What do you think?" Influence is soft where power is hard; influence makes people want to do what you suggest where power forces people to do it.

The next logical question is, then, how do you gain influence? Once again, titles are meaningless, as is the distinction between being a manager or an individual contributor. The only way to gain influence is through experience. The more times you're involved in solving problems or working through issues, the better you get at it. The better you get at it, the easier it is for you to explain your approach. The easier it is for you to explain, the more likely others will agree. The more times people agree, the more confidence they have in you and your opinions. Rinse, repeat.

Not surprisingly, the career progression of an engineer is measured both in terms of experience and influence. We spend the first eight years or so of our careers focusing solely on experience. Only when we have enough confidence and evidence to back up our opinions do we start to develop influence. Ultimately, it's your level of influence that determines how much further your career will progress.

The confusion tends to come because people see those with the big titles being influential at work. Make no mistake, there is a correlation, but not the one people think. Those folks have the big titles because of how influential they are, not the other way around. Influence represents your ability to positively affect the people around you, and that's what gets rewarded.

Be well.

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