Inspirational stories can be an important tool for influential leadership

“In telling value laden stories from past experiences, organizational leaders and managers show their human sides.”
Powerful Tales I was recently invited to train high potential leaders at the talent summit of a large manufacturing multinational. This particular organization strives for a culture that encourages inspirational leadership. In the training, we invited the senior managers to tell stories that centered on the main cultural themes that the organization promotes.

The stories, based on their personal experiences, reflected the alignment between their personal values and those of the organization, and left participants feeling positive and inspired. Though there was confusion and anxiety at first among the Chinese managers (as storytelling as a means of influencing leadership is rarely used), in the end it was an exciting experience for them to experiment with this alternative leadership tool.
Influencing Both Halves of the Brain

As human beings, our brain has two halves: one for “thinking” the other for “feeling”. In attempting to influence others, managers are normally tempted to convince. When we influence others by convincing, we address logical thinking and make others use the “thinking” rational part of their brain.

However, we can have a more powerful effect when we can express inspirational messages that simultaneously address both the “thinking” and the “feeling” part of the other person. An inspirational pitch with stories, pictures and metaphors will spark the other person’s imagination. When we inspire others, we reach their hearts and souls. We create new and creative ideas and trigger positive feelings. An inspirational pitch is most powerful and effective when there is alignment in what the speaker thinks, feels, and says.

Authenticity and Connection
The organization we worked with stresses connection with people in leadership behaviors. Part of the connection comes from authenticity. Consequently, in our training with the high potentials, we focused on training authenticity and being real so that the senior managers could learn how to connect with their employees in a personal way.

In telling value-laden stories from past experiences, organizational leaders and managers show their human sides and demonstrate to their employees their deep-rooted belief systems, and the things that touch them the most. Thus, connections with people are built naturally through presenting the authentic self to others. And storytellers guarantee their authentic effect on the audience because they are not performers but are themselves part of the story .

The Synthesizing Mind
Dr. Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard University, describes five mind-sets that are important for the future. The most important one is the synthesizing mind, which connects and combines things. This synthesizing mind is not only reflected in the way that it incorporates the ideas of the speaker, but also in the way that it incorporates the ideas of those being influenced so that people feel they are being involved. Dr. Gardner concludes: “stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s arsenal.”

Storytelling as an inspirational pitch is particularly effective when it is linked with organizational visions and cultural themes and used in times of organizational change. In effect, it is a good starting point for getting all stakeholders involved in a dialogue. Influencing through inspiring is based on building rapport, a harmonious relationship characterized by mutual trust, respect, and understanding. When personal and organizational values are subtly transmitted in stories of personal experiences and presented in an emotionally charged way, the impact can be immense. It is a less forceful way of gaining buy-in from others and people are naturally aligned and willingly inspired.

The importance of listening cannot be over-emphasized

“Good listening skills focus more on the relationship and feelings side of people and therefore complement our efforts to convince others to our way of thinking.”

Influencing without Authority in on of our training programs, Influencing Without Authority, I have observed many recurring patterns and pitfalls that are shared by the various different groups of functional managers, project managers, and sales people who have gone through the training.

One pattern in particular is that people often equate influencing with convincing. However, convincing is a more self-centered way of communication.

For example, I recently trained a group of middle level managers at a large multinational company in the energy sector. The manager of the pricing department expressed challenges in winning support from the GM of the sales department. He was invited to roleplay his talk with the GM. In observing the conversation, we realized that both sides were busy and effective in presenting strong arguments related to their departmental interests and concerns. However, there was really no “interaction” between the two because there was no overlap in the contents discussed and neither was “listening” to the other. The result was that both were good at convincing, but no influence happened.

Good listening skills play a critical role in helping to connect two conflicting parties and open up the opportunity to solve a problem together. Without good listening, a stalemate between both sides will be the most likely result.

Here are a few reasons why using good listening skills and influencing without authority are just as important, if not more important, than being able to use verbal power to convince someone to meet your needs.

To influence is to understand
Many organizations in today’s fast-paced world have a results-driven culture. When it comes to communication, a results-driven style also becomes the norm. Values such as being direct, clear and logical with hard facts and figures are encouraged when interacting with internal and external clients.
Nevertheless, in real life situations, for influence to happen, no matter whether you are selling a product to an external client or trying to overcome a conflict with an inter-departmental colleague, understanding the other’s needs and concerns becomes critical to influence them to buy or to change opinions. Exploring a customer’s needs and challenges, or the concerns of a colleague from a different functional department, is often required if one wants to influence them. Without communication behaviors geared towards understanding of the other, efforts to influence tend to be pointless. All in all, good listening skills are the tools to use to open up, explore, and to understand our targeted person/group before making any attempt to influence them.

To be understood, first try to understand
We often hear people complain about others being too “pushy”. Constantly sending messages in hope that others will accept becomes pushy and communication becomes one way. On the other hand, listening is a sign of showing respect and is an invitation for two-way communication. Instead of pushing, we pull the other to our side. When we want to influence someone, we expect to gain their acceptance first. By practicing good listening skills we understand and show respect to others’ viewpoints first, before inviting others to listen to us. Others are more likely to be receptive to listening to us after we have listened to and respected them.

Building connections
We tend to focus on the content and rational side when communicating with others. However, building connections is just as important. Though logical arguments and strong statements backed up by hard facts and numbers can be necessary in resolving differences of opinions in organizational settings, these behaviors sometimes create distance between people. Good listening skills focus more on the relationship and feelings side of people and therefore complement our efforts to convince others to our way of thinking, and succeed in our influencing.

When we face a world of diverse employees, who each possess a different personality, being able to touch both their rational and emotional side gives us more flexibility in influencing others in the organization.

Assertive behavior creates personal and organizational effectiveness

“A work environment in which assertion is the norm will be one in which unnecessary and destructive interpersonal tensions are reduced to a minimum.”

Encourage Your Employees to Speak Up it is a fact that many individuals, for whatever reason, are not naturally assertive. They either fail to communicate their needs in a straightforward fashion, or do so in a way that is unhelpful to others. In conflict situations, they have a tendency to lose control, or alternatively, say nothing and swallow their feelings. Being assertive means standing up for oneself without unnecessarily offending others and helps create a positive and more effective workplace.

For Chinese employees working in multinational organizations, practicing assertiveness may be especially challenging as it means they must dare to speak out and express their individual thoughts and opinions when facing people in higher positions. A real-life example of this dynamic occurred while we were training the R&D managers in the Chinese office of a major US telecommunications company. Several managers expressed the wish to try new behaviors and challenge themselves to speak up in public. Coincidentally, a global director from the company’s US headquarters happened to be visiting China and a town hall meeting was scheduled.
The global director had reservations about meeting with the Chinese employees because previously they had been reluctant to express themselves. He had even decided not to mention the company’s new strategic plan at the meeting unless asked about it, as he did not expect they would offer any input or feedback. At the meeting, he was surprised to find the Chinese managers behaving assertively – part of their homework from the training. The global director was so impressed by the Chinese managers at this meeting that a year later he moved the company’s global research center to China.

Encouraging your employees to speak up is only the first step in assertiveness training. Since many issues in the workforce are caused by communication failures, it can be an important part of overall staff development.

A work environment in which assertion is the norm will be one in which unnecessary and destructive interpersonal tensions are reduced to a minimum. For this reason, many organizations now integrate assertiveness training into their mainstream management development programs. Behaving more assertively makes one more effective in one’s job. Assertion tends to breed assertion, so people are more likely to work with an assertive colleague, rather than against him/her. In turn, this makes it easier to get satisfactory outcomes. We believe assertiveness can benefit one’s personal effectiveness in many ways:
A Better Chance of Your Needs Being Met: If you behave more assertively, you state more clearly what your needs, wants, ideas and opinions are. This increases the chance that your needs will be met and your opinions taken into account. At the same time, assertion is not about ignoring or dismissing the needs of others; instead you encourage others to make their own needs known. When needs conflict, then we believe assertive behavior helps individuals find solutions that are acceptable to both people.

Greater Confidence: In some instances your needs may not be met. The important point here is that, should this happen, because you made your needs or views known, you are more likely to feel ‘okay’ about yourself and the situation. This increased confidence about yourself helps you to recognize and accept the strengths of those who work with you or for you, rather than being threatened by them.

Taking The Initiative: If you hope to influence the environment in which you work, it is important to take initiative. These initiatives may be small

— for example, putting forward an idea in a meeting, or large — such as changing the flow of work through your department. If you behave assertively you are not afraid of failure or making a mistake.

Energy Savings: When you are no longer preoccupied with not upsetting others or losing out, you will save yourself a lot of nervous energy, and experience a reduction in stress and tension associated with getting results. Decisions become less stressful because you will be less concerned with what people think and the fear of making a mistake. This allows you more time to work productively in other aspects of your job.

HED: Leading From the Inside-Out

joanne vt

HED: Leading From the Inside-Out
SUBHED: Developing self-awareness is a key part of leadership development
PQ: “Leadership is not about being right all the time, it’s about being real.”

I recently joined a coaching program that offered a more holistic view on coaching, giving participants more of a “life” perspective for tackling business-related problems. We were first required to go through a process of self-discovery. Amongst the group was a senior executive/consultant who, at the end of the program, had mixed feelings about its usefulness. He enjoyed the areas covering specific coaching skills but had expected more applications with a direct business focus, rather than the “life coaching” perspective. He felt that business executives would only be willing to pay for coaching geared towards behavior improvement or business results. “Who will pay for discovering who they are and what their values are?” he said. And this would seem to be a valid concern.

I learned a lot about this executive as we went through the program together, and he showed both his strengths and his weaknesses. He dislikes having a full schedule all the time and being committed to everyone else but himself. He almost perceives there to be a contradiction between being his real self and being successful in business. His job requires him to be very creative and insightful yet rational and logical as well. When he states his opinions, he speaks with caution and authority. He is very good at advising people.
The feedback he received from the others in the group suggested that he use his intuition and show his real self more, including his artistic and fun-loving traits, and his strong desire for freedom of choice. Though he resisted the focus on self-discovery, if he acts upon the self-knowledge he gained through the program it would certainly help him achieve those results.

This executive’s experience shows exactly why self-awareness is so critical to leadership development. Coaching from a life perspective can indirectly lead to breakthroughs and benefit senior executives. Leaders often try very hard to “act” as leaders, and to insist that they are always “right.” Employees may aggrandize their leader too, expecting them to always have the answers. As a result, sometimes a leader projects a personality to others that is quite different from whom they really are. This may cause them to behave in a certain way as to meet the expectations of others, rather than leading from the “inside out”. They may be in danger of losing the quality that is usually highly prized in a leader – their uniqueness. We usually find a leader charismatic or inspirational because of who they are as a person; this internal source of power enables them to have a strong influence on others.

When learning new skills and behaviors during the coaching process, senior executives aim to get closer to ‘perfect’ – they think that it demonstrates greater leadership. In effect, however, adding new skills and behaviors is like adding new software programs to a computer. The operational system remains the same, and the source of power is external, not from within, and so becomes shaky.
When we help these executives to find out who they are, we are helping them to find their anchor points. For example, we recently developed a leadership program for the European headquarters of a multinational company, which focused extensively on leaders’ self awareness and self discovery. We worked with senior executives to identify their personality types, their typical team roles, as well as their influencing styles – in essence preparing them to know themselves first. By identifying their anchor points, they can have a more accurate self-perception and identify gaps for personal growth. It has been proven to be the most successful and well-received leadership program we have delivered so far in China. Focusing on the strengths and the core values of the individual helps them to develop a foundation for shaping their own unique style of leadership.

Leadership is not about being right all the time, it is about being real. It is about authenticity and sometimes, vulnerability, as well. Daring to show weaknesses only makes a leader one of “us” and approachable to his/her followers. Authentic leadership is about daring to be one’s real self and having consistency between internal and external personality. Only when leadership is from the inside-out, can power be sustainable and influential with others.