Increasing Power and Influence as Communicators

Why does it seem like certain folks in organizations accrue more power and influence than others, even if their work or intelligence might not seem all that exceptional?

Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote a very interesting book that provides the rationale as to why this happens. There is guidance in this book that is probably useful for most any professional function. In particular, I thought that there were insights that were beneficial for communicators. Let’s face it – if we don’t have the trust and instill confidence from others, it is quite difficult to get them to take actions on our communications initiatives.

Personal Story

I have seen this first-hand in my career. Years ago, I made a mistake. A journalist wrote a story about our new senior leader. The article was good overall. It was a three-page feature in a reputable trade publication. The journalist kindly sent me the article for us to review for accuracy. I did this, and then sent along to this senior leader for his reference.

To my surprise, I received a nasty email. He complained that the article was poorly written and contained numerous spelling mistakes. I was asked to come to his office. He yelled and screamed and questioned my work. The tone of the article wasn’t all that compelling, but really this wasn’t our place to call this into question. This is common practice in media relations. Our role was simply to verify facts. I did a poor job in initially framing this in my email to the new leader. I made the mistake in assuming he knew the process. When I was called out on the carpet, rather than stepping up and confidentially explaining and educating the leader (who was inexperienced in working with the media) about the process, I sheepishly caved in and apologized. I never earned this individual’s trust and this made certain aspects of my role more complicated and difficult.

I was despondent at the time about this experience. But in retrospect, I am actually grateful for this experience. I learned that as a communicator – and now as a consultant running my own shop – that it is my role to confidently educate and inform senior leaders about communications matters.

Research and Examples from the Book “Power”

In Pfeffer’s book, there are various research studies highlighted related to how we generate buy in (and essentially avoid being in the predicament I was in above). Here are some of these paraphrased examples and research highlighted in the book, followed by my analysis on the implications for communicators.

1. Frank Stanton became a senior vice president of CBS broadcasting in 1942. Few would have thought he had the skills and pedigree for the role. He started his position seven years earlier as just one of three on a team with very little resources. When he became a VP, he was managing a team of 100. Pfeffer outlined the key to his strategy: making himself indespensible to senior management by finding as much information about every topic that would be of importance and then strategically sharing this knowledge with them.

Implications for communicators: how can you demonstrate these behaviors? It could lead to promotions. But it is also related to the role of communicators. We should be well-connected to various individuals and groups and are uniquely positioned to connect the dots. It requires being systematic in gleaning new information and then communicating it strategically.

2. I have long been an admirer of the World Economic Forum. The organization’s mission certainly resonates with me and I find their communications strategies to be quite innovative. It was interesting to read the back story of how founder Klaus Schwab started the WEF in Pfeffer’s book. What started as a small group of businesses that came together in 1971 around a common theme has emerged into prestigious global events that costs companies a pretty penny to join.

Implications for communicators: how can you bring together influencers in your world together and provide them value? It might not lead to creating one of the most recognized events in the world like the WEF, but it can provide credibility, visibility and influence that can help you – and your organization – reap different benefits.

3. In our networking, weaker ties can be more influential than stronger ones. Sociologist Mark Granovetter came to this conclusion in a study in how people find jobs. It was assumed that stronger ties – close friends and family – would be more influential in helping job seekers but the study showed that weaker ties (casual acquaintances) were more helpful. It is counterintuitive but actually makes sense when you think about it. Those who are weaker ties are more likely to link you to new people, organizations and information as opposed to those who already walk in similar circles with you.

Implications for communicators: I thought about my career path and even how I have grown my consulting business. I have benefitted from some of the most random recommendations. One person who I never even met recommended me for a really interesting gig. I eventually found out a loose connection recommended me to this person and she then recommended me to this decision-maker. Keep this in mind next time you want to tap into your network to achieve a particular communications goal (personal or organizational). Don’t underestimate the weaker connections. 
4. One of the subheads in chapter four of the book is “Asking works”. Pfeffer writes about research showing how we underestimate people’s willingness to say yes to requests. One study showed that people assumed they would need to ask 10 people before someone would say yes and let them borrow their mobile phone. The actual number was 3 acceptances out of 6.2. Another study showed people’s wrong expectations on asking for directions. Respondents thought it would take 7 asks to find a stranger to accompany one three blocks in New York City. In actuality it was 2.3. In this chapter, Pfeffer clearly communicates the rationale for why people respond positively more often than we would expect as well as the underlying factors for why we are often leery to reach out and ask.

Implications for communicators: Asking can help lead you to answers, information and access that can help in various ways. Who are you not asking because it doesn’t seem likely the person would respond? The worse that can happen is you hear no response or your ask is declined. As the above shows, your instincts might be wrong.  So could ahead and give it a shot!
These are just four examples. I highly suggest you read the entire book. More information is here.