HR’s guide to influencing styles

The ability to effectively influence is a key competency for HR people, and a skill which can make a real difference to your effectiveness in your role.

It filters into all aspects of the job, whether it’s persuading the board to support your latest employee engagement initiative, getting line managers on side with a new HR software system, or dealing with an employee who is digging their heels in and resisting change.

We all have a preferred influencing style. Some people like to argue their case with the facts and figures, for example, while others prefer to try and inspire people by sharing their vision and painting a picture of the future.

There’s nothing wrong in playing to your strengths, but it is important to recognise that the people on the receiving end of your influencing efforts will have their own preferences as to how they like to receive and process information.

The best influencers are those who can draw on a variety of techniques and approaches, adapting their style to suit the audience and the situation. So, what are the main influencing styles – and how can you use them to good effect when dealing with your HR challenges?

1. Directive

This approach comes in to play often when safety or security are at risk and you need quick compliance. It’s about being straightforward, telling it like it is and making sure everyone is clear about what needs to be done, by when and how. This highly assertive style of influencing works well if you are the ‘expert’ — and requires authority and high levels of credibility in the business.

If your role encompasses health and safety, for example, you would want to be directive about the need for employees to follow certain processes or to wear the correct protective clothing. Or, if a disciplinary issue was about to emerge, you would want to be very clear with the line manager involved about the need to follow the company’s procedure to the letter. It’s important to think carefully about when it is and is not appropriate to adopt this approach. Over-used, it can come across as arrogant and dictatorial, and although people may do what you say, you won’t necessarily have won them over to your way of thinking.

2. Persuasive reasoning

This is the style that is probably most used in organisational life. It’s about coming up with the pros and cons, the facts and figures and the rational, logical argument to support your case. If you needed to persuade the board to approve the budget for a new HR system, for example, your chances of success would be greatly improved if you:

  • researched the market for prices and features
  • could demonstrate knowledge of the different types of systems available
  • were able to explain why you were recommending one particular supplier over another
  • if you can give a clear idea of what the return on investment will be

However, when you’re using this approach, it’s important to recognise that people draw on their emotions, as well as logic, when it comes to making decisions. Facts and figures are not always enough on their own to win the day – there is a danger that if you rely solely on the data and overlook what people may actually be feeling, your attempts could fall flat.

3. Collaborative

A collaborative, participative approach to influencing works well when you want to win hearts and minds. Or when you’re asking for input and support from others. It’s about asking questions, listening, finding common ground and bringing people together to get the best possible outcome or result.

If there are plans to restructure a department or make a major change to the way work is done, collaboration is a great way of getting people on board, making them feel involved, and overcoming their natural apprehension about the impact the changes may have on their roles.

These open conversations can also help to generate new insights and ideas that will help to shape any planned restructure and give it the best chance of success. A collaborative approach should of course be genuine in its intent – people will soon see through it if you are only playing lip service to getting them involved. You may also struggle in a very hierarchical, top-down organisation or in cultures where people aren’t used to being asked for their opinions.

4. Inspirational

The inspirational approach is for whipping up enthusiasm. It’s about sharing your vision of what the future might look like. Tell stories that demonstrate the new behaviours you want to encourage and create a sense of energy around whatever project you are trying to drive through.

This approach would work well if you were trying to shift the culture in the business and encourage a more entrepreneurial or innovative approach to work. Or maybe the organisation wants to move to a coaching culture and needs managers to understand how this can help them achieve better results. Don’t forget, however, that some people need the detail as well as the big picture, and as the initiative progresses, you may need to move to one of the other influencing styles.

Recognising that influencing is a process, not a one-off event, and that you will need to adapt your style as you go is the key to success. Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of only using the style that you feel most comfortable with. To quote influencing experts Mike Brent and Fiona Dent: “If you only stick to one approach, it’s a bit like a golfer playing with one club instead of the fourteen in their bag. You might get round the course, but you are never going to be a great golfer.”

Find out more about how to improve your influencing skills in ‘The Leader’s Guide to Influence: How to use Soft Skills to get Hard Results’, Mike Brent and Fiona Elsa Dent, pub FT Prentice Hall.

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