Influencing as a Technical Leader
Influencing as a Technical Leader
This article summarizes what I have learned about how we make decisions, and how to influence the decisions of others in the workplace. It presents some mental models, philosophy, psychology, and tactics for understanding and influencing others.
I wrote this article to help others as well as clarify my own thinking which has been slowly accumulating from different sources over a long time.
Over the course of my career as a software developer and leader, I have often needed to influence others’ decisions. This has been true whether working as an individual contributor or as a manager.
Increasingly, I have had to influence decisions around technical decisions across architecture, system design, prioritization, and staffing. In recent years I have also had some occasions to influence product direction and feature prioritization.
Others have asked me multiple times during coaching or mentoring discussions how to get alignment from other teams, leaders, or stakeholders. I have also thought about this from the point of view of an interviewer trying to understand how effective others are at this set of skills.
These opinions are strictly my own and not those of my current or former employers.
I have a long-term interest in psychology, but I am not a psychologist. I hope you find this article useful, but please take my psychological insights with a grain of salt.
There are a number of mental models I try to keep in mind while traversing problems of technical leadership that depend on influencing or motivating others.
Conger’s Model of Influence
The first of these models which I bring up most often because it is the most concrete and direct is Conger’s model of influence. This was published in the Harvard Business Review in a 1998 article The Necessary Art of Persuasion by Dr. Jay A. Conger.
Conger identifies the steps to effective influencing as:
- Establish credibility
- Frame for common ground
- Provide evidence
- And connect emotionally.
Many of the terms used by Franklin Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People have become over-used buzzwords by people who may not have had a deep appreciation for the details, but the reason the terms became so widespread is that this book is a classic by any standard of clarity, utility, or popularity.
Habit 4 is The Habit of Mutual Benefit, better known as “win-win”. What this means is to seek a collaborative solution that benefits both parties rather than trying to come out ahead in the short term. Helping others pays excellent compound interest, especially within organizations where people depend on each other for dependent work-streams or specialized expertise, influence, or authority.
Seek to Understand
Covey’s fifth habit is highly relevant to influencing others as well, “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”. You need this understanding to find a mutually beneficial solution, overcome their objections, understand their opportunity cost, and turn them into an ally. You must gain a deep enough understanding of their concerns, challenges, motivations, and priorities to get them to make a commitment, change their mind, or adjust their priorities.
This ties back to Conger’s model in terms of framing the common ground, since you can’t do that without enough understanding, and also to connecting emotionally since genuinely listening to other people’s problems and concerns is probably the second most effective way to create a bond with them. The most effective way is to go through a stressful crisis together, which I don’t recommend as your first choice for connecting for obvious reasons.
Relationship building is important. This is not an area where shortcuts are likely to work out.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, first proposed in 1943 in his paper, "A theory of human motivation", describes the universal needs of humans in a ranked fashion. These are typically shown as a pyramid. The idea is that the upper layers only matter when the layers below are being met. Another way to put this is your first-world problems about deciding between almond milk or oat milk don’t matter if you are starving.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is, from the bottom to the top of the pyramid:
- Physiological (food, shelter, clothing, etc)
- Safety (psychological safety, security, employment, property)
- Love and Belonging (friendship, community, intimacy, family)
- Esteem (respect, self-esteem, recognition, status, freedom)
- Self-actualization (desire to be one’s best, accomplishment, striving)
I have somewhat mangled the examples given from other sources to fit this context.
Practically this means that an employee or coworker will not strive for achievement or a sense of accomplishment (5) or respect from others (4) or camaraderie (3) if they do not feel safe (2) because people disrespect them, treat them aggressively or unfairly, micromanage them, or marginalize them. Hopefully, physiological needs (1) are not in question at your workplace, but if someone or their family is seriously ill or undergoing some other type of crisis then that will understandably affect their ability to do their best at work.
If you treat people badly, you are not likely to receive their best efforts or perfect cooperation, to say the least. If you are a manager you should be even more careful about this because it is easy to make someone feel unappreciated or criticized due to negativity bias. Delivering performance feedback and constructive criticism effectively without causing negative effects is difficult if you have not shared positive feedback and recognition whenever appropriate in the past.
Data, Emotions, and Decision Making
Data is necessary but not sufficient. Data-driven decision-making is important, but it is also less common than people often believe.
People make decisions based on emotions, and often then unconsciously justify them to themselves and others consciously after the fact, usually without even realizing that this is happening, usually without even realizing that this is happening. This is why advertising works, including on people who know about this. Rationalization is the psychological term for this when used as a defense mechanism. This is why you have to be proactive about unconscious bias when trying to promote fair hiring, promotion, compensation, and treatment of employees. Daniel Kahneman discusses the psychology and implications of decision-making in his classic book Thinking Fast and Slow. He classifies thinking into two systems. System 1 is fast and automatic and makes use of heuristics, but is influenced by unconscious bias. System 2 is slower, more conscious, and is often at the whim of System 1 which actually makes most of our decisions.
Start with Why
"People don't buy what you do; they buy how you do it" - Simon Sinek
If you have a vision, you are more likely to motivate others to act or gain their empathy for your cause. The first step, of course, is to have a clear cause. A good case for this is made by the author and speaker Simon Sinek. This will help you with the emotional part of people’s decision-making. It will also help you with your own motivation when things are difficult or slow.
Actively Disconfirm Your Beliefs
The first step in convincing others is to make sure you are on the right side. You should have the conviction of your viewpoint, or else why invest in influencing others around it? Your conclusions need to be as tested, unbiased, and objective as you can reasonably make them, and the effort you invest in verifying them should be proportionate to the importance of the decision(s) at hand.
Your first responsibility in terms of bias and emotional aspects of decision-making is to be as objective and accurate as possible with the time and data available by using the expertise of others to check your own views and conclusions.
The best way to do this is to seek out your sharpest critic so that you can gather objections and concerns to your viewpoint that you might not realize or prioritize or estimate in the same way yourself.
This also has the positive side effect of helping them feel included in the process earlier so that they will feel that their viewpoint was heard which makes them less defensive and more likely to be open to your point of view. To sum it up, have an open mind to help open others’ minds.
Besides gathering the feedback of your likely critics, you also should seek to disconfirm your beliefs by identifying your assumptions and seeking data actively to discredit them, not just to reinforce them. You need to do this to avoid your own confirmation bias.
Lastly, you should also seek feedback from people who are in a position to be objective. This should be someone that has or can gain context, but does not have a reason to be biased. Their career or success should not be directly impacted in either direction by the outcome. It’s helpful if this person has some coaching skills to help you think through the pros and cons raised by your critics and allies.
Remember during all this that you are not your idea. Ideas are improved by the light of day. Sometimes they are improved by killing them off quickly for better ones. If you succeed in disproving your own hypothesis this is a success, not a failure, and in many scenarios may save yourself and others a great deal of grief, money, and time. Feedback is a gift and should not be wasted.
Be transparent and be suspect of any idea or plan which has not been reviewed by others. Avoid involving your ego, either through anxiety about how others perceive you or the desire to be successful or esteemed in the process of decision-making as much as you are able.
There is research that suggests that asking someone for a small favor makes them more likely to grant you an additional favor later. This is termed the Ben Franklin effect. More generally, you like people you are kind to more. Conversely, you dislike people you are mean to more. We tend to assume the opposite is true, but our brains do not seem to be as rational as you might hope. John Schopler and John Compere published a research paper that highlighted this effect, “Effects of Being Kind or Harsh to Another on Liking.” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1971.
Seeing others doing something makes people more likely to do so themselves. This is true for both subconscious reasons because it is a type of heuristic people use whether they realize it, and consciously because testimonials, reviews, and other evidence from credible, objective sources are more powerful than someone speaking on their own behalf. There are different types of social proof, but the ones most likely to be relevant for our purposes are experts, users, and the wisdom of your friends. Expert social proof means we are more likely to trust your “product” because we see an expert using or endorsing it. User social proof is when others recommend you, your brand, or your product/service. The wisdom of your friends means that you will be more likely to use something you see your friends using.
This applies when trying to market internal products internally or establish trust and credibility through common connections or visible adoption.
On Psychology and Philosophy
It is useful to be a student of psychology, especially organizational psychology because it will help you build a more complete and effective mental model for influencing others. Having a mental model for approaching soft-skills lets you frame your thought process about what your hypotheses are. When you view your efforts as experiments rather than just experiences you can learn more from them.
It is also useful to study philosophy for two reasons. First, it will help you clarify your own principles and values which is important because having an internal ethical compass lets you derive satisfaction from doing your best at making the right decisions versus feeling disparaged by the actions of others outside your direct control. We are talking about influence after all, which by definition implies you do not have direct authority much less control. The most critical example of the pragmatism of philosophy to me is the Dichotomy of Control in Stoic philosophy, as espoused by Epictetus, at the very beginning of The Enchiridion,
“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.”
Second, it will help you be more resilient to the inherent change, frustrations, and unpredictability that come with attempts at cat-herding others and changing minds. There are two examples I find salient here. One of them is the point made in Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning that those who felt they had a purpose or meaning were able to survive and persevere in the harshest of circumstances, but if they lost that meaning, for example, if it was attached to a family member they discovered had died, they lost their willpower and much of their likelihood of survival with it. Frankl was actually a psychiatrist, but I think much of this book is as much philosophy as psychiatry or psychology. Second, philosophy, Stoicism in particular again, can lead you to a pragmatic understanding that your emotions about events do you more harm than the events themselves. As Derren Brown says in his book, Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine:
“What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgements about these things. In other words, it is not events out there that cause our problems but rather our reactions to them: the stories we tell ourselves.”
Influence at Work in Practice
Priorities and Interdependencies
There is a particular kind of challenge (or maybe hell) faced in large organizations while trying to charter, plan, and deliver projects that involve multiple teams.
People are tribal and can easily fall into an “us versus them” mindset. This is especially true if they identify with their specific team more strongly than they do with the larger organization. It can also be a more significant challenge when there are geographic, time-zone, or cultural distances between the people involved.
Teams each have their own view of business priorities. Even organizations with clear goals or OKRs are subject to varying interpretations and different levels of buy-in to various objectives.
Software teams have interdependencies on due to interactions between coupled systems. These dependencies can mean that your project or feature cannot ship without a significant number of teams working in the same direction or at least collaborating so that others can make the necessary changes to their codebase.
It is possible for every team to agree that several projects are good ideas, then assign them different priorities, then all wait on each other to do the work needed to launch each one in different orders, then fail to launch anything until they have built nearly everything. This can happen even when everyone involved has good intentions and is attempting to do what is best for the company as a whole. In other words, if two teams need help from each other on two different projects, it’s possible for a priority inversion to cause a sort of deadlock. If you are all dependent on each other, but you are all trying to do the same N things in N different orders, almost nothing can get finished until you are better aligned.
This is what makes escalation important at times. This is also why transparency and efficient communication are important. The sooner people realize the nature of the situation the sooner realistic decisions on how to proceed can be. made. Taking common goals or OKRs can help sometimes.
It is important to understand what the opportunity cost is for your coworkers when you need their help. This goes back to “Seek first to understand”.
What work would they have to defer or cancel to prioritize your request? If they change a technical or product decision, what will be the effect on their team, product, customers, or partners?
This is useful for multiple reasons. First, you will be more able to overcome objections or change prioritization decisions with more context. Second, they will feel better about what they are giving up if they perceive genuine empathy and interest from you. It can also be cathartic to have a chance to vent about the costs and tradeoffs, even when you agree the change is necessary.
Keep in mind that people typically have good intentions, and even if they sometimes do not, you can be just as successful in behaving as they do until shown otherwise. Plus you will likely enjoy your work more from a more positive mindset.
They are usually trying to ship features, fix a problem for customers, protect their team from randomization, or protect the bottom line of the business, and will need to be convinced that your needs are a higher priority than the work they would have done instead.
Sometimes you can reach an agreement by directly asking or proactively offering something in return to the other side. You should only do this when it is ethical and legal which depends on the situation. For example, agreeing to do work for another team to unblock their project if they commit extra resources to your project is reasonable. This does not mean you should bribe anyone or engage in nepotism. Not every technique that might work should be used.
This is a way to find out what they actually value so you understand what might gain their cooperation and commitment.
If you ask people, what would change their mind, they may tell you something they think is unattainable, but they have committed visibly to going along if it is feasible. Even if they were stalling, bluffing, or just avoiding conflict, it may still change the outcome.
Escalations are often viewed as negative or a last resort, but they can be useful. Escalations should not be viewed as infighting, and are not necessarily bad. They should not be your first option but are an appropriate way to unblock progress if you have failed to align on what to build, how to build it, or in what order to do so. This should only happen after attempts to build consensus and agree on how to proceed have been tried. Sometimes you may have to escalate earlier in the process because you are not able to get the other party to engage in meaningful discussion.
When engagement is the problem I have a tactic I sometimes use to get feedback from people. Often people don’t want to commit limited resources until you can show them that you have a coherent technical design and plan. This can turn into a chicken and egg problem because sometimes the only way to get to a reasonable plan is to get the owners of certain systems who have the required expertise engaged in the design discussions which they are trying to avoid.
When this happens, I usually write up the best plan I can without them, make it visible within the organization, and ask for their feedback. People will find time to prevent you from proposing changes to the systems they own without their involvement if they think you may proceed without their input. This is possibly a little sketchy, but you are doing all the legwork you can to make it efficient for them. You should actually do the best you can for such a “straw man” design so if I have to keep going without their help you are hopefully on a reasonable path.
You must state your arguments clearly to convince someone to support your plan, especially if they have a different idea of the right answer or must commit resources or time to help you. This means laying out the evidence, context, options, and trade-offs along with which option you recommend. Writing helps clarify your thoughts, which also helps you be more prepared for verbal debates or presentations.
Describing the alternatives and tradeoffs gives you a place to capture feedback and concerns. Capturing different points of view makes you more likely to reach the best decision. This will help you avoid your own unconscious biases. And people who have concerns about your plan will feel heard if their feedback is captured accurately even if your recommended outcome is chosen instead of theirs.
If you need to escalate to senior leadership you will likely need an even more condensed and clear version of the same document for an audience with less context and time. Representing all sides accurately and fairly will help people come to terms with the outcome and be more willing to collaborate if your option is chosen after the issue has been settled. It is important that you be able to deliver and land what you are proposing, not just win the debate on paper and then get stymied trying to get it implemented.
Hopefully, I have been able to influence how you try to influence others. Seriously, I hope you find this useful in getting more awesome things done in your career.
The primary takeaways are that you should 1) use a deliberate approach to influence others; 2) understand the models and psychology of decision-making; and 3) take care to understand the priorities, concerns, values, and motivations of others.
- Schopler, J., & Compere, J. S. (1971). Effects of being kind or harsh to another on liking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 20(2), 155.
- Start with why – how great leaders inspire action | Simon Sinek | TEDxPugetSound