Unpacking Influence - Part 1

I generally run a riff during my basic change resiliency classes about overlapping circles of control and influence. In short, if my circle of influence overlaps with your circle of influence, it implies we can influence one another. This ability to influence others is largely based on trust. If I trust you, your words will have a greater impact than if I don’t. The greater the trust, the greater the influence. The trust builds over time so there is a high probability that this relationship of influence is at least somewhat reciprocal. This all makes sense.

Sadly, that’s not an entirely complete descriptor for relationships. Like a physics class where you learn how to calculate the trajectory of a ball with no gravity in a vacuum, the real world requires more complexity and additional variables. For example, people can trust us more than we trust them. So a static, two dimensional drawing on a board doesn’t fully represent the complexity of the relationship between two individuals. (Duh!) Since I’ve mostly been teaching 101, I never get to this, but we need to start adding variables to our circles of influence model. So. Welcome to the next level team. 

The first and probably most influential piece missing in my rudimentary model is power. Power is a significant component of influence. Now, differential power can be derived from many sources: positional hierarchy, social capital (sometimes thought of as personal brand), age, gender, dominant racial group, economic status, educational background, experience in the relevant field, sexual preference, and height/weight/appearance among others. 

[ASIDE: It feels like we’re having an enormous public argument right now about whether all of this matters, how it matters, how much it matters, and I am going to show my bias flag here. If you think that these underlying power deltas are overstated or ‘political correctness gone wild’ or just bullshit, you’re not going to like anything about the rest of this particular blog entry. I take as a base condition that each of these categories can and does induce an influence gap between two individuals. Like everything in sociology and economics, it’d be a mad as project to quantify these effects separately. There are people who do that for a living, and I am not one of them. For my purpose, it is just necessary to BELIEVE that the gaps exist and we must allow for them in our considerations of how to engage with others.]

So how does raw power change the circles of influence conversation? It distorts the model significantly. I feel a two axis bubble graph floating through my head. On the X axis we have power, on the Y we have trust. You with me? I’m at the airport on my iPad and I can’t draw this right now.  You’ll have to just imagine it. In the upper left corner, we put those with power that we trust. Those… now those are our big influencers. In the lower right corner are those untrustworthy, powerless souls who we can afford to utterly ignore. The complicated and interesting ones are the other two quadrants. 

In the upper right, are those with no power but high trust. I’m a bit of a fan of this space, personally. It’s where I live all the time professionally. I rarely have any organisational power whatsoever, but I actively work to build trust between myself and the people for whom I have greatest responsibility. Now I’m white, straight, well educated, and experienced so I’m not entirely powerless. I’m not way the hell over on the right. But I don’t have any organisational de jure authority, so I rely on building credibility as a trustworthy, honest and authenticate broker. I also try to use my wiles and innate curiosity to learn so much that I’m inherently useful. I think it’s a worthwhile exercise for those of us lower on the power axis to identify proactive measures we can take to build trust as a gateway to increasing our influence. The farther up on the Y trust axis we can move, the higher our capacity to influence others for change.

In the lower right, we have… well let’s be honest… these are probably a bucket of assholes. Right? These are the people who make us ask, “How did she get that job?” “Why does management listen to that guy?” “Who the hell thought electing him was a good idea?” They are powerful in one or many ways, yet we don’t trust them. I fear that many managers end up here accidentally. It’s really easy to distrust people with a lot of power. Those of us without power would naturally, defensively and reflexively start from a position of low trust. So I wonder how many of those in this quadrant are inherently nasty people or simply became unpleasant features of our lives because we assumed the worst of them from the get go. Of course, let’s be clear. Some of these folks are just assholes.

What is really interesting to me is how we can model or think about the difference between two people in how they interact. Say for example, that Person A looks at Person B as someone who is high-trust low-power — influential because you trust or like them. But Person B sees person A as low-trust high-power — basically perceiving A as a dick. This is an office drama waiting to happen, right? 

Look, I’m running out time, space, and words and I’d like to pee before getting on the plane, but I think we need to start sketching out the scenarios for each quadrants’ combo. It would go a long ways to providing a roadmap to how to handle stakeholder relationships between people - particularly those of very different trust and power levels. Please, if this entire path of inquiry appeals to you at all, send me your thoughts or share them on either LinkedIN or http://toastchanges.com. I’m heading down a bit of an intellectual rathole here and could use all the sage wisdom from you readers. 

PS DrC says he thinks someone must have done this graph already. Want to find it while I fly to Amsterdam?


A relationship without trust is like having a phone with no service. And what do you do with a phone with no service? You play games.” ~ Anonymous Internet Guy