The problem is we don’t agree there’s a problem:

Why you’re struggling to influence


Published on: September 2018

Written by: Elizabeth Freedman

Take a minute and count up the number of workplace meetings or conversations where you leave the discussion thinking you’ve got agreement, alignment on next steps, or a commitment from the audience, only to find yourself a week, or month later wondering why things aren’t progressing. It’s a frustrating situation that likely triggers a set of familiar thoughts. Why haven’t they done what they said they would do? How can I get them to share my sense of urgency? Why does it feel like we are going back to square one and having the same conversation every time we meet? This may be happening because:

1.   You never really had agreement to begin with.

The most obvious reason why others haven’t taken action or done what they’ve agreed to? They didn’t actually commit to the extent you assumed they did. Until you have explicit agreement on the need to solve the problem, you don’t really have agreement at all. It’s well understood that competing priorities come with the territory of leadership on cross-functional teams or within a matrixed environment. This is why what can seem like an indisputable case, a burning platform, or a clear challenge to one leader, may simply be ‘meh’ for others who don’t have the time, energy, or bandwidth to care enough to prioritize taking action. This is particularly true in cases where we’re disproportionately impacted or affected by a problem. We may be chomping at the bit to solve an issue, but our audiences just don’t share our sense of urgency and subsequently put action on the back burner.

2.   You focused on the solution instead of the problem.

Unless and until we get agreement on the nature of the problem, it won’t matter how great our solution, strategy, or approach is. You can’t sell someone on a solution until you’ve sold them on the problem first. If you want to influence, build in enough time in advance to share a compelling reason why the problem must be solved that resonates with your audience. Resist the urge to rush through this part of the discussion or jump into sharing a set of solutions or actions prematurely. First, build in time up front to address the following questions:

  • What business problem are we trying to solve?
  • How do we know this is a problem?
  • Why is it a problem to solve now?
  • How will my approach/solution/recommendation solve the problem?
  • What will the outcome or benefit be?
  • How will you benefit?

For time-crunched leaders, it’s incredibly tempting to jump straight to solve problems and put actions into motion. After all, good leaders are paid to solve tough problems, but great ones also have an outstanding sense of timing. They are patient and refuse to be rushed into giving answers or solutions until they’ve gotten the information and support they need first.

3.   You forgot that you’re the expert.

Even when you’ve been asked to participate in a meeting for the purpose of sharing a strategy or recommendations, take the time you need up front to address the questions listed above. Some leaders are concerned that this will test the patience of the audience: (“they already know what the problem is, I don’t need to tell them,”) or worry that they are deviating from what they’ve been asked to do: (“I’ve only been given 5 minutes to share my strategy, I can’t spend time up front on the challenge.”) As a result, some of us feel pressured to offer answers and solutions right off the bat to keep the audience engaged with your point of view. However, this approach can backfire. If you jump to offering solutions too soon, it’s far more likely that you’ll be interrupted, questioned, and risk derailing the discussion because you haven’t convinced them of the level of pain, or the relevance of your solution.

Remember, you are the authority. 

Don’t feel the need to provide answers before you’re confident that there’s alignment, because your real value is in getting a room to realize and appreciate their role in solving an important challenge for your organization. After all, you know the impact of this challenge, you appreciate what it’s costing the organization, and you understand what the long-term ramifications are if the problem goes unchecked. Even better, you have the data to support your point of view. When you’re able to bring those pieces together for an audience, you’re influencing, because you’re helping your audience appreciate the pain of the problem. In doing so, they won’t want to experience it any longer than you do. Even better, they want to help be part of the solution.

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