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Posted: June 02, 2009

Influence: It’s a lot more than persuasion

Influence can be used in all areas of life, with your children, friends, colleagues and clients

Scott Halford

Influence. Most of us want more of it. And yet, we’re often hard-pressed to explain just what it is, and why we feel such a need for it. And that’s what makes “influence” a million-dollar word.

Somewhere along the way, “influence” earned a respectable reputation, and people associate it with positive and powerful characteristics. It is only by understanding what influence really is, however, that you can see why it is so … well … influential. From that, you can learn how to increase your influence.

Influence isn’t only for powerful people bearing impressive titles, commanding enormous salaries. Influence can be used in all areas of life, with your children and friends and colleagues and clients.

Influence also is not about getting something you want in any particular instance, simply because you were able to, for example, use the right combination of words at the right time. No, influence can be defined with one five-letter word: “trust.”

Moreover, there is a difference between influence and persuasion. Though both are useful and necessary, most people in my workshops who ask me how to become influential confuse the two terms and the benefits each brings.

The difference between persuasion and influence

Here is the simple way to look at it: Influence is what you get when you take the time to build trust. It’s the result of a series of events over time between two parties. To have influence you have to spend the time. Rarely can you have true, long-term influence without spending the time to nurture the trust that is required to earn it.

Once you have built this connection, you become influential; you can pick up the phone and, without a lot of fanfare, set the wheels in motion to get you what you need or want.

Put this in the context of a business relationship with someone you’ve known and trusted for a long time. When your trust level is high for a person, you don’t spend a lot of time on due diligence. You are influenced by the person because you have faith in his or her advice. It is reliable. It fits the formula for trust: consistent behavior over a period of time. And when someone asks you who you know to take care of a similar issue, without hesitation you recommend that influential person.

On and on the circle of influence grows. The more people you have in your pipeline with whom you’ve established that level of trust, the more influence you have. It is simple, and true.

The truth about persuasion

Persuasion, in contrast, is required when trust is low. Do not confuse a lack of trust with bad feelings or dishonesty, though. The need for trust occurs between two people simply because they don’t know each other. Well-researched and thought-out data is required when you’re in a persuasive mode. Since you don’t yet have a relationship built on trust, the decision has to be based on something — in this case, the facts.

The problem with persuasion is that data can be interpreted in many ways; so when you do not yet have influence, your argument can fall apart very quickly.

For example, you’ll need to be persuasive when you make that first presentation to your company’s bigwigs. They don’t know you, so your data will have to be well developed and thorough. Over time, however, as you present more often to these execs, and they come to rely on you, you become more influential; eventually, you will need to do little more than show up and present your case, simply and without a lot of elaboration. That’s persuasion turned into influence, and it is powerful.

Building influence

How do you become influential? First, have patience. I know an executive — let’s call him Bill — who took a high-level corporate job. He came in with his own agenda, and within 30 days of his start date had made sweeping changes. Although he had the authority to make people do what he wanted, he lacked the relationships necessary to become influential. The immediate result among his direct reports was animosity and low morale. Over time, employees left the company in droves. Still, Bill continued to wield his authority to get people to perform. But because he had no lasting influence he became increasingly frustrated. Even high-ranking employees questioned his strategies and motives. Eventually, Bill became so ineffective that the company’s board finally asked him to step down.

The major ingredient missing from Bill’s leadership style was trust. As noted, trust takes time to build. It is not a “soft” skill, a luxury; it is a requirement for success. Take a look at the most powerful and admired executives you know, and my bet is they have built trust, and through that, influence.

You build influence one relationship at a time. You do it by listening to people, by actually getting to know people and what’s going on in both their personal and professional worlds. Recognition is another great trust builder that leads to influence.

When you recognize the excellent work of others, especially publicly, they will begin to feel safe around you. Eventually, they will see you are looking out for their best interests, as well; so when you ask them to do something, they will not require all the data of persuasion. They will trust you and, thus, perform. That is influence in action.

Influence is a privilege you earn — you have to invest in the trust bank before you can spend influence. And it’s not just the big investments that add up. You can earn influence through small deeds, too. Influence, after all, is almost always gained over a period of time.

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Scott Halford is the president of Complete Intelligence™, LLC. His new book, "Be a Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success” is available now. Contact Scott at

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Readers Respond

Great article Scott. When I consult companies I alsways take the time to observe who the influencing parties are within each department. Many times administrative assistants can influence an executive's decision process more than a VP. As you said, influence is based upon trust. By Steve Baker on 2009 06 03

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