• Nederlands
  • English
  • Français



Sell’ not ‘Tell’…
D2SBEditor | Aug 07, 2012 | Comments 0

I was sort of eavesdropping again yesterday. I know, I know, but it wasn”t really my fault. After all, if people insist on shouting and you are seated no more than six feet away from them, then it”s impossible not to hear what”s going on. Anyway, I can assure you, my uncouthness was all in the cause of learning. I should probably explain.

You see, I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel yesterday, working away in my mobile office as it were. And there was a group of people holding a meeting at a table next to me. Well, I should probably rephrase that. It would be more accurate to say that there was one person – obviously the boss – holding a meeting, and the rest of the attendees were just along for the ride. Or, so it seemed, as far as I could tell because the boss did all the talking; and he did so in a loud, bullying and arrogant tone. He completely dominated the proceedings and nobody else managed to get a word in; or when they did speak up, he just shot them down straight away. He seemed like a pleasure to work for. Anyway, strangely enough, the incident got me thinking about how we influence others, which is the focus of this article.

Now, before I highlight some points on how we can better influence others, I would like to stay with the domineering issue for a moment. I came across an interesting study on this topic which I think is worth sharing. The research in question is entitled Why do dominant personalities attain influence in face-to-face groups? and was conducted by Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff from the University of California, Berkeley. I think their study offers some valuable insights on how some people think and behave when interacting in groups. Here is a quick snapshot of their study.

Using two simulated work-related experiments, and controlling for a number of variables which might have influenced the results, Anderson and Kilduff showed that, in group situations, the more dominant individuals consistently exerted higher levels of influence over the remaining participants. Okay, nothing too surprising there, but stick with it for a moment.

In the first exercise, 68 graduate students were divided into four-person teams and given a fictitious task to complete for a defined time period. After the teams performed their work, the members of each group rated one another on both their level of influence on the group and, more importantly, their level of competence. The work sessions were videotaped, and a group of independent observers performed the same evaluations, as did Anderson and Kilduff themselves.

Following the first exercise, all three sets of judges came to the same conclusion which was that it was those who spoke more frequently and offered more suggestions that were subsequently perceived by the other members of the group, plus the independent observers, as being the most competent; again, nothing too surprising there perhaps. However, what was most revealing in the study was that the dominant characters continued to rate highest, even when the suggestions they made were no better, and sometimes far worse, than others.

In a second study, conducted with a new team of volunteers but following the same team format as previously, the exercise was based on the ability to solve maths problems; the idea being that some degree of competence would be required in maths to enable participants to speak up and as such it was assumed this would influence who became the dominant players within the groups. Yet again, the researchers found that those who spoke up most were subsequently described by their peers as leaders and were considered to be the maths experts in the groups. But, the researchers proved that these dominant individuals were not in fact the smartest, or the ones who offered the most correct answers: what they did do was offer the most answers.

In a nutshell, this study highlighted that the more dominant an individual appears to be, the more likely their peers are to assign attributes of leadership and competence to them. A lot of people in my experience, including leaders, work from similar beliefs about dominance; they know that if they project themselves as the strongest or brightest person around, then few will challenge them. Worth reflecting on, I think.

Influencing and Persuading

Now, it goes without saying that as a leader there are times when you have to be the “dominant force”, and if you do so in an appropriate manner (i.e. without aggression or bullying) then on occasion that”s simply what you have to do. That said, if you are constantly operating in “tell” mode then you will find many problems arising from that and, what”s more, you will have to increase the force levels to maintain your dominance which makes the problems even worse over time.

It”s therefore much better in my experience to try to influence others for as much of the time as possible; which means you are not imposing your will, but seeking to change another person”s attitudes or actions by the power of your arguments, not by the force of your personality, or indeed by relying on your position. In other words, you are selling not telling.
And being an influencer, when done correctly, is actually a sign of strength not weakness for a manager.

In doing so, it is important to understand that your ability to influence others is not really a separate set of skills at all – there are techniques for sure – but your ability to bring others round to your point of view will be limited if some basic building blocks are not in place:

• Credibility – you have to have credibility in the eyes of others if you hope to exert influence over them.
• Trust/Integrity – if people don”t trust you, or if you lack integrity then you can forget about influencing others in a positive way.
• Passion and enthusiasm – without these qualities your ability to influence others is obviously going to be restricted.
• Empathy – unless you can put yourself in the shoes of others, you will find it very hard to develop arguments that respond to others” needs.
• Communication/knowledge/Assertiveness – how good you are at influencing others is heavily dependent upon issues such as your overall effectiveness as a communicator, your level of knowledge and insight into a particular subject and your ability to be assertive. Particularly, if you are not assertive, you will either lack the confidence to persuade (too passive), or you will attempt to railroad others into your way of thinking (too aggressive) which is clearly not persuading.

Some important dimensions to consider about influencing others:


The first step is to weigh up the situation; is there room for maneuver and flexibility here? If not, then it may well be a “tell not sell” situation and, as I said, if you do so in a positive way then that”s a fact of life for leaders. The next move is always to determine exactly what you need from the people you are trying to influence. Sounds obvious, I know, but the clearer you are on what outcomes you want (ideal and next-best scenarios), then the easier it is to frame your “offer” and make a compelling case to support it.

The “others”

A basic assumption when seeking to influence others is that you can make a strong case which creates a win-win situation for both parties, or as close to that goal as you can achieve. As you prepare your argument:

•Be clear on who has the power to deliver what you want and indeed who can put obstacles in your way.
•Understand the frames of mind of others and identify what needs your proposals can satisfy for them. ◦What are their expectations and needs in relation to the issue at hand?
◦What problems might you be able to solve for them with your offer?
◦What opportunities might arise for them if they follow your lead?

Your Case
Clearly, you need to build a strong case which bridges the gap between your desired outcome and the current position, whilst at the same time, delivering tangible benefits for others:

•Plan your pitch: get their attention quickly, stimulate interest and emphasize the benefits accruing from your proposals.
•Define those key benefits in terms that will be meaningful for them – be specific not vague.

Your Delivery
Of course, it goes without saying that you need to deliver your case in a way that really influences others in a positive manner. Also:

•Engage them as you progress, build support as you go – don”t wait till the end for a “yes” or no” answer. For example, even getting people to agree that, say, they are unhappy with the current situation shifts them a little in the direction you want them to go.
•Do not attempt to oversell your proposals – read the situation continuously and when you feel you have done enough, ask for their response;
•Be prepared for objections, listen to them when raised and address those concerns by offering tangible solutions;
•Clarify agreement and next steps before ending.

Okay, the above is only a snapshot of what”s required to better influence others but it should give some food for thought all the same. I think a number of important messages should flow from this article. First, avoid confusing domineering with influencing – and obviously you should ensure that you aren”t always in “tell” mode. Equally, you should never let others dominate you, or indeed allow any single employee in your team to adopt a dominant role over others. Given the changing dynamics of work today, you will be called upon as a leader to influence your people far more often than someone in your position may have needed to do twenty years ago. Sure, it is harder to “sell” than “tell” but it”s infinitely more productive in the long run.

And how do I know that?

Well, for one, I have found from experience over the years just how more beneficial selling is over telling. And here”s another simple example: after the boss left that meeting in the hotel lobby yesterday, some of his employees stayed behind to chat. Now, if he could only have heard what I did, then that particular boss would realize that whilst he might have succeeded in imposing his will on his team during the meeting, based on their obvious unhappiness at the outcome, he will pay for that approach in some shape or form in future.


Cherto | info [at] cherto [dot] be | T +32 (0)491 34 08 97