Ruminations on Influence

by | Nov 12, 2019

The heart of consulting, as Peter Block has so succinctly put it, is “influencing without direct authority.” That holds for those of us who work as external consultants as well as anyone in a staff role working internally. Therefore, it seems worth thinking about the source and process of influence.

Since I hold a master’s degree in “science” (yes, the standard deviations in our science are large), let me try a simple formulation:

Influence ƒ Expertise x Relationships

What I like about this formulation is that, if either value is low, our influence is low. And if either is “zero”—our influence is nil as well.

Let’s take a brief look at both. Generally, we get hired for our expertise either as internal or external consultants. There seem to be two corollaries around expertise:

  • I have to continually work to continue to develop my expertise. Just think about how emerging technologies like augmented reality and artificial intelligence will impact the field of OD.

  • I have to be able to explain how my expertise benefits the client I am working with. Those of us in OD love our models and theories. The client wants to know how our theories, applied to her organization, will help her run a better organization. In my view, “help” represents lower cost, more revenue, or improved customer service. We’ll have more impact when we talk in those terms.

  • Our expertise is one thing if measured by the standards of our training and discipline. It’s something else when the client perceives it as a business building asset.

Relationships most frequently represent the greatest opportunity for us to improve our influence. Consider some of the following aspects of self-management that affect the quality of relationships.

  • Can I talk to the client in terms of what’s important to her? Or have I fallen in love with my theories and models?

  • What is my attitude toward authority? Am I working out unresolved issues from the past? (As a confession, there was a point in my career where I made the boss “wrong” simply because he was the boss. Obviously, that got in my way.)

  • Can I accept the fact that, no matter how damaging the client’s behavior might be, he’s doing the best job he knows how? Or do I sit in judgment?

  • Am I willing to be open and direct with the client? Or do I get “strategic” and cautious with what I say?

A tool I learned several years ago that helps me in regard to the questions above is Chris Argyris’ notion of the “left-hand column.”[1] When a conversation doesn’t go well, the tool can be used to diagnose why. Here’s how it works. If you’re reflecting on a meeting or conversation that did not go as you wanted, take a sheet of paper and divide it into two columns. In the right hand column, write down what was said, trying to keep all the quotes verbatim without judgment or interpretation. In the left-hand column, write down what you were thinking but did not say. More often than not, those unsaid thoughts transfer into the actual conversation.

For me, the most difficult issues in managing a relationship has been at times managing myself, and moving from judgment to compassion and from wanting to look smart to wanting to serve. These are still tendencies. I’m still a work in process.



[1] I learned this concept while working in a training and development capacity at ATT from a consulting partner, Innovation Associates. Their work focused on Peter Senge’s writing in The Fifth Discipline, which in turn was strongly influenced by Argyris, who was then teaching at Harvard Business School.

Jeff McCollum

Jeff McCollum


Jeff has been affiliated with Designed Learning for more than 20 years.

Having held leadership positions in marketing, sales, organizational development, and HR, Jeff brings years of large-system experience in internal consulting to his work with Designed Learning. Jeff believes that when the human spirit thrives, organizations thrive as well.

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