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How Do HR Professionals Influence Others?

Dave Ulrich and Erin Wilson Burns /

When we ask seasoned HR professionals about their greatest challenges in having an impact, they answer that having quality ideas is less demanding than knowing how to influence to implement the ideas. Good ideas can be acquired through training, attending conferences, performing analytics, reading latest theory and research, observing best practices, and experimenting. But turning good ideas into sustainable impact requires the ability to influence. We have found that ideas with IMPACT is an ever more important topic.

Influence pivots theory to practice; data to delivery; using power for oneself to empowering others; and from “my” to “our” agenda. Influence enables HR professionals to get buy-in, obtain resources (money, time, people), and gain support to implement the ideas. Influence shifts HR ideas from HR agendas to business imperatives. 

Influence targets might include a single individual, a team, a business unit, an entire organization, customers, investors, or a community at large. Influence occurs not only when short-term behaviors but also long-term mindsets change in a desired direction. Influence is not a coercion that compels change but a patient persuasion—including a genuine curiosity and interest in sources and reasons for resistance—that catalyzes action and continues to shape change. 

Having good ideas requires intellectual curiosity and forward thinking; having influence requires wisdom, emotional courage, and risk taking. 

So how can HR professionals (and others) gain influence?

1. Build trust. 

Being able to influence others begins with a foundation of trust. David Maister’s formula for building trust covers four keys. The first is credibility: knowing our stuff, bringing the data, or having technical expertise that is relevant and valuable. The second key is reliability: being dependable or having a track record of doing what we say. Third is intimacy, the principle of being someone who makes others feel safe, keeps confidences, and is open and forthright. Fourth is other-orientation: acting and being seen as someone who is concerned about more than just her or his own self-interest. Building trust with others requires attention to building our reputation for credibility, reliability, and intimacy, while acting for a greater good than just our own interests. 

2. Adapt to the style of influence target(s).

Everyone has conscious and unconscious biases about how they respond to others. To effectively influence someone, one must answer questions such as: “What type of information works with my targets (statistics or anecdotes)?” “How and when do they want to be involved (early on to frame the problem vs. later on to review the solution)?” “What role do they want to play in the project (more or less visible; in front or behind the scenes)?” Learn the style of those you are trying to influence by observing how they make decisions, treat people, manage information, and handle differences. Observe others who have influence with your targets to learn when and how these individuals approach your targets.

3. Connect to goals and values.

Influence is not about your goals but how your goals will help others reach their goals. In this four-circle logic of influence below, one of the biggest influence mistakes is going from the bottom left circle (circle 1, what we want) to the top right circle (circle 3, what you do). For example, an HR professional may say, “Support this training program because it will accomplish HR learning goals.” Or a leader may say, “I am ready for the next promotion because I have the skills.” But influence is less about the self and more about how our personal strengths strengthen others, how personal values create value for others. In reference to the figure, this means starting in the bottom right circle (4) and then linking our targets’ beliefs and values to their behaviors (circle 3) to accomplish their goals. In our HR training example, the HR program should not exist for the sake of a training but how the training increases value for the business. Thus an HR professional may influence this way: “The business will better reach its goals (circle 4) by investing in this training (circle 3).” This type of influence can also shape personal agendas. For the business leader wanting a promotion, he or she may say, “The business is more likely to be successful (circle 4) if I move into this new role (circle 3).” This “others-focused” approach has dramatic impact on the ability to influence others.

4. Surround with information.

People we are trying to influence often need to change their mindset (image, cognition, or perception) about an activity or behavior. A primary mechanism of changing mindset is to surround the targets with information. Information needs to come from legitimate credible sources that the targets trust (e.g., experts or trusted colleagues), come in terms that resonate for them (e.g., use business language), and come consistently over time (have a consistent information drip on the value of the activity).  Anticipating likely sources of resistance and having information to address concerns will often be helpful additions to the information drip.

5. Behave as if. 

Another primary lever of changing mindset is to invite the influence targets to behave as if already committed. The theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that when people behave as if they are committed when they may not yet be, they can become committed to relieve the dissonance. For example, someone making a hiring referral or doing campus recruiting is more likely to be committed to the company than someone who does not. Having targets behaving as if means finding ways to make them visibly and publicly supportive of the initiative. We have seen thoughtful HR professionals influencing business leaders to support an HR agenda by having the business leaders chair the HR team, be part of an advisory group, make presentations, and become spokespersons for a key initiative. In another example we’ve seen, an HR team was tasked with creating a new culture to respond to business changes. They worked to make this initiative not an HR agenda but a business agenda by having the business leaders be on the design team, the ones sharing the results with the management committee, and those personally sponsoring the agenda.

What have you found that helps you influence others to support your good ideas?