We’ve all had to deal with difficult team members. Those who have led have had to deal with difficult people reporting to us. Most of us have had to deal with difficult managers and bosses. We’ve also had to deal with difficult people in general.
When someone makes our jobs and lives difficult we want to influence them to stop challenging us and start helping us, or at least getting out of the way (and sometimes to be open to them influencing us, accepting that sometimes we are the difficult ones). When the difficult person is our manager or boss, many of us feel powerless to do anything to influence them.
You can influence anyone. I’m writing today’s post to increase your ability to influence.
I’ve written on the value of trying to understand people you want to influence. Many people, especially when they have authority over others, try to steamroll others — to get them to change when they don’t want to using some form of might making right.
Many people don’t like trying to empathize with people they don’t like, leading to trying to steamroll. The benefit in avoiding empathy is that you don’t have to try to believe things you don’t like. The problem is you cripple your ability to influence the other. If they sense you don’t understand you, they’ll hear you saying “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Nobody likes hearing that. Internally they think “No, I’m right and you’re wrong.” They may comply with your might, but they’ll resent and resist you.
If you don’t have authority over someone, believing you need authority over someone to influence them also cripples you.
I came across a relevant quote by Jonas Salk, who created the first polio vaccine. The vaccine’s success so diminished the threat of polio, people my age and younger don’t appreciate the fear the polio epidemics of the twentieth century caused.
The polio virus isn’t a person but he wanted to influence it. In its realm, the virus has more power than a person. It evolved to spread and reproduce efficiently. Doctors can set a broken bone easily. They can destroy an individual virus. But before his vaccine nobody could destroy all the polio viruses in your body without also destroying your body. He figured out how and decimated the threat from the disease, improving the lives of billions of people. Few human creations improved the lives of so many people so much as the polio vaccine.
Jonas Salk said about how he developed his vaccine:
I pictured myself as a virus or a cancer cell and tried to sense what it would be like.
When I worked on the polio vaccine, I had a theory. I guided each [experiment] by imagining myself in the phenomenon in which I was interested. The intuitive realm . . . the realm of the imagination guides my thinking.
In other words, he tried to understand its incentives in order to influence it.Â He tried to empathize with it. It may have been uncomfortable to think like something that’s result was to paralyze and kill people by the millions, but it was effective. Of course we have to remember people aren’t viruses, but we can learn from his success and apply what worked intelligently, keeping those differences in mind.
If you want to influence someone, you might want to think like them. Yes, it may feel uncomfortable, but thinking like someone temporarily doesn’t mean you support them or agree with them. But it does help you influence them, even if that person is your boss or someone you have no authority over.
I bet if I searched for quotes of detectives successful in solving crimes by serial criminals or military officers trying to defeat hated opponents, I’d find similar sentiments. I doubt many criminals think they are wrong or bad. If all you can think about them is they are bad or evil, you won’t be able to predict their next move or communicate with them to influence them. Even if someone is crazy, if there is a method to their madness, understanding them will help you influence them.
Brief aside on Salk, science, and people
I came across a couple other quotes by Salk that resonated with me as someone trained as a scientist who is applying that perspective to help people directly, not just to research in the lab. These quotes resonated with me so I thought I’d share them.
Why do I see things differently from the way other people see them? Why do I pursue the questions that I pursue, even if others regard them as, as they say, “controversial?” Which merely means that they have a difference of opinion. They see things differently. I am interested both in nature, and in the human side of nature, and how the two can be brought together, and effectively used.
Now, some people might look at something and let it go by, because they don’t recognize the pattern and the significance. It’s the sensitivity to pattern recognition that seems to me to be of great importance. It’s a matter of being able to find meaning, whether it’s positive or negative, in whatever you encounter. It’s like a journey. It’s like finding the paths that will allow you to go forward, or that path that has a block that tells you to start over again or do something else.