Have you heard the true story of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis? He’s the Hungarian physician who, long after his death, was credited with making the connection between cleanliness and infection control. He’s now known as the pioneer of hand-washing. Why did no one listen to him during his lifetime when he told them washing hands prevents infection? Because even though he was right, his methods of convincing others were completely ineffective. He tried to humiliate people into changing their habits and arrogantly insulted people who disagreed with him. He valued being right over being effective in getting people to change their filthy ways. Do you know a leader like Dr. Semmelweis?
After all my experience with leaders, I see this same kind of righteousness in leadership styles, and it’s equally ineffective. You can’t argue, berate and insult people into changing their beliefs. In my early consulting career, we had a mantra that went “Don’t be right for the sake of being right” that echoes this same sentiment. Being right isn’t enough to prompt change, it requires effective influence. In fact, this type of leadership style works against those who adopt it, because it isolates them from their teams, stifles ideas and free expression, thus turning their cultures and people into subservient shells.
So how do you influence people effectively? Here are some tips:
- Meet people where they are, accept them as they come without judgment. Assume good intent.
- Show respect as a human being. Mutual respect and equal stature are essential for healthy debate.
- Be humble in your approach. Seek common ground or a common goal to unite you on a foundation, and build from there.
- Be genuinely interested in understanding their point of view.
- Make your intention known- I want to understand your way of thinking. Steven Covey wrote “seek first to understand, then to be understood”
- Gently ask questions that challenge their thinking. “What” and “how” questions, “why” questions put people on the defensive.
- Invite and welcome questions of others. Be aware not to show anger, frustration, or condescension. Influence is a long-term approach that takes time.
- Present factual data in a simple manner to be easily understood.
It is amazing to think what Dr. Semmelweis could have accomplished, and the lives he could have saved by adopting a different approach. I challenge you to implement at least two of the tips provided above to improve your leadership skills and influence employees and clients more effectively.