#566       Innovative Leader     Volume 11, Number 12        December 2002

The Art of Building Commitment
by Rick Maurer

Mr. Maurer is an organizational change consultant and speaker (www@beyondresistance.com).  He is author of Why Don’t You Want What I Want? How to Win Support for Your Ideas Without Hard Sell, Manipulation, or Power Plays  (Bard Press, Atlanta, Georgia, 2002).  

How do you stay excited about your ideas and stay engaged with others, even when their resistance threatens your very success?  You may fear that paying attention to relationships will cause you to lose sight of your own goals, hurling you into a touchy-feely morass of little or no accomplishments.  Thankfully, that’s not the case.

An Example of Getting Your Way

When Bryan McGraw was thrust into a new role as quality officer at a military base, he faced lots of resistance.  One key to his success was a chief master sergeant who was against quality improvement.  Before Bryan took over this position, his predecessors had a contentious relationship with the top enlisted man.  The sergeant resisted passively at first, but then began to push back with nasty memos and heated arguments.  Due to his position and personal power, he was able to influence others to join in the resistance to quality improvement.  Bryan had a problem.

He was told to ignore the sergeant.  Someone advised, “He’s a pothole.  Drive around him.”  Bryan didn’t take that advice.  The chief master sergeant was an influential person and well respected.  Bryan realized that the sergeant was a critical player.  He made an effort to get to know him.  “We found things we both enjoyed together.  We were both passionate hockey fans.”  Over about a six-month period, he saw the relationship change.  The sergeant started to become a supporter of quality.

Bryan said, “I started slipping in messages and asking questions.  I began identifying things he was good at and showed how these linked to quality initiatives—picking potential winners and commenting, ‘Oh, by the way, what you did was an example of quality improvement.’ And I went out of my way to recognize the positive things he did.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment came when the sergeant was retiring from service.  He told Bryan, “I wish others had made the attempt and made me understand quality the way you did.”  He went on to say that Bryan’s predecessors tried to train him, but they never made an investment in him.

But the influence wasn’t just one-way.  I asked whether the sergeant had influenced him in any way.  Bryan said, “I could float things by him and get his input.  If he was critical of my ideas, that made me think and refocus.”

Sometimes it takes the Bryans of the world to help us see that there are alternatives to pitfalls like “He’s a pothole.  Drive around him.”  Bryan avoided the serious consequences of the levels of resistance by first increasing trust, and then understanding and favorable reactions.  His approach was to pay attention to what was important to him and to what the sergeant wanted.  Sometimes this approach can be played out with the simple elegance that Bryan demonstrated; at other times it can be more complex, with the outcome not always certain.

Staying excited about an idea while staying engaged with the other person is a fundamentally different way of trying to influence others.  Staying excited about our ideas and staying engaged is not a simple tactic that we resort to when all else fails.  It is a way of meeting the other person, whether things are going well or going poorly.  Paying attention to understanding, reactions, and trust increases our chances of getting people interested in our ideas.

Unfortunately, there are no easy steps to insure success.  But I believe it’s best to base our actions on some fundamental principles, knowing that the exact words we use, the precise timing, and the back-and-forth dance with the other person will vary depending on far too many uncontrolled variables.

Principles of Engagement

1.  Know your intention. 

Some people are idea people.  They are movers and shakers and get things done.  Others focus on relationships.  They are just sensitive to the needs of others and are keenly attentive to nuance.  Being just one or the other can create problems.  When you pay attention to the idea on which you’re attempting to influence others, you run the risk of alienating them and creating show-stopping resistance.  When you only rely on relationships, you may see your effectiveness diminish.  The bottom line is, focus your intention on ideas and relationships.

2. Consider the context.

Your idea is only part of the equation.  Timing, relationships, and environment are other key aspects, too, and can’t be overlooked.  How will your history with a particular person affect his support of your idea?  What else is going on for him at work or in his personal life?  And what is his experience with similar ideas?  Context is critical, so be sure to step into others’ shoes and consider your idea from their viewpoint.

3.  Avoid knee-jerk reactions.

Knee-jerk reactions often make matters worse.  Avoid responding instantly and instinctively when others resist you or your ideas.  While you can’t stop the involuntary defense that comes when someone attacks you, you can keep yourself from doing damage by reacting without thinking first.

4.  Pay attention.

Pay attention to how others respond to you and your ideas.  Listen to their words and tone of voice.  Watch their body language and whether or not they’re making eye contact with you.  And pay attention to your own reactions, too, taking note of your thoughts and emotions, as well as your body language.

5.  Explore deeply.

When others oppose your ideas, be willing to find out why.  While they may not tell you the true reasons for their resistance, their initial reactions will help you understand if there’s a way for you to move forward together.  Then you can use gentle, yet persistent, exploration to get to the heart of their resistance and ultimately turn their opposition into support.

6.  Find ways to connect.

Focus on ways to meet your own goals while also helping others meet their goals.  While this is not a time to back off or dilute your idea, it is a time to push yourself to be as expansive in your thinking as possible.  While the answers may not be immediately apparent, keep exploring—persistently and creatively—to determine whether a mutual win is possible.

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