Influence & Expectations

As Project Managers, you have many tools at your disposal to help you succeed. You’ve got extensive training, some measure of resources – both capital and human, strategies and experiences from past projects, just to name a few. But what about your ability to influence? Have you ever given it any thought? I mean, certainly if you have been tabbed to be the PM on a project, it’s probably safe to assume that your organization is counting on you to lead your team to a successful outcome.

Where do you get influence? How can you use it effectively? And more importantly, how can it lead to you becoming a more respected PM? It’s certainly a very broad topic, and there are many levels of intricacy to the concept and art of influence. I won’t go into all of that in this space, but I think it’s important to cover at least a few of the ways that you can influence others and lead your teams to success.

One of the seminal works on the psychology of influence was written by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D. If you haven’t read, “Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion,” then I strongly urge you to pick up a copy and give it a look. In it, Cialdini gives us an in-depth view of ways we can build, use, and benefit from our ability to influence others as well as the psychological factors that lead to how each of us is influenced in our daily lives by a variety of sources.

There is a lot of research on the power we possess to influence our surroundings and the people around us. Today, I want to focus on two specific aspects of influence, and that is how we can influence others indirectly through our expectations and our language.

One of the ways we influence others that is just now becoming widely understood is indirect influence. Hypnotism is actually a form of indirect influence. The hypnotist doesn’t tell the person what to be, he tells them what they are. For example, he doesn’t tell the subject to feel hot. He tells them, “It is hot.” Seem like a thin distinction? It is, and yet it’s a powerful one.

We walk into a project meeting and someone is expressing an opinion in a firm way. And we say, “You’re angry,” when in fact they may not be angry at all. We are instructing that person to be angry. And the result may very well be that the person becomes angry. We can exert powerful influence over others without even knowing we’re doing it.

When it comes to expectations, we again can exert influence over our projects and our teams. Sometimes our expectations can create the very behavior in others that we don’t want to see.

For example, scientists used to believe that they could remain objective, detached from their experiments, and not influence the outcomes through their expectations. But a series of experiments demonstrated that it’s simply not possible. One of the most famous of these experiments occurred in the 1960’s, when Robert Rosenthal, professor at the University of California, conducted experiments where he told elementary school teachers that certain children in their classrooms were more intelligent than others. In fact, those children were selected at random. And still, by the end of the year, those children scored higher than their classmates on all intelligence and achievement tests.

Similar tests have been performed over the years on many different subjects including athletes who were supposedly more gifted than their teammates, and behavioral researchers who were led to expect certain responses from their research participants. In nearly every case, their expectations significantly impacted the performance of those being observed. The point is that there is no such thing as an objective observer. When we are observing living, breathing creatures, we cannot help but influence them as we observe them.

This means that we cannot look at the behaviors of others without also taking into account our own motives, inclinations, and perceptions. So, then, if we can influence others through our expectations, isn’t it incumbent on us to be more aware of what those expectations are?

I know it’s human nature for us to tend to lower our expectations. We rationalize that it’s to avoid being disappointed. But look back over your life to those times when you did that, and ask yourself if the end result was what you really wanted. Or, do you now see how more often your lower expectations actually produced a result that was in line with those expectations, and probably not in line with what you actually wanted?

So that begs the question, what if we were to raise our expectations for our projects and project teams? Might they perform like those “more intelligent” children did in the classroom? Think about the implications of that. How much stronger, more productive, and more successful can we be when we raise our expectations for each of us, and then strive to meet or exceed them? I say it’s up to us to set our expectations higher. Expect the best, and you just might get it.

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