Much of your work in safety involves informing, encouraging, persuading — that is, influencing others. Nothing unusual here. Most of the people you interact with in your organization rely on influence as well, or at least should.

Most employees, whatever place they occupy on the org chart, can’t make everyone else do what they want just because they said so. Even if they could, influence works much better than force.

Years of research on effective leadership bear out the truism that leaders get better and more sustainable results using influence rather than the power of their position. Plus, a leader who leads through influence can, as needed, “issue orders” without being perceived as domineering in emergency situations when there is no time to explain.  “Everyone head out now and meet at the emergency assembly place.”

Four key factors

Influencing means getting others to see things your way, and to do what you want them to do, willingly. Several factors (at least four main ones) determine the likelihood that your message will persuade, and form or strengthen of an attitude consistent with your request.

  1. The “source” — The perceived competence and trustworthiness of the source — the individual trying to persuade — is perhaps the most potent factor that determine whether others will go along. This perception does not arise automatically or quickly. It is the product of many interactions, many opportunities to do it right or do it wrong. The image of honesty, fairness, good will, and support of others is not a permanent condition. Counterevidence can shift the perception quickly, more quickly than positive experiences can build it. Trust is the critical issue, and trust is indeed hard to build and easy to lose.
  2. The “message” itself — If the content of your message is seen as reasonable and actionable, it can work. If your message is seen as questionable or unrealistic, it will likely not work. Plus, if you make a habit of making unrealistic, unreasonable requests, that fact can erode your perceived competence and trustworthiness.
  3. The strength of the existing attitude — If an individual has a pre-existing bias in favor of doing what you are asking, so much the better. But if the existing attitude is negative, the job of persuasion is that much tougher; not impossible, but more challenging.
  4. The “route” of the appeal — A direct appeal might go like this: “I need you to be on this project team. It is a good fit for your skills, and it can help you be more visible in the organization. I’d like to sign you up for it.” A direct appeal can sound like a command. An indirect appeal gives information to encourage someone to draw the conclusion you intend. It might go like this: “This project is an important and visible one. It would benefit from the skills that you have. I see it as a really good fit. What do you think?”

Appealing indirectly

When it can be used, the indirect route has several advantages. It is not beating around the bush; it is simply less coercive. It allows the other person to think things through and draw their own conclusions. As an option rather than a perceived requirement, it leverages participation and involvement. It allows the other person to make the idea their own. They are more likely to be committed to a position they have actively chosen, compared to one that is perceived to be foist upon them. Importantly, the indirect approach is especially important when the pre-existing attitude is negative.

Decades of research in the social psychological area of attitude change consistently conclude the best way to get real and durable attitude change is to get others to see things “your way” with minimum external coercion. Give them an option, help them see the advantage to them, and let them come to your position on their own, willingly. And attitude does shape behavior.

Leave the club in the bag

Say I do have position power over you and I want you to be the head of our worksite’s safety committee. You are already very busy with your current workload. I could tell you to take on the role. If you voiced objections, or even mild reservations, I could tell you I have thought about it and I think you are right for the role, and I want you to do it. How enthusiastic would you be?

Suppose instead I have the highly respected outgoing head of the committee (credible source) approach you and tell you that current committee members think you would be an especially good fit (the message). Suppose you identified the issue of your current heavy workload (negative initial attitude). “What if we can relieve some of those other responsibilities, and I work with you for the first month or two? Think about it and we’ll talk some more.” (indirect route).

Would this approach be more likely to influence you?

At times you are required to enforce rules which are not immediately embraced by others. When it’s mandated that safety glasses and/ or bump caps be worn in all areas of the plant, not everyone gets on board right away. As the safety pro you have major responsibility (though not sole responsibility) to get compliance. And full compliance can be achieved with a lot less arguing, write-ups, grievances, etc., if we use the known strategies of influencing. When a credible and trusted source explains what and why, and works with resistant employees to give them time to get on board and form new habits, the “because you have to” club can often be left in the bag.