We all have had that boss or manager who sees leadership as a blunt instrument: she commands or instructs those around her to get things done.
But that leadership style is only effective to a point. However, most of us have also had that one colleague who seems to always get his way. He may not be the loudest in the office but somehow he is able to convince those around him to see his viewpoint and take the actions he champions.
David Lebel is an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business. In a recent Ivy Exec online class, Lebel offered several communication hacks to help aspiring leaders gain more influence in the workplace.
Communication Hack #1: Learn the Power of Powerless Speech
When we speak, our words communicate more than we think. In teamwork exercises, the people who tended to instruct others often lost power and authority by raising hackles in the group. However, those that harnessed the power of powerless speech gained trust and respect and were better able to influence the direction of the team.
So what are examples of powerless speech?
- I think we should
Disclaimers like Maybe I’m not the expert in this but…
Or framing instructions in the form of a question like Maybe we should consider this—what do you think?
Communication Hack #2: Questions are the Key to Success
There are two, main communication styles. The first is called advocacy and is the one we use most commonly in the US.
“Get your way, be heard,” Lebel says of the advocacy style. “There are a lot of downsides in work settings to using too much of the advocacy style…It’s like tennis: you’re just hitting the ball back and forth, you’re just trying to win.”
Lebel cautions that the advocacy communication style breeds competition in the workplace that may not be healthy and causes coworkers to take sides. But more importantly, it limits our own viewpoint when we stick to advocacy alone.
“We’re just focused on winning and it blinds you to other considerations that might be valid,” he explains.
The other, more effective communication style is called inquiry. In this communication philosophy, a leader embraces the power of questions.
“When you ask questions of other people it immediately lowers their defense and resistance…it opens peoples’ minds up and they are going to process the information as a question,” Lebel says. “They don’t see it as an overt attack or a threat to them.”
By asking a question instead of instructing another person, you can solicit a different reaction and initiate a conversation instead of an all-out power struggle.
But asking questions is more than just a sneaky power play. Instead, you will be gaining helpful information that can make you more effective and buy you time for the development of an impactful response.
Lebel encourages executives to reject the conventional instruction that so many managers like to parrot: “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”
“This overlooks the power of asking questions,” he explains, noting that if you’re only looking for solutions, you’re not really understanding the problems—or if there even is a problem at all.
He also offers a test for executives to better evaluate their own communication style. Bring to mind a recent conversation in the workplace that has since created a lot of tension. Create a chart with two columns. On the left-hand side, write out your part of the conversation. On the right-hand side, write out the other person’s responses. Then, go back through and note for all of your side whether or not you were using an advocacy or an inquiry communication style. Often, it will be immediately clear which type of communication you rely on. In a successful interaction, the left-hand side of the chart—your side of the conversation—should be dominated by questions.
Communication Hack #3: Seek Advice
Many executives fear asking for help as it can often come with a reputational cost. If we ask for our boss to step in to resolve a conflict, it can make us look incompetent. If we ask for help finishing a task, it can make us look lazy.
So how do we get things done when we simply can’t go it alone?
Ask for advice instead of help.
“[Say] ‘Can I get your perspective? You have expertise in this area,’” Lebel suggests.
He notes that this tactic flatters the other side and makes that person feel enthusiastic about helping you.
“Instead of making it about you, you’ve flipped it completely,” he says. “Now, the other person can feel good about providing some insight.”
Lebel points out that asking for advice takes the focus off of your weakness and instead puts the emphasis on the other person’s strengths.
To gain authority and influence in the workplace, try taking a step back from pushing your own agenda. Ask questions, embrace powerless speech and solicit guidance from those around you to gently move the needle in your favor.