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In the wildly popular musical Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of the highlights is a number sung by Aaron Burr, titled “The Room Where It Happens.” In it, Burr bemoans the fact that Alexander Hamilton is more of a political insider than he is, having participated in a closed-door meeting with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to move the capital city in exchange for the support of Hamilton’s financial system (the Compromise of 1790). This number resonates with the audience because of its public acknowledgment that private conversations and deals have always been a part of politics and commerce.

Both of us have seen Hamilton, so this scene and accompanying song came to mind for us recently when we served as faculty members in a professional development program focusing on emerging leaders in online education. One of the exercises was to assist the participants in honing their elevator pitch so they could advocate for their department in the rare instances when they might have access to a senior leader.

We both suggested that instead of practicing this type of indirect, irregular influence, the emerging leaders should spend more time focusing on developing positive influence by gaining entrée to the “room where it happens” -- or at the very least, serving as a key adviser to a leader who is in that room. That led us to discuss our own observations and experience over the years and to collaborate on these articles.

Why it is vital to get in the room where it happens?

We both have colleagues who are fond of saying, “I’m just not political,” used as both a self-compliment (“politics” being considered a negative) and a grudging observation that others are generally more aware of and effective at navigating organizational politics. To those colleagues, the “room where it happens” connotes shady deals made in a cigar-filled back room.

But the truth is that no organization makes all its decisions in public forums. There may be public discussion, but the final decision must be made by a smaller decision group or even an individual leader, after taking wide input into account. Based on human and financial resource constraints, only some of the many projects a university hopes to complete can be prioritized and funded. That is a reality. And it is equally a reality that being able to influence decision makers consistently and effectively is part of a professional’s role.

Some people may be uncomfortable negotiating this delicate balance of positive intentions to gain influence for the benefit of a program or organization with the potential negative perceptions of manipulation. On the contrary, we believe that it is crucial for effective leaders to understand the powerful coalitions and alliances that one must navigate in order to be successful and to advocate for their department or program.

Is Influence Good or Bad?

We consider influence to be one’s ability, through behaviors and actions, to impact decisions and decision makers in an organization. The more influence a leader has, the more that person is able to have a hand in making strategic decisions and setting top priorities for the organization.

Influence is a neutral force, in our way of thinking. It is a fact of social life that we are influenced every day and that we influence others every day, as well. Some influences can be considered good (e.g., my friend urges me to join a gym with him) and some bad (e.g., another friend encourages me to eat doughnuts with her). But many attempts at influence are not motivated by purely good or evil intent. In most cases influence tactics are used to advocate for two or more potentially positive individuals or projects: one candidate over another; one social program instead of another; one charitable cause rather than another.

It is quaint to believe that good ideas or causes will simply emerge on their own merits, but they won’t. As an example, society cognitively understood for a long time the deleterious effects of smoking. Yet, even as cigarette packs carried warnings of the deadly link to cancer, smoking was still considered “cool” for a number of years. Today, however, thanks to a series of influence strategies intended to change the public’s attitudes and behaviors regarding smoking, the number of smokers has dwindled significantly. Likewise, we see many more people now using their seat belts as a result of public advertising campaigns to buckle up. We live in an influence-driven world.

Therefore, the real question isn’t whether influence is good or bad. Instead, it is “Do we understand how influence occurs, and are we able to use it on behalf of our cause?” Make no mistake: even when we don’t understand influence mechanisms or don’t wish to use them, they are still impacting us. By not using them, we are not necessarily on a higher moral ground; we are just less likely to be effective. It is to our benefit to understand such behaviors, their likely result and how to use them to further our cause.

A Framework for Influence

The topic of influence has been an active area of investigation among social-science researchers for decades. Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, wrote the most readable compilation of this work in Influence: Science and Practice. Based on the research literature as well as his observational studies of those who influence others for a living, Cialdini identified general categories of influence norms and how people might use them with intention. For our purposes, we believe five are of particular value in higher education:

  • Reciprocation: the tendency for individuals to repay what another person has provided at an earlier time, such as serving as a reference for someone who mentored you in a previous position.
  • Commitment and consistency: the tendency for individuals to remain consistent with what they have committed to, such as when a leader provides funds for a new HR training unit, even when budgets are tight, based on a strategic planning goal of improving employee morale.
  • Social proof: the tendency for individuals to look to others for validation of their choices, such as when a dean of a college asks for advice from a colleague about the pending choice to adopt a new learning management system.
  • Liking: the tendency for individuals to say yes to those whom they know and like, such as when a faculty member agrees to teach online for the first time with a colleague they have known for years and have co-taught with in the live classroom.
  • Scarcity: the tendency for individuals to value what is less available, such as the value placed on gaining tenure or a coveted sabbatical.

Cialdini adds an important point about the digital age. Decision makers today suffer from an overabundance of information that creates cognitive overload. Concomitantly, they have less time to make decisions, and so take more cognitive shortcuts in their decision making. Leaders must generally rely on one hopefully reliable source of information. We would argue that especially under these conditions, becoming influential involves being a main source of reliable information to decision makers -- if you are not yet a top decision maker yourself.

The Lack of Influence Development

Especially in higher education, we are uncomfortable talking about influence and how to gain it. Yet we spend much of our career learning the hard way that, without it, we are not very effective. The fact is that academe fails to help those early in their career determine how much influence they may want to have and to develop specific strategies to gain influence.

How do newer professionals learn that each role has a different level of influence within the organization? Generally, they learn through trial and error. We fail to tell younger professionals to determine the level of influence they wish to have. If they have less influence than they want, they will be frustrated; if they have more than they want, they will be overwhelmed.

We’ve mentored many professionals who are frustrated with aspects of their job they cannot change and try to find solutions to these conditions, but to no avail. We find ourselves increasingly counseling them to understand the limits of their influence and to either find ways to increase their influence or find a new position where they are likely to have a greater opportunity to exert it.

In a follow-up essay, we will describe some of the specific ways that professionals can gain more influence in -- or, at least, very near to -- the “room where it happens.”