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Influencing, Not Manipulating

, | August 1, 2023

by Ariela McCaffrey

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Ariela McCaffrey, Assistant Director of Research Support at Connecticut College. She is a MOR program participant. Ariela may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own.

David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

What is the difference between influence and manipulation? This question led to a great discussion in a recent MOR workshop. I remember one comment by an astute cohort member who said that it’s about intent – look at the intention behind the action and question whether it is for the betterment of another or exploitative in some way.

In Exercising Influence: A Guide for Making Things Happen at Work, Kim Barnes outlines the difference between influence and manipulation:

  • Influence involves trust in the honesty of the influencer and a sense of choice about the action.
  • Manipulation embodies inherently negative acts: lying, threats, dishonesty, and ridicule.

Influence is to sway a person toward action. Influence uses strategy with empathy, thoughtfulness, and presence. From our MOR workbook, the best leaders “use their influence with integrity and credibility.”

Influence Opportunities

When do you have a chance to influence someone? There are moments throughout a day or week that are influence opportunities. They can be casual chats in a hallway or formal pre-arranged meetings. Be open to them, engage your colleague in the moment, and follow up with another conversation. Do they feel they need more support with a current project? What are shared topics of interest? Pursue the exchange and use receptive behaviors to invite your colleague to share ideas. From Exercising Influence, “receptive influence indicates respect for the ideas and concerns of the other person and acknowledges his or her authority and accountabilities.” For example, I have made it a habit to invite all new hires in my department for a cup of coffee. I want to welcome my new colleagues and help them to feel comfortable. I also am curious to explore ways in which we can collaborate. It sets the stage for a working relationship based on trust and mutual interests. 

Influence Relationships

Where do you see your most substantial opportunity to influence someone? In most situations, it is with the people you are closest to in a personal or professional relationship. From Exercising Influence, use receptive behaviors to build influence relationships:

  • Inquire (ask open-ended questions), listen (check your understanding), attune (identify with the other person), and facilitate (clarify issues).
  • Ask if your colleague is open to constructive feedback and if so, give it.
  • Don’t criticize or point out mistakes.

From Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself.” Be particularly sensitive to a power imbalance for anyone you supervise. Reducing this imbalance could include:

  • Using nonverbal behaviors such as making eye contact.
  • Relaxing your posture.
  • Standing or sitting at the same eye level.

From Dacher Keltner in The Power Paradox, “a new wave of thinking about power reveals that it is given to us by others rather than grabbed. We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks.” Cultivating relationships matters.

Influence Authentically

How can you influence someone unable or unwilling to see different perspectives? Blaise Pascal, in Pensées, examines the best strategy for changing people’s minds, “people are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.” In order to influence people, it is essential to understand their motivations and background because these are immutable. According to Barnes, these can’t be changed, so you have to learn about “values (culture, family, profession); needs (vested interests); and aspirations (hopes, dreams).” You only need to look and listen to learn about these qualities in someone. As you develop a deeper understanding of a colleague’s motivations, you can prepare for reactions and predict responses. With this knowledge, you can be honest in what you hope to accomplish while respecting boundaries and beliefs. Consider coaching or mentoring rather than supervising or managing. In a recent NYT article, Anna Deavere Smith described the power of moving from a transactional association to true interconnection: “Mentorship’s not a candy store; it’s a relationship.” Be fully present during interactions, show interest, and practice active listening. Alan Watts, in The Wisdom of Insecurity, writes, “to understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, ‘I am listening to this music,’ you are not listening.” The best way to influence is not one-sided. It is reciprocal, where both parties learn from each other and where you are fully immersed in the conversation.

Key Takeaways

  1. Influence. Don’t manipulate. Don’t criticize
  2. Build relationships. Invest. Listen actively.
  3. Mentor. Be approachable. Think “walking hospitality.”


Recently, I was discussing reflection with my MOR team and mentioned that I couldn’t find the time to reflect. On the contrary, a teammate said he looked forward to it and ensured time for reflection was on his calendar. He took the time at the end of the week to look back on what he was grateful for and thank his colleagues who helped him. Now, every Friday, I browse my calendar for moments when someone helped me and send thank you emails to acknowledge their work and kindness. It was revelatory and gratifying to see how many people took time out of their busy schedules to assist me in one way or another. Their influence on me and my work was readily apparent once I took the time to recognize it.

When considering influence vs. manipulation, how often do you feel you experience manipulation?

Last week we asked which lesson from bingo resonates most as you consider your leadership?

  • 46% said relationship building
  • 28% said your words matter
  • 14% said own up to your own mistakes
  • 12% said make it a great day for someone else

Bingo! Knowing this MOR leadership community, it should come as no surprise that building relationships most resonated with nearly half of us as we considered leadership lessons to be learned from calling bingo. Relationships are “the coin of the realm” in higher education – so critical to accomplishing so much. The theme of relationships carries to this week’s reading as well – a foundation for influence, and not manipulation is a solid relationship. What is one relationship you could build or strengthen this week? Who have you thought about reaching out to but haven’t yet found the time? Carpe diem.