Faulty Assumptions: Influencing Mistake No.2

By Colin Gautrey

Incorrect Assumptions

On my top ten list of common influencing mistakes, this is perhaps the most troublesome. Faulty assumptions, particularly about agendas, can easily land you in serious trouble. This mistake is highly likely to stop you achieving your goal — eventually. In the meantime, it can create havoc in your work, among your stakeholders and it will consume a great deal of time and energy. The similarities with tripping over in the street are remarkable. As you start to fall, you seem to know you are going to hit the deck. Rather than trying to lessen the impact, lots of arm swinging ensues as you try in vain to recover your balance. That the spectacle you create is amusing to others can also be another painful similarity!

Yet it is easy to slip into this. As we go about our work we naturally focus on what is important to us. We consider the benefits, calculate the risks and generally convince ourselves that what we aim to achieve is perfect. Perfect for ourselves and the organisation we work for. Trouble is, the more you do that — and it is correct to do this — the easier it is to lose sight of how others may view it. Every person we need to influence will have their own perspective on what we want them to do, think or feel. And this perspective is largely driven by their objectives, or rather their agenda.

Of course, the wise among you will stop and ask — what objections could they raise? How can we overcome them? Rightly so; however, where this mistake really hits home is when we start to guess about their agenda, which is inevitable. When the guess is wide of the mark, the trouble starts.

Agendas come in various forms. The one which gets the most attention, and is easiest to guess, is the professional agenda. Trickier is the personal agenda. Not only harder to guess, but usually hidden from all but the closest of friends and allies. The personal agenda holds the most power over our decision-making processes. We all have dreams, goals and things we want to do. Most want to take their careers somewhere, are looking for the opportunity to get promoted, or perhaps, need to earn more money. And let’s face it — some have a few scores they want to settle. Previous battles which have been lost and the scars remain. Okay, not you or me — we’re bigger than that aren’t we? But there are lots of people out there who do hold a grudge.

The skill required here is to firstly recognise its potential, and then to do something about it. Causing the interrupt takes presence of mind, inclusion in a documented process, or good team working. The interrupt can be triggered by a question. Great questions include…

  • What’s motivating or driving this individual?
  • What are all of the ways your objective could help or hinder this individual? Or simply…
  • What is really going on here?

Making sure the trigger happens is vital to stand any chance of avoiding the Faulty Assumptions mistake. Now you have to do something about it.

While your initial thoughts in response to the trigger question are useful, you need to consider as many possibilities as you can. What you need to end up with is a clear idea of the primary drivers motivationg the individual, team or organisation in question. Naturally, the amount of effort you put into this is dependent on the implications for you if you get it wrong. Go beyond your initial thoughts (guesses) and search for evidence and facts.

  1. Brainstorm other possible drivers (objectives) that may be shaping the individual’s actions. If you are working in a team, get creative and have a little fun too. Remember, brainstorming can include the fanciful, outrageous and stupid ideas too. Build a list of possible drivers in answer to the trigger question.
  2. Once you have done this, assess the potential impact each driver could have on your agenda if it were true. Assigning high, medium or low is probably sufficient at this stage.
  3. Next, assign a probability score. How likely is it that each driver on your list is a primary driver for the individual. Again, high, medium or low is precise enough. Be careful though. This part of the process requires you to combine your assessment of how true the driver is (fact or fiction), with how likley it is to be a primary driver.
  4. As an alternative (or in addition) to the previous step, rank them in order of importance — for the individual, not you!
  5. What actions can you (and your team) take to increase your accuracy? At this stage, do not work on the actions to reduce the impact, or overcome the problem. Right now, you need to become more certain that you’re going to work on the right agenda.

Actions to increase accuracy could include discussing the possibilities with other stakeholders, consulting with mentors, and talking to people on other projects that have experience of working with the individual in question. The most obvious, the simplest, the most ignored and the most feared action is to ask them directly. But do this carefully, particularly if the individual is not well known to you. If you do not have the quality of relationship where trust is thriving, the answers you get need to be treated with caution.

Once you have nailed the accuracy, then you can start planning your approach. Although there are no guarantees that you will win, knowing what you are up against is a much more comfortable place to be and you will have greatly enhanced the probability that you will succeed in your influence attempt.


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