The indirect approach: How to influence others

By: Leif Babin,

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The first step in taking ownership is to acknowledge a mistake or failure. But when you do this, be careful to watch your language.

Leadership Concept:

How To Convince Someone To Do Something For The Team and Mission

“You’ve been brainwashed,” said Jocko. “The shortest distance between two points isn’t a straight line.”

It may be true in geometry, but it’s definitely not true when it comes to leadership.
Instead, the quickest path to influencing others and getting them to align with your efforts, whether in your professional or personal life, is almost always what we call the indirect approach. We can use the indirect approach to learn how to convince someone to do something that’s best for the team and mission.

How To Convince Someone Using “The Indirect Approach”

The term “indirect” often produces misconceptions. When people first hear this term, they sometimes think this means being passive or avoiding the truth altogether. But that is not what it means. The indirect approach means taking actions that allow another person to reveal the truth to themselves, rather than trying to force them to see the truth. You do this by asking earnest questions, instead of confronting them. It may not seem like it, but this is actually the shortest route to leading successfully. We need to learn how to convince someone for the good of the team and the mission.

The Trap: It’s a Counterintuitive Concept

It’s a common pitfall: the direct approach seems more efficient, at least initially.
Let’s say that someone on your team is underperforming and needs a course correction. Or you haven’t received mission-critical support from someone in another department. Or you need to lead up the chain of command to gain the boss’s approval on a necessary course of action. All of this is done to improve the company’s long-term strategic growth.
In all of these cases, it seems like the most efficient way is the direct approach:

• Confront your under-performer, tell them they suck, and need to get better, or they’ll be fired.

• Confront the personnel in the other department, demand they get you what you need, or threaten to take it up with their chain of command.

• Confront your boss with an ultimatum to give you the green light on your recommended action or accept your resignation.

All of these might seem like the most efficient path to your desired outcome. These may be the ways you learned how to convince someone to do something in the past. In reality, each action is likely to make your goal more difficult to obtain. These actions create frictional relationships and make people push back or become defensive. Instead of aligning incentives and building coalitions, they divide and destroy relationships. This greatly reduces your ability to influence others toward a successful outcome for everyone.

What Winning Looks Like

Think about what winning looks like for any interaction with others. What is the ultimate goal you are hoping to achieve? Let’s take the same scenarios listed above: someone on your team is underperforming and needs a course correction; you need to get someone in another department to provide you critical support; you need the boss’s approval on a necessary strategic course of action for the company’s success.

What does the indirect approach look like in these situations? Instead of confronting an under-performer, start by asking earnest questions. “Is everything ok? It looks like we are behind schedule on this project. What more support can I give you to assist?” Instead of getting defensive and becoming close-minded, the underperformer’s mind starts to open toward accepting support and guidance and changing how they execute to be more effective.

Rather than confronting someone in another department and demanding they give you the support you need, ask how you can help them instead. “I know you are being asked to do a ton with limited resources. What can I do to assist?” Doing this builds the relationship, allows you a new way to learn how to convince someone on your team, and moves you closer to getting the support you need.

Instead of giving the boss an ultimatum, ask them questions about their strategic goals. Try to understand what they think is the best way to achieve those goals. Getting the boss on board with a new strategic direction may take planting a seed in the boss’s mind. You may need to wait weeks or months before they fully open up to the idea. It may mean letting the boss think it was their idea from the beginning. No factor. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit. What matters is that the team is headed toward long-term success. That’s what winning looks like.

Real-World example:

“I tell people the truth,” a supervisor told us, as a point of pride. He clearly felt that one of his greatest strengths as a leader was his willingness to be direct. “I get straight to the point with people. And sometimes they can’t handle it. But that’s their problem. Not mine.”

The supervisor’s smile was evident, even on the small tile of my computer screen in the Zoom meeting. This was an Extreme Ownership Academy LIVE session with over two hundred leaders from across the U.S. and several countries around the world. In this weekly, hour-long session, Jocko, Dave Berke, other Echelon Front instructors, and I answer direct questions from participants. Every week, we work to help them solve their problems through leadership.

“How often do people get defensive when you tell them the truth?” Dave Berke asked.

“Pretty often, now that I think about it,” the supervisor admitted.

“What good is telling someone the truth if no one will listen?” Jocko asked.

The supervisor didn’t answer.

“When you hit someone over the head with the hammer of truth, they are going to stab you with the ego blade.”

Jocko and Dave explained the power of the indirect approach. By asking questions and allowing people to reveal the truth to themselves, the supervisor could circumnavigate people’s defensiveness, prevent them from digging into a fixed position, and open their minds to influence for the good of the team and the mission. Once the supervisor understood that this was what good leadership looked like, he opened his mind too.

“I’ll give that a shot,” said the supervisor. “I think that might solve a lot of the leadership challenges I’ve been struggling with. I thought it was them, but it turns out it’s me.”

For Action:

This week, think about where you need to take a more indirect approach in your relationships. Are there individuals, at home or at work, to whom you are trying to reveal the truth? Are they getting defensive and digging into their position? What earnest questions can you ask them to reveal the truth to themselves? Identify the areas where you will implement the indirect approach in your world this week. Then, go forth and EXECUTE.

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