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The Most Powerful Tool for Positive Influence: Attention

What is the most effective tool that you have to influence the behavior of others – whether you use it purposefully or by accident? The answer is so simple that most people can’t believe it. It is your attention – eye contact, grunting, nodding, giggling – any response you make to another person’s behavior affects that behavior.
Anything and everything someone in your presence says or does is being influenced by your reaction, your eye contact – even your obvious attempts to act disinterested are an acknowledgment that has an effect on the behavior they are engaged in.

If I come in to work and look solemn, distracted, and depressed – perhaps even on the verge of tears and you say, “Jerry, you look upset today; is there anything wrong?” You have reinforced several behaviors. Most people use their facial gestures and body language to express emotions they are not able to talk about. When you make a statement about that type of behavior (affecting depression), you have just positively reinforced the person for those behaviors.

Usually, when you ask the question about how they feel, they break forth with a lengthy narrative describing all the personal problems that have led to their looking distressed and depressed. As you look at them while they are talking, make facial expressions that indicate you are sympathetic, and make verbal comments that indicate you are empathetic – you are rewarding and reinforcing their cathartic behavior. Guess who they will seek out the next time they want a sympathetic ear about their personal problems

Leaders are constantly seeking to find new ways to reward employees – awards, bonuses, and incentives – and they all work at various levels of efficacy depending on how they are used. The biggest, most appreciated rewards and positive reinforcers that exist are far less expensive and exotic.

Listening actively, looking someone in the eye and nodding, making a facial gesture of empathy or encouragement, gasping – saying things like, “You’re kidding!” or “Unbelievable!,” or “What did you say then?” Active attention is the most powerful tool you have for influencing others; the problem is that most people don’t know how to us it constructively and purposefully.

Here are some behaviors that will make you well liked, respected, and followed – yes, I mean people will follow you to the ends of the earth if you will do the following:

When you see friends and employees greet them with a smile and a hello. If you can’t smile, at least say, “Good morning; how are you today?” Or, “Hello Jim; how are things today?”

When people are talking to you (it does not matter what the context), look at them and nod your head or change your facial expression to let them know you are listening. An occasional verbal expression like, “unbelievable!” or “you’re kidding”,” or “and then what happened?” Will do more to get other to like you than any form of entertaining anecdotes or humorous and interesting comments you can make.

When people (your employees, peers, boss, son or daughter, wife or husband) tell you about something they did that you want them to repeat – whatever it is – acknowledge it with a word or phrase. “Dad, I greased the garage door opener;” You say, “great.” Or an employee describes some extra effort they contributed, like – “Jerry was falling behind so I took a couple of minutes to give him a hand; you say, “That’s going to ensure we hit our numbers today.”

A well placed word or non-verbal reaction can positively reinforce and reward better than a “Thank You,” or a “Gee, Jerry – I really appreciate your taking the time to help Bill catch-up.”

Most leaders, managers and supervisors go to workshops and training classes trying to come up with scripted, wonderful, glamorous, fantastic things to do or say when an employee does something of value. Stop trying to be dramatic and start trying to “pay attention.” Ask a question; listen; say a word that indicates that what they did will have a positive effect.When I say, “I took some extra time to clean up my area;” You say, “Excellent.” End of story. No fanfare; no marching bands; no plaque or hamburger or pizza or award or wordy embarrassing praise.

Understated verbal comments about value added employee behavior have a better effect than gushy, awkward accolades. Understated and natural words and expressions of approval work best. Words like, “Interesting, great, how did you do that? Can you show me how to do that? That’s going to help all of us, good idea, creative” – attention that communicates approval and acknowledges effort – that’s the most powerful, untapped opportunity for leadership that exists.When I was growing up, my father rarely said anything positive about anything I did – in school or out. When he did say something like, “not bad,” I was elated – I nearly exploded with pride and self-satisfaction. When an employee comes up with a great idea and the supervisor says, “That will work,” the employee is proud to know that his efforts are not going unnoticed.

Most of us want to influence others to do things we want them to do. The tools and methods – if the number of books on leadership are any indication – are complex and beyond the reach of the average person. WRONG; the tools and methods are so easy that nobody can make any money off of them; if supervisor and managers knew that all they had to do was stick their thumb up in the air and smile when they saw an employee doing something that was value-added, and that would cause the employee to do that more often – the consulting business would lose lot of revenue.

Talk to your employees; listen to them; maintain eye contact and nod your head; ask questions related to the context of the discussion; put in a word of approval or acknowledgment when they describe what they’ve done that will help.

I sat in a meeting with a senior executive recently where he began, “Jim, tell me how we can eliminate waste in the reprocessing area.” I nearly fell out of the chair. I spend so much time trying to get senior leaders off their soapboxes and out of their command-and-control verbal modes…I could not believe that this COO began the meeting with a question. When his direct report finished his answer, the COO had a perfect response; he said exactly the right thing to ensure the employee was rewarded. He said, “I think we need to try that.” The employee left the meeting beaming.