Influencing your enemies

“No matter how hard I try, Scott doesn’t give me an inch,” Jonathan said. “We had a run-in four years ago which was bad enough. Then when I got this promotion, that was the final nail in the coffin. He sabotages me behind my back every chance he gets. Talented as he is, I just don’t know if I’m going to be able to get him productive, and we have incredibly aggressive targets for our first year.”

Jonathan had been promoted – instead of Scott and over Scott – to lead the integration and be the GM of the hot new division that his pharmaceutical company had just bought. Scott, the SVP of marketing, was, naturally, furious. The entire situation firmed up an informal tension which had been brewing for years. It was official: Scott and Jonathan were enemies.

I was sympathetic to Jonathan’s concerns. But it doesn’t matter. Scott is important, powerful in his own right, and a world-class talent. Jonathan couldn’t just get rid of him; he had to find a way to influence him and get him on board.

Influence is always a process rather than an event, and when you are dealing with someone antagonistic you need a careful strategy.

Your influence strategy: 1) communicate openly; 2) do him a favor; 3) influence those around him.

1) Communicate openly: We are often squeamish talking with someone directly, and that goes double for someone we don’t have a great relationship with.  It’s easy to shy away from these kinds of conversations, but it’s best to face it head-on rather than ignore the tension.

His message to Scott was simple: Neither of them liked the new reality and in a perfect world Jonathan might pick someone else to be on his team. However, given the situation, they both needed to make it work. He wanted and needed Scott to be on the team, and he asked Scott what he would need to put aside his own resentment. It was a tough discussion, but Scott was surprised and, ultimately, appreciative that Jonathan had raised the topic.

2) Do him a favor: I know he doesn’t deserve it. I know HE is one who should be bending over backward to suck up to YOU.  It doesn’t matter. That kind of thinking is not going to make you influential with him. Doing him favors will.

This is the same old reciprocity principle that you should be using in all of your influence situations:giving something earns you the right to ask for something later. With enemies it’s even more effective by – they won’t be expecting you to do something helpful for him, so it will surprise them. 

They may, of course, be suspicious at first – that’s natural. They key is to be sincere and consistent.It is helpful if you calm down your own emotion and focus on the big picture. You need them on your team so you don’t have the luxury of nursing your anger and resentment.

Jonathan swallowed hard and used his “clear-the-air” conversation with Scott to offer him two things. He knew that visibility was important to Scott, especially now that he perceived himself “demoted.” So Jonathan invited Scott to attend an important meeting that the top executives attended, and he to gave Scott a speaking role. He also agreed to work with Scott on his business case to restructure his group and get more headcount and to use his own influence to try to get it approved. These were wins that Scott couldn’t ignore.

3) Influence those around him: Just because you have an antagonist doesn’t mean everyone around him is your enemy. Some of the people close to him are probably neutral to you, and you may even have some allies who are close or at least solid with your enemy. Work on them. They will help you build a bridge.

Jonathan realized that Scott was pretty close to two of Jonathan’s own key allies. He had a direct conversation with each of them: “I’m trying to bridge my relationship with Scott and I would appreciate your help.” They each agreed to help. Jonathan also made sure to say good things about Scott to them and other people who he knew would take his message to Scott. This would continue to build goodwill.

You need everyone to be on the team, not just the people you have natural affinity with.  When you find yourself with an enemy or a difficult person, be strategic in how you try to influence them. With patience and consistency you will often win them over.  I would love to hear what influence strategies you’ve used to win over tough people! 

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