3 min read

You want to make a positive change. You attack the problem head-on, thinking you will solve it quickly but things get worse. You try harder but, instead of making progress, people get more resistant, the situation more tense, and the change more distant. So, you decide to give it everything you’ve got by confronting the resistance and forcing radical changes. The situation explodes in your face. Bad feelings, people taking sides, and the original goal of introducing a positive change now forgotten, you wonder, “What went wrong?”

You probably tried to influence people’s behavior solely through the power of your position. You fell into the trap of being too confrontational and of not taking into consideration all the forces that were producing the behavior you wanted to change. You made the classic mistake of oversimplification: you thought you could exert direct influence to change a complex situation.

The scenario I just described is very familiar, because I was the one who did it. Then I learned about indirect influence.

More than a technique, indirect influence is a way of life. It flows from an understanding of the world as a complex system of interrelated parts.

You will be more effective at influencing change when you address the total system rather than simply fixing problems through direct attack. Here are some things you can do:

  1. Create an environment where people can grow. Build a culture, policies, and structures that expand the capacity of your people. When organizations do this, they are like plant propagation centers; the rich soil of their corporate culture produces exceptional leaders and managers.
  2. Work today for tomorrow’s organization. Establish job requirements needed in the future and begin developing people to fit the company’s future needs.
  3. Give people freedom to create solutions. One of the best ways to influence people is to turn them loose. Value and reward the spirit of innovation even though a specific solution may fail. Provide the resources people need to experiment and play around with new ideas.
  4. Learn your organization’s invisible culture. Peel back the layers of the onion encasing the hidden culture. What unquestioned (and even unperceived) assumptions are people making? What is the real basis for the way people behave? What beliefs are driving people’s behavior? What values are they trying to protect? What fears are they trying to avoid? Once you discover these invisible yet powerful forces driving behavior, you will be better equipped to influence change.
  5. Establish clear parameters. Give your teams guidelines that protect the organization while simultaneously allowing a wide margin for autonomous problem-solving. When people feel like they are not allowed to innovate, they slip into an automatic mode of compliance.
  6. Develop an expansive perspective. Some managers understand their role only in terms of restraining the forces of subversion. They resist change because, by definition, that is what they are supposed to do. Narcissistic leaders gravitate toward this role because they see all forces outside of their control as personal threats. Expansive leaders, on the other hand, understand their role as a catalyst for expansion.
  7. Center in your core. Your core refers to your deepest values and sense of purpose. About the heart, King Solomon wrote, “from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). To center in your core means you keep things in perspective and you know how to separate the truly important elements of who you are from the less important trivia of life. By doing this, you will be better prepared to restrain yourself from automatic problem-fixing.

What do you think? How do you practice indirect influence?


Photo by Hans, Licensed under CC0 1.0.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.