When I am feeling especially honest, I admit that success in business depends in large measure on one's ability to influence others-to get them to do what we want. Customers need to be convinced to make a purchase. Employees need to be convinced to make a sale or build a product or whatever their job may be in order to make that sale possible. They may even need to be convinced to pack up their things and leave peaceably when a termination or layoff is appropriate.

As a business leader, you often find yourself in a position of having to exert influence over others. Businesses succeed by getting hundreds, thousands, even millions of people to behave in desired ways in order to help accomplish the business's goals. And this means the owners and managers are in the wholesale business of modifying human behavior.

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A scary thought on a number of levels. First, changing human behavior is a difficult thing to do, and second, it carries with it considerable responsibilities. In my book Motivating & Rewarding Employees, I include a chart that shows a range of ways of motivating people to do what you want them to-from coercive, nasty methods at one end of the spectrum, to friendly, mutually beneficial ones at the other. It is easy to use coercive methods if you think about it. Trickery, sheer force or the threat of physical violence do influence others-but not for good and not in ways that build businesses or retain employees and customers over the long haul. So for practical as well as ethical reasons, businesses need to be in the business of aligning their interests with those of customers, employees and suppliers.

Alignment is the first step in successful efforts to influence, and it comes from leaders and their insight into what other people may want and need. It is always a good idea to check on your alignment now and again. Are we doing things that give our customers and employees opportunities to achieve their own worthy goals? Are they better off for working with us? If not, business is going to be a lot harder than it ought to be, and nobody is going to profit substantially from your operations.

What's So Special About You?

So how do you "give back" to your employees and customers? Can you make a clear, strong argument in just a few words to explain why they are better off working with you than not? This is the true secret of business success, and it is an elusive one. If a business is not clearly different and more desirable to work with for at least some customers and employees in some situations, then it has no business being in business--and certainly won't find it easy to grow and prosper. So the giving-back part really needs to be first and foremost in leaders' minds--not left to an afterthought as it too often is.

Once you're clear on how you can satisfy others' needs well, then you are ready to refine your efforts to influence them. All you need to do is make them see how the alignment of interests will help them and you at the same time. If you are right, you only have a communication problem now--although sometimes it can seem like a big one!

In marketing, this effort to communicate is taken to a high degree of refinement. Perhaps too high a degree--I'm a bit sick of all the advertising that comes my way, how about you? But in truth, the main flaw in advertising is that alignment thing--much of it is not built on a clear alignment of my interests with theirs, so even if they get my attention I don't like the message.

The part of marketing that is done really well is the communications part. A lot of effort and imagination goes into creating messages that attract attention and encapsulate a message in a creative, interesting way. And since I largely address management issues in this column, I want to point out that we fail to apply anywhere near as much imagination in our efforts to communicate with employees.

Customers get more communications thrown at them than they want, while employees operate in a relative vacuum. We shout at one of the key groups we wish to influence, and we whisper to the other. Here's a radical thought: Why not shift the balance a bit, and stop flooding customers with communications they say they don't want--while at the same time, giving employees more of the communications they so often complain they don't get but do want?

To shift this balance and begin using communications in a more effective manner to influence our employees in positive ways means bringing some of the same creative spirit to internal communications that we lavish on external ones. In my next column, I will look at ways of taking a creative approach to internal communications and give some fun examples from my current research of managers and businesses that have done so.


Alex Hiam is a trainer, consultant and author of several popular books on business management, marketing and entrepreneurship, including Streetwise Motivating & Rewarding Employees, The Vest-Pocket CEO and other popular books.