How to Gain Influence by Taking Initiative in Day-to-Day Situations

A mental model to become more assertive and influential

Rasmus Ursem
Jul 25 · 5 min read
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Courtesy of cottonbro (pexels.com)

My palms are getting sweaty as I knock on the door to my boss’ office. The smile on her face reassures me that it is a good day to bring up the idea I have been working on for some time. During a bit of small-talk, I pick up little signs and decide how assertive I should be to get my project approved. I know it is a lot to ask, but I have to try…

You probably know similar situations from your work or private sphere where you need someone’s approval to achieve something or agree on a decision that will affect the both of you. We face many small and large interactions like this every day.

The circle of influence and the circle of concern

In his seminal book The 7 habits of highly effective people, Stephen R. Covey introduces Habit 1 — be proactive and writes about the difference between the reactive and the proactive person. Covey introduces the circle of influence and circle of concern as a mental model of how the two personalities interact with their surroundings. In short, the reactive person has a small circle of influence as outer circumstances set his agenda. In contrast, the proactive person constantly seeks to expand her circle of influence while not violating the win-win mindset defined as Covey’s fourth habit (think win-win).

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I am personally a big fan of mental models like this, but I must admit I sometimes find them a bit too abstract to operationalize on a daily basis. Exactly how and when should you be more proactive? And how do you determine how large your circle of influence really is?

Fortunately, Covey also spend some time thinking about this and in his follow-up book The 8th habit from 2004 he introduces a little gem called the level-of-initiative model. The model has seven levels ranging from fully passive/reactive to fully autonomous/proactive. It is a so-called situational model, which means your actual level differs from situation to situation. Hence, you sometimes just have to accept the circumstances while in other situations you are fully autonomous.

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The level-of-initiative model (Covey, 2004)

The seven levels of the model are briefly described as follows.

Wait for instructions (passively). This is the lowest level of initiative where you are waiting to get an instruction or just passively accepting information that is handed to you.

Ask questions about … At this level, you act a tiny bit more assertive by asking follow-up questions on the decision on the table. Obviously, questions can be perceived as harsh or unpleasant so tread lightly.

“I suggest to …” Here, you start to take some initiative to influence the decision. Suggestions need to be sound and reasonable to be accepted so spend some time preparing and consider the win for other stakeholders.

“I intend to …” You don’t quite have the reins at this level, as stating your intentions allow the person with the decision power to intervene and suggest/enforce another decision.

Do — and report immediately. At this level, you are in control of the decision. However, you report the result of the decision as soon as possible to honor the other stakeholder’s decision power and allow them to give immediate feedback.

Do — and report regularly. This is the level at which you carry out the majority of your job activities involving colleagues or projects. You stakeholders need to be informed of the progress and the decisions you have made.

Do. This level is covering activities you don’t need to ask permission to do. It is for routine activities and tasks that need no oversight or input from other stakeholders.

It is important to realize that there is no right or wrong level. The actual level of the situation at hand is largely determined by the power structure of the people involved. For example, I have near-zero influence on organizational changes, but I don’t have to ask permission to read my email.

Combining the two models

The circle of influence model and the level-of-initiative models can be combined by realizing that the “I intend to …” level corresponds to the boundary between the circle of influence and the circle of concern.

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Operationalizing the combined model

In my view, the combined model can be put to use in three different ways.

First, it can be used to assess your own and other people’s influence and power. To do this, notice the actions and words you and other people use in a given situation.

Second, it can be used to increase your circle of influence. To do this, assess your own level of initiative and try to use the wording of the level above. As trust builds between you and the other person, you may seek to step another level up the model. To build trust, you need to think win-win and attempt to over-perform a bit to ensure the other stakeholders that you can handle the situation with confidence.

Third, it can be used to expand other people’s circle of influence in case you have a role as team lead or manager. This can be done by encouraging questions, asking for suggestions, asking for how your peer intended to handle the situation, or finally by delegating the decision to the other person. You may be wondering why you would do this as it sounds a bit like letting go of control. Yes, that is the case, but empowerment of the other person will strengthen the trust between you and free your resources for other tasks — you liberate yourself by liberating other!

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