Why Won’t He Listen? An All-Too-Common Example of Failed Influence — And How Using the Influence Model Could Have Helped

Bill Heatton* is the director of research at a $250-million division of a large West Coast company. The division, which makes exotic telecommunications components, has many technical advancements to its credit. In the past several years, however, the division’s performance has been spotty at best. Despite many efforts to become more profitable, it has racked up multi-million-dollar losses in some years. Several large contracts have been big money losers, causing each part of the division to blame the others for the problems. A major cause of the problem, Bill feels, is Roland, a program manager in Marketing.
Note Bill’s frustrations as he talks about his efforts to influence Ted Lowry, his peer and the division’s director of marketing. Ted is the direct supervisor of Roland, who has been given the responsibility for an important new contract that marketing and research (along with production) will work on together:

Another program’s about to come through. Roland, the program manager, is a nice guy, but he doesn’t know squat and never will. He was responsible for our last big loss, and now he’s going to be in charge again

*All names in this example are disguised, but all else is real.

I keep fighting with his manager, Ted Lowry, to move Roland off the program, but I’m getting nowhere. Ted doesn’t argue that Roland is capable, but he sure as hell isn’t trying to find someone else. Instead, he comes to me with worries about my area.

I’m being a team player here. I responded to their requests by changing my staffing plan, assigning the people they wanted to do the research on Roland’s program. I even overruled my own staff’s best judgment about who we should assign to the program. But I’m still not getting the progress reports I need from Roland, and he’s never “available” for planning. I’m not hearing a lot of argument, but there’s not action to correct the problems, either. That’s bad, because I’m responding but not getting any response from them. There is no way to resolve this. If they disagree, that’s it. I could go for a tit-for-tat strategy. I could tell them that if they don’t do what I want, we’ll screw them next time.

But I don’t know how to do that without hurting the organization. That would feel worse than the satisfaction I’d get from sticking it to Roland!

Ted, Roland’s manager, is so much better than the guy he replaced that I hate to ask that he be removed as director of marketing. We could go together to our mutual manager, the general manager, but I’d really hate to do that. You’ve failed in a matrix organization if you have to go to your manager. I have to try hard before I throw it in his lap.

Meanwhile, I’m being forced into insisting that Ted get rid of Roland, but I’m afraid it’s in a destructive way. All I want to do is yell. I don’t want to wait until the program has failed to be told I’ve blown it!


Bill is clearly angry about the situation and frustrated about his inability to influence Ted Lowry. He finds himself behaving in ways he doesn’t feel good about. Bill’s failure to use the law of reciprocity lies at the heart of his inability to influence Ted. Because Bill believes he has gone out of his way to help Ted, he expects Ted to reciprocate automatically and remove Roland from the project. When Ted does not act, Bill’s anger reflects his belief that, by changing his own staffing patterns, he has created an obligation in Ted. He has established a “credit” with Ted, and Ted should honor that credit and agree to replace Roland.

Bill is also worried about a negative exchange—being blamed unfairly for project failures when he has done his part. He has strong feelings about what credit he should deserve for his efforts; to be judged harshly after extra effort would violate his sense of justice.

Failure to See Others as Potential Allies

Like other managers who very much want to influence someone who is not cooperating, Bill narrows his sense of possibilities by seeing Ted, his potential ally, as an intractable enemy, attributing negative motives to Ted. Because he doesn’t know how to get what he needs from Ted, Bill is beginning to leap to dangerous conclusions about why Ted is ignoring his efforts.

Also, he had already written off Roland as a worthwhile ally; and he saw his manager, the general manager, only as a court of last resort rather than as a possible resource for problem solving. Thus, Bill isolated himself from potential allies and felt incapable of affecting any mutually satisfying solution.

Failure to Clarify His Own Goals and Priorities

Bill had a lot of trouble sorting out his goals and priorities. He wanted to get rid of Roland, but that was actually a means to a more important end: improving the project management process and reversing the division’s current slump. Bill wanted Ted to acknowledge his needs; but he focused on one particular response, not joint problem solving. He wanted revenge, but he didn’t want to harm the organization. He wanted the problem resolved, but he didn’t want to involve the general manager because that would look weak. No wonder Bill was unable to muster influence; he had not figured out exactly what mattered most to him. As a result, he was unable to develop a plan of action.

Failure to Diagnose Ally’s World and Resulting Currencies  (Commentary from Cohen and Bradford)

As a result of the very human tendency to focus on self-interests, Bill missed seeing the issue from his potential ally’s world and point of view. For example, Bill did not think about what costs Ted would incur if he were to remove Roland from the project.

Bill could easily have determined these interests of Ted:

  • Minimize project management costs.
  • Utilize existing talent.
  • Keep his department from feeling that he doesn’t protect them from outside attacks.

Had he been thinking about diagnosis, Bill could have f irst asked himself the following questions about the situation:

  • Does Ted have anyone better?
  • Does Ted believe that he can coach Roland into a better performance on this project?
  • Does Ted even agree that Roland did a poor job on the last project, or does he blame the project’s failure on other departments’ shortcomings?
  • Is Ted trying to save face with his other subordinates?
  • Does Ted fear he will set a precedent by allowing R&D to determine his staffing?

Bill was so intent on telling Ted that he should get rid of Roland that he never bothered to assess what Ted’s perceptions might be or to consider how it would affect Ted to go along.

Finally, Bill never even asked Ted why he had not responded. Perhaps Ted was being measured by different criteria or pressured by the general manager in some way that made it impossible to respond to Bill’s request. Instead of fuming and dreaming of revenge, Bill might have set out on a fact-finding mission to learn what he could do to fashion an exchange worthwhile from Ted’s point of view as well as from his own.

Bill might have approached Ted in a friendly, nonthreatening manner and said, “Ted, I’m really baffled. It seems to me that you are reluctant to address my concerns about Roland. Obviously, my view of him is different from yours, so help me understand where you are on this.” Such a first move might have at least broken the ice. Without knowledge of the potential ally’s world, it is difficult to pinpoint what would produce the desired response.

Failure to Determine Exchange Strategy

Bill is so frustrated that he misses many possibilities for exchange. Although he believed that he acted in good faith by juggling assignments in his own area, thereby creating an obligation in Ted, it isn’t clear that Ted realized that Bill was reacting to his requests, or that Ted got something he wanted. It isn’t even clear that Ted knew that Bill expected anything in return. Although Bill altered his own organization in anticipation of a comparable response from Ted, he did not make it clear to Ted how inconvenienced he was by this accommodation. As a result, Bill gave but he didn’t get. What is the sound of one side exchanging? Resentment.

While Bill’s values prevented him from striking out in a way that would hur t the organization, he seemed completely unaware of the resources he could muster for a positive exchange. His relationship to the general manager was a card he hated to play, but there might have been ways to do it without appearing weak and un-managerial. Could he have used the general manager as a sounding board on how to approach Ted? Could he have suggested that the general manager meet with him and Ted, not as the final arbiter but as a problem-solving consultant?

Furthermore, Bill appeared to have only two styles of interaction: nice or nasty. When nice did not work, he thought only of turning to nasty. More moderate styles—inquisitive, calmly insistent, or speculative—did not seem to occur to him. With a scientific background, Bill probably was capable of calling on such alter- native styles, but he did not look carefully enough at his behavioral options to get any use from them. Thus, he had far less impact than he could have had.

Because he had no model of how to influence, and therefore no useful way to organize a diagnosis, he could only stew in his own frustration. He didn’t know what to ask Ted or how to initiate a dialogue about Roland that could guide him to a workable strategy. This is an apt illustration of social psychologist Kur t Lewin’s maxim, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory”—or, we might add, so impractical as the lack of a good one.