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Influence: Essential for Success as a Statistician

1 September 2013 One Comment

Paul BergPaul H. Berg has worked at Eli Lilly and Company for 15 years as a clinical statistician in the neuroscience and internal medicine therapeutic areas. He also works with the leadership development and quality culture initiatives in the statistics organization at Lilly. Berg earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and his master’s degree from the Medical University of South Carolina.

Although the acquisition and application of statistical skills is a necessary step in achieving success as a professional statistician, it is not sufficient. One also must develop the ability to influence customers, colleagues, managers, and subordinates. This can be especially problematic when those you are trying to influence are not statistically savvy and you must convince them of the merits of a particular statistical approach.

Consider the targets of your influence. First, there are your customers—those people who need your statistical know-how to achieve their goals. It is by influencing them that they will adopt your methods and results; if your customer rejects either of these, then your success (on that project, at least) will be in jeopardy. Your boss is also a key target of your influence; by influencing her, you are more likely to receive choice assignments and career-advancing opportunities. If you supervise others, influencing them is key. You get much better performance if your subordinates are personally invested, rather than just following orders. And finally, consider your peers—those targets of influence who may be reviewing your work or leveraging your contributions and telling the stories at your retirement party.

The better way to make the other person believe you are an expert is to provide evidence that supports your position.

Establishing rapport is important in any relationship and key to paving the way for influence. To start establishing rapport, you can use names and repeat and approve. Most of us like hearing our names spoken, and we react with pleasant feelings toward the speaker. So learn the other person’s name and use it in conversation. This can be difficult when first meeting people, but the effort you put forth to learn and remember names will be appreciated and pay off down the road. Repeat and approve is applicable whether you are asking questions or giving answers. You might say, “I understand you would like to know why we recommend covariate adjustment [repeat]; that is a great question [approve].” Alternatively, “You’re telling me you would like to do a CART analysis [repeat]; that is a very appealing option [approve].”

Other techniques for establishing rapport require more practice. Mirroring is copying certain behaviors from another person while interacting with him or her, such as gestures, body language, tone of voice, or choice of metaphors. Reciprocity is offering something up front, hoping the other person will give you what you want in the end. (Think about those “free” cookies at a car dealership.) Commonality is highlighting similarities between you and the other person. All these can help make others more positively disposed toward you, thus increasing your ability to influence them.

Often, when attempting to exert influence, you will find yourself in a negotiation—where you and the other person, each starting with different ideas, are trying to reach an agreement. Two key concepts in negotiations are (1) the difference between positions and interests and (2) BATNA. Your interest is what you’re really concerned about, while your position is a way you think you can achieve that interest. For example, your interest might be “I want more responsibility in my job” while you might take the position of “You should give me a promotion.” Keeping in mind your interest(s), and not clinging inflexibly to positions, is often helpful in negotiations.

BATNA stands for Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement; it is what you will do if your negotiation does not work out. You should know your BATNA before going into a negotiation, so you can judge the relative merits of options given by the other person. Also, think about what the other person’s BATNA might be, so you can judge the relative merits of the options you are providing.

When it comes to motivating others, two general categories of motivating forces are extrinsic motivators and intrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators are often called “carrots and sticks,” because they can either be rewards (carrots) to encourage certain behavior or punishments (sticks) to discourage certain behaviors. Examples include wages (do this work and you get this money) and speeding tickets (break this law and you pay this fine). These tend to appeal to our more basic desires and are useful in motivating specific, objective behavior. Intrinsic motivators, however, are necessary to unleash the full potential of creative and knowledge-based workers. These are the good feelings you get when you do a job well, when you solve a difficult problem, or when you create something new. Dan Pink, in his book Drive, advocated for the emphasis of three intrinsic motivators in the modern workplace: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Finally, I want to address tips for communicating that can help you get your point across and, therefore, increase your influence. First, avoid technical jargon that the other person is not likely to understand. The better way to make the other person believe you are an expert is to provide evidence that supports your position. So, speak their language and use imagery that will appeal to them. This may require some preparation on your part to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary and terminology used in the other person’s field of study or culture. Last, admit your limitations. Not only will this help the other person evaluate your methods, results, positions, etc., but it also signals to the other person that you have thought about the issues from different angles and understand the big picture.

The ability to influence is key to a successful career; the topics presented here are considerations I have found useful in my career. The last thought I will leave you with is that, in many cases, influence wins out over authority.

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