Jessie was excited to be appointed as chair of the professional practice council in her hospital. She envisioned being able to quickly engage staff in the work of the council. One of the council’s initial goals was to increase the number of staff who submitted professional portfolios to advance on the clinical ladder. Six months after assuming the role of chair, Jessie has become discouraged.
Staff engagement in initiatives proposed by the council has been low, with the percentage of nurses submitting professional portfolios increasing only slightly. Jessie recognizes that being chair of the council is an informal leadership role, so her professional influence with the staff is the key to changing behaviors. She wonders how she can become more influential.
Jessie has learned that simply being enthusiastic and designing important new initiatives is often not enough to engage other staff. Effective nursing leadership involves the ability to influence the behavior of others. John Maxwell, a leadership expert, observed, “The only thing a title can do is to buy you time—either to increase your level of influence with others or undermine it.” Influence, unlike position power, is about relationships, and relationships are about the investments made in people. Becoming truly influential takes time, dedication, and a strong sense of self. It’s about getting others to see exciting future possibilities and breathe life into initiatives. The good news for Jessie is that spheres of influence can be expanded over time.
Your sphere of influence
The late Dr. Stephen Covey was one of the first leadership authors to make the distinction between a sphere of influence and a sphere of control. A leader’s sphere of control encompasses things that he or she can control directly and personally. In contrast, a sphere of influence can be described as your ability to influence the behaviors and reactions of others in the organization by presenting a compelling vision and strategy that others want to follow.
Covey advised that we should only spend our energy on things we can affect or problems that are within our sphere of influence. Leaders must then first determine whether the goal at hand is even in their sphere of influence. There are times when you may decide that a problem lies beyond your sphere of influence to effect change. Your decision may be to completely withdraw from an initiative, but identifying what aspects of the project are not in your sphere of influence also can lead to the development of more effective strategies. Using Jessie as an example, she could decide to expand her sphere through connecting with others who can offer support and help advocate for her ideas.
To do this, there are two steps Jessie can take to expand her sphere of influence in this situation: clearly establish her voice and connect with key stakeholders.
Step 1. Establish your voice.
Being heard is definitively different than others simply listening to what you are proposing. Listening requires honest interaction between you and those you wish to influence. This may be a broad audience of nurses and require engagement from the bedside to the executive suite. Staff may have ideas about the value of professional portfolios that Jessie hadn’t considered when planning the initiative. Concerns need to be addressed. She will want to be perceived as someone who looks for common ground to create awareness and advocacy for a cause. A key part of establishing one’s voice is to be perceived as someone who can be trusted.
Step 2. Connect with key stakeholders.
Few initiatives in an organization can succeed without the support of leadership. When initiatives fail, it’s important to take a step back and connect with key stakeholders who are fundamental to the initiative’s success. Connecting with them allows you to understand their level of interest in what is proposed and their ideas about its feasibility. This is extremely important since having a great idea and making a great idea happen are two different things.
In Jessie’s situation, the chief nursing officer, directors, frontline nurse managers, clinical educators, and members of the unit-based practice council might all be important stakeholders to engage in discussion to get a clear sense of their interest. Jessie will want to determine whether they believe the initiative is important and feasible. There could be logistics or timing issues impeding adoption that were not considered in the planning process. Perhaps Jessie has not done a good job of including her key stakeholders in the communication loop, resulting in lukewarm support for the plans.
Connecting with leaders will help you to establish larger scale importance of the idea, particularly its value to the mission, vision, and strategic goals of the organization. In the end, having all the key stakeholders on board with your ideas will help to build the sphere of influence needed to ensure success.
Key influencing behaviors
Like Jessie, all of us periodically wish that we had more influence over the behavior of others. Many of our important challenges hinge on our effectiveness in influencing outcomes. That is why developing behaviors that help to build influence are so important. The following are three key influencing behaviors:
Increase your network.
Informal networks always have been important in the workplace to get things done. We all know people who are well connected and have used this to advance their careers or help achieve their goals. Building relationships and developing a broad network that you can count on to help you is a critical component of becoming an influential leader.
To be an effective networker, you must be seen as someone who stands for something. Visibility is important. For a leader like Jessie, this might involve actively engaging nurses in small groups, one-on-one, or via email, blogs, and a virtual journal club. This would allow her to better understand the needs and issues of advancing through the clinical ladder. She will have a much better chance of emotionally influencing others if there is a personal connection. Developing close personal relationships with those you are trying to inspire or motivate provides insight into the best means to succeed in your efforts.
Create shared accountability.
Influential leaders understand that it takes more than one person to be successful in advancing an idea to fruition. Building a culture of shared professional accountability is essential. The success or failure of an initiative cannot be the sole responsibility of one person.
By being inclusive in planning the next steps with a core team of key stakeholders, Jessie will not only develop a better perspective on how to reboot the project but will share accountability for the outcomes with the group. It could be that staff nurses need mentorship to help them develop their professional portfolios. Jessie can serve as a role model of a successful clinical ladder advancement by sharing her own experiences with professional portfolio development. She also can inspire her fellow council members and key stakeholders to mentor nurses in how to prepare their own professional portfolios.
In essence, shared accountability breeds a sense of community that is foundational to being influential. It moves from being Jessie’s goal to the community’s.
Success in healthcare requires a team effort. In their book The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner observed that leaders who enable others to act are better able to foster collaboration and build trust. They know that these relationships are the keys to unlocking support.
Part of being engaged is feeling ownership in the process. There is little point in establishing professional practice councils or implementing shared governance if input from staff is not encouraged. Mutual respect is what will propel group effort. True shared governance will only come if we are willing as leaders to share our power and enable others to act. The old tale that if you give a man a fish he can eat for a day but if you teach him to fish he can eat for a lifetime is empowerment at work. Empowering others, especially through mentorship, provides a nonthreatening means to increase the self-efficacy of others.
When Jessie focuses on empowering direct patient care nurses through her advocacy, they become owners in their own professional development process and will be more engaged.
Building your sphere
A sphere of influence is built over time. It’s not having 500+ contacts on your LinkedIn profile; rather, it’s about establishing high-quality relationships built on trust that will allow you to call the right person in a situation to influence a decision needed to achieve an outcome.
True influence is developed by making others successful. It involves a willingness to take risks, with the understanding that you will not always be successful, nor is every situation within your true sphere of influence. Being an influential leader hinges on strong mutually beneficial relationships rooted in clear communication, mentorship, empowerment, and shared accountability.
Covey S. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Fireside; 1989.
Kouzes J, Posner B. The Leadership Challenge. 5th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 2012.
Maxwell JC. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson; 2007.
Patterson K, Grenny J, Maxfield D, et al. Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2008.
Rose O. Sherman is a professor of nursing and director of the Nursing Leadership Institute at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. You can read her blog at www.emergingrnleader.com. Tanya M. Cohn is a nurse scientist in nursing and health sciences research at West Kendall Baptist Hospital in Miami, Florida. Note: Name in scenario is fictitious.