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Influence and Flexibility – How do I maintain a relationship?

Imagine a line that represents the amount of influence we have over things in our life. The far-left end of the line is “no influence and the far right is total influence.” 




Relationships violate a simple rule when one or another party to that relationship assumes they can control the other party. They can, and very often, ought to influence them but “control” of others has never turned out well.  

Relationships are fundamental to living in a WITH world. If I am going to “talk WITH” you, “work WITH” you, “walk WITH” you and “build WITH” you, we are going to need a healthy, resilient, flexible and forgiving relationship because I’m sure to screw up even when I’m trying to be the best friend you’ve ever had. 

One of the simplest ways to keep “with” based relationships healthy is to incorporate the continuum I described earlier. Add to that simple horizontal line two labels – above the line write the phrase “high flexibility” and below the line the phrase “lower flexibility”.  

If you find yourself in a situation represented by the far-left side of the line which represents little or no influence, you are likely dealing with situations or events where you’re going to need to be very flexible. When you meet someone for the first time, virtually or personally, you’re new to them and they’re new to you so your influence will be low. Flexibility at the outset means you’ll be less likely to cause offense or cross an invisible line and appear to be exercising more influence than you should. A simple example is the generational and cultural difference in calling people by their first names upon meeting. For some generations and cultures this is a level of intimacy and assumed influence that is a bridge too far. As a general rule, even though I prefer to be called by my first name and prefer to call others by their first name as well, I would “flex” my typical habit and refer to them more formally. If they then say, “Please call me Rebeccah” I would take that as permission to move closer to the middle of my model where my level of influence is increasing so my level of flexibility in how I refer to someone requires me to be less adaptable. 

There is a lot of consternation and concern around the use of pronouns in dealing with others, especially others we have met for the first time. I remember a similar, though not exact experience, decades ago when some people asked us to refer to them as Ms. rather than Miss or Mrs.  This level of flexibility seemed like a “bridge too far for a lot of people” But, over time it is interesting how normalized it has become in most business and personal interaction.  

Where your level of influence is high the model suggests that your level of flexibility can be much lower. As a parent, especially of young children, I am responsible for at least two fundamental things: To keep them safe from all types of harm – mental, emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical at least until they can keep themselves safe from harm. That is why we have so many rules on curfews, social media, friends, sleepovers, etc. – safety is a primary responsibility of parents. My second responsibility is to help prepare them to be mature, kind and contributing members of society. That is why we exercise so much influence over bedtimes, homework, piano practice, soccer drills, etc. – we are trying to influence them in directions we know will make their participation in society easier and more functional for them. 

In these areas we exercise a lot of influence – we set boundaries and rules, we expect performance to certain standards. We are kind and sensitive, but we are also ready to push for improvement. We care deeply about their own individual needs, aspirations and sensitivities and we work with those things, but we also love our children enough to want to influence them to be and do their best, whatever that is. 

Parents who become consumed with performance and public preparation too much, move beyond influence, to control and damage or disrupt their relationship WITH their children. Parents who take little or no concern for their children’s safety can experience far worse outcomes where the application of some influence could have prevented a tragedy.  

Generally, the balancing of influence and flexibility is about two things – preserving and supporting the dignity of others and their right to control their own lives and destinies but within boundaries that are respectful of others as well. A manager in the workplace must influence individual productivity with a sensitivity to the flexibility of an individual employee. But that flexibility cannot be infinite – there are other employees and other commitments that must be met and managed as well. 

The challenge of hybrid work environments illustrates how this construct of flexibility and influence must be managed. How much flexibility can an organization offer while holding to its commitments to its customers, investors and markets? Will that organization need to exert influence to balance the flexibility of 100% work from home with the need to get people into the office for face time interaction, problem solving and brainstorming (that doesn’t seem to work very well virtually). The balance is still in flux, but the model holds true as a guide to building a WITH culture in a 21st century, post Covid world – where is the right balance between influence and flexibility? 

Next time you find yourself in a situation that is frustrating consider this approach – ask yourself, “How much influence do I have over this thing I’m dealing with? If its little to none you’re going to benefit from being as flexible as possible, within limits. If you’re confronting something that is well within your influence, then a more fixed approach might be best. Keep in mind, whether you’re choosing flexible or fixed, that our choices have consequences so choose well, not just for the moment but for the longer term where consequences of that choice persist.