My colleagues and I have spent 25 years studying what makes leaders influential. We defined “influence” as leaders’ ability to change hearts and minds independent of their formal authority to demand compliance. We found that you can quickly measure leaders’ influence by asking them to describe how they’re currently handling three crucial conversations.

First, ask the leader to identify a direct report who is chronically underperforming. Then watch how they behave toward this individual. In the vast majority of cases, if you were to ask the direct report about their leader’s view of them, the story you’d get would be profoundly different from the one the leader would tell you in confidence.

Leaders tend to make two mistakes in dealing with disappointing subordinates. First, they sugarcoat. One CEO we worked with had concluded one member of his executive team was a complete washout—untrustworthy and incompetent. How did he deal with this subordinate? He avoided him. The second error leaders often make is to mistake abuse for conversation. Instead of pointing out where the person is coming up short, they make harsh attacks on individual actions or decisions.

Second, ask them to describe a concern with their boss or board. Time and again we watch leaders “act out” rather than “talk out” their concerns with people to whom they report. One executive, for example, had concluded that three members of his board didn’t support him—an allegation which appeared true. What undermined this leader’s influence was not the lack of board support, but how he handled the lack of support. Rather than finding a way to engage in a candid discussion of concerns, he politicked around it. He swore his executive team to loyalty and demanded that they immediately report any incursions of these board members into the organization. The board members noticed the new wall of silence and concluded that the leader must have something to hide. They became more aggressive in expressing their concerns and within months drove a no-confidence vote in the leader.

Third, ask them to point out a peer who is tough to work with. Ask the leader to candidly express the concerns they have and if they have fully discussed these concerns with their peer in a way that led to thorough solutions. If they have, you’ve probably got one of the influential leaders we’ve studied over the years. If they haven’t, then you’ve probably got one of the garden variety leaders who manage around problems rather than talk through them.

Leaders who are substantially more influential than their peers tend to deal with these volatile issues in a significantly different way. These people have spent their careers honing skills for addressing crucial conversations in a way that leads to breakthrough solutions and stronger relationships. As a result their influence soars.

In Search of Genius

Having seen how central crucial conversations are to bolstering the influence of leaders, we set out to learn how the 3–5 in 100 who we’ve found master these moments do it so well. In total, we’ve spent over 10,000 hours observing leaders in some of the most crucial moments. We’ve watched them raise issues as risky as mistrust, incompetence, dismissal and even embezzlement.

In our bestselling book and training program Crucial Conversations, we describe a set of key principles that result in this kind of quality dialogue and increased influence. Here are some that make the biggest difference:


  1. Learn to Look. Those who are most effective at crucial conversations are most conscious of their own behavior. When they notice their own behavior degenerating, they stop and consider what results they really care about. When the other person is reacting badly, they do something profoundly different from others. They make it safe.
  2. Make It Safe. We’ve found that the antidote to defensiveness in crucial conversations is to make it safe. People can listen to tough feedback as long as they feel safe with the person giving it. First, you can create safety by helping others understand that you care about their interests as much as you care about your own. When they believe this is true, they open up to your views. Secondly, you must help the other person know you respect them. 
  3. Make It Motivating. One of the most common questions we’re asked about crucial conversations is, “How do you talk to someone who doesn’t care about your concerns?” Influential leaders rarely face instances where they can’t engage someone in a crucial conversation because they know that the key to influence is empathy. Before they start a crucial conversation they give careful thought to how the problems they want to raise either are affecting, or will affect the other person. If you respectfully help the other person see how their own interests are served by addressing the problem, they will be naturally motivated to engage in solutions.

These skills are central to increased influence in leadership. They provide the potential for solutions, whereas the more common and less effective approach most leaders take often embeds problems and perfects the politics that keep them alive.

Can these skills be learned? Absolutely. We have spent years developing methods for teaching and training executives to increase their influence by improving how they deal with these three crucial conversations. And when they do, relationships and results improve rapidly and remarkably.

About Joseph Grenny
Joseph Grenny is the four-time New York Times best-selling co-author of Crucial Conversations, Change Anything, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer. He is also the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance.  The Company has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained 800,000 people worldwide. VitalSmarts recently released the fourth edition of their flagship training course, Crucial Conversations.