The Cassandra Conundrum

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Nicole Lipkin

Most of us cringe when we watch someone fail to influence and persuade other people. The speaker struggles earnestly to capture and hold the audience’s attention, only to be met with blank looks, tilted heads, yawns, and confused stares. In Greek mythology, the god Apollo granted the gift of prophecy to Cassandra. In granting this gift, Apollo believes he would win her love. When she turned a cold shoulder to his affection, he let her keep her predictive powers but with a curse attached. Those who heard her predictions would never heed her words, a terrible conundrum.

Bob suffered from the Cassandra conundum, an ailment that can afflict even the most talented leader. Nothing devastates a boss more than losing the ability to persuade, influence, and motivate others to get results. Imagine yourself cursed with the inability to:

·         Resolve conflict or personality clashes

·         Ensure workplace harmony

·         Stimulate high performance and productivity.

·         Win approval of a major shift in strategy.

·         Create effective teams.

When it comes to fulfilling these leadership responsibilities, what makes one so effective? Why is another such a dud? When you drill down through all the research to the basic bedrock issues, you hit two simple but hard facts. You lose your influential powers when:

·         People do not buy into you.

·         People do not buy into your message.

Why does this happen?

The Power of Referent Power

Analyzing influence includes looking at both the influencer and the receiver. Think about your worst boss. What was it that made that person so insufferable? How well did you perform under that person’s leadership? Now think about your best boss. How did that boss behave? How well did you perform under that person’s leadership? I’ll bet my doctorate that the best boss made you feel respected and valued. The worst one made you feel unimportant, like a replaceable cog in a wheel. I wager you performed better under the best boss. What separates the two experiences? Referent power.

When it comes to the quality of influence between two people, it all rests on one of the basic tenants of human nature. We like listening to and are willing to follow those people who sincerely respect and value us and whom we also respect and value. Imagine yourself listening to Albert, the brilliant, highly experienced head of Product Development who boasts about his advanced degrees from Stanford and Yale. Albert is telling you all about the new widget your company will soon bring to market, but he’s talking to us as though you were a dim-witted six-year-old child. Your deep dislike for Albert now acts as a block, preventing you from hearing what he’s saying. In fact, you pay so little attention to his presentation that when it comes time to explain the new product to clients, you stammer and stutter through your dreadful performance. Give the relationship a zero on the influence meter.

Now imagine the opposite. Albert treats you as a trusted peer, taking care to explain the more complex features of the new product, invites questions because he truly finds no question too dumb to ask, and establishes a comfortable rapport. You soak up information like a sponge and sell a gazillion widgets. Score 100 on the influence meter.

It’s Not the PhD, It’s the Emotion

Referential power, in its most basic form, aims at establishing rapport, a relationship of mutual trust and emotional connection. If you type “How to develop rapport” into your search engine, you’ll find over 700,000 sites promising you the secrets to building such a relationship. These include:

·         Engage in mirroring behavior

·         Make eye contact

·         Match tonality and rate of speech

·         Listen carefully to sum up what the other person has said

·         Breathe at the same rate

·         Learn the other person’s name and use it throughout the converstion

·         Find common ground and engage in small talk

These are “tricks,” but don’t dismiss their effectiveness. This works well when practiced with sincerity. Make sure you are never just “going through the motions” as that undermines credibility, power, and influence.

Jason, who ran an executive search firm, believed he was as sincere as the day is long. He sincerely wanted to impress others. He sincerely believed he was a skillful leader. He sincerely believed he was down to earth. He sincerely believed he was a caring boss. But when his employees watched Jason in action, they cringed. “He had a list in his head telling him exactly what to say and do at all times—like a robot. “You could almost hear the gears whirring,” said one employee to me, barely able to stifle a laugh.

You do not build real rapport by applying some simple technique when you need something. It comes from a heart-felt choice to treat people well, from a deep-seated philosophy that governs your approach to relationships. Some people choose to apply rapport as a means to accomplish their own ends, whereas others naturally build rapport because they truly respect and value the needs of others. Expecting a reward or fearing punishment, people may comply with an order, but they do not commit to it 100% unless they have bought into the order and really want to do it. When people feel fully committed to doing something, they will always get better results than if they simply go through the motions.

This does not mean you must become some sort of soft-hearted, touchy-feely New Age Pollyanna to influence people. A good boss cannot act like everybody’s BFF (Best Friend Forever), because all bosses must make a lot of tough calls, talk candidly with underperforming people, and make a fair share of difficult and unpopular decisions. However, the good boss who maintains genuine rapport with people always empathizes with them when making a tough call. As mentioned, with great rapport comes responsibility.

“But,” you might argue, “I’m not here to make friends. Leadership is not a popularity contest.” Okay, fair enough. You do, however, owe it to yourself and your people to relate to them in a way that engages them to do their best work. When you just tell people what to do, without engaging their hearts and minds (i.e., by influencing them), you lose them. You certainly lose their commitment to do their best; they may comply in the short term, but you may very well lose them as they walk out the door to join a competitor. Even in the military, where every recruit must follow orders, the best leaders build rapport and exercise tremendous influence. As the old adage goes, “Attitude reflects leadership.”

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from What Keeps Leaders Up at Night: Recognizing and Resolving Your Most Troubling Management Issues by Nicole Lipkin. Copyright 2013, Nicole Lipkin. Published by AMACOM.

About the Author(s)

Nicole Lipkin is a sought-after speaker, consultant, and executive coach, and holds a doctorate in clinical psychology as well as an MBA.  The author of Y in the Workplace: Managing the “Me First” Generation, she has shared her expertise on NPR, NBC, CBS, Fox Business News, and other high-profile media outlets.