When I was a teenager, we had a dog -- a beautiful, big golden-retriever-Labrador cross. My father insisted that we feed the dog only raw food, including raw meat, which he would purchase in giant frozen blocks. At grocery shopping time, we’d come home with industrial-sized bags of frozen vegetables and then begin the process of defrosting and mixing up (what to us kids looked disgusting) the dog’s dinner. Like all big dogs, he took eating seriously and went at it with gusto. But every day, when he was done, we’d find cauliflower at the bottom of the bowl, licked clean but rejected. No matter how we cajoled and how small we cut it up, he managed to isolate it and ignore it.
As we speak, I have a client who feels like that cauliflower: No matter what he does or how much help he gets to be recognized and promoted, the big dogs just don’t care. We’ve talked about how influence and persuasion are the long game and not a quick fix, but he’s been playing the long game so long that he’s about to quit. With him goes all his organizational knowledge, which hasn’t been transferred because there’s no one to transfer it to in his ultra-lean organization. Seemingly, he has it all: support and sponsorship from his colleagues, a stellar track record, visible commitment and work ethic, but to no avail.
Part of the problem is structural: There is upheaval in the executive ranks. Just as he was beginning to be truly seen for the value he brings to the work, several senior leaders themselves left. It begs the question: Is it worth tying yourself up in knots to impress an organization that seems itself to be in turmoil? While he is more than willing to do whatever it takes, he can’t be sure that it isn’t already a lost cause.
Knowing when to fold your hand is one of the biggest challenges in the exercise of influence. Sometimes we talk about it as if it were inevitably successful, if you play your cards right, do the homework and analyze the odds. But there are times when the circumstances around you are simply too much of a moving target.
So, here are some things to consider when you are tempted to cut and run:
• Clearly assess the pros and cons of running. Where are you running to and how much do you know about it? It’s tempting to simply jump out of frustration. Don’t.
• Are there any indications that you are seriously being considered for promotion internally or is the silence deafening? Or, is there talk but no action?
• Are your senior leaders willing to fight for you when the going gets tough?
• How long are you prepared to play the influencing game? What is your deadline?
• Can you keep pushing this rock uphill or do you pick a different hill?
As busy humans, we all seek the silver bullet. But influencing is hard; it’s a long game with a lot of heavy lifting and going back again and again. Often, it can feel as if you are going around in circles with no progress to show for it. It’s most disheartening when you’ve adjusted your behavior and tried multiple options, but the prevailing climate refuses to budge or budges at a glacial pace.
As for the dog, he wasn’t ever going to learn to like cauliflower, so we decided to compromise: We pulled out the cauliflower for the humans who did like it and left him the peas, carrots and broccoli. Sometimes you have to re-imagine the paradigm to find a solution you can all live with.