The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: The Peculiar Mathematics of Real Influence

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Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done. Copyright 2020 Bruce Tulgan. All rights reserved.

From the way her colleagues talk about her, you might think Lisa Wolf, PhD, wears a cape, has x-ray vision, and can fly. And the best answer to most questions that arise in the emergency room where she works is simply: “Because Lisa says so.” The best question: “What does Lisa think?”

Who is Lisa? Lisa is a very experienced emergency room nurse, leader, scholar, and professor of nursing, with an array of degrees including a doctorate in nursing. She’s most definitely a technical expert, but lots of nurse leaders are technical experts. She is mission-focused— her passion for patient care drives her work— but so are many other people in health care. She is very hardworking. Again, so are many others.

What’s so special about Lisa?

Lisa is the ultimate go-to person. She’s special because, for one thing, unlike many professionals in the perpetually understaffed, high-stakes, complex world of emergency medicine, Lisa never runs around trying to do everything for everybody. Instead, she’s deliberate and methodical about every interaction, every decision, and every action along the way.

Go-to people are those who are most trusted by their colleagues to help them get their needs met on time, on spec, and in ways that improve their working relationships.

Lisa has real influence, the holy grail of the true go-to person, as a direct function of the way her colleagues think and feel about her. They want to work with Lisa and do things for her because she is great at her job and working with her is a great experience. They want to help her gain even more power because Lisa’s power helps them get their needs met.

Real influence is not a zero-sum game. The math is peculiar; by relentlessly adding value in service of others, you systematically build value in the thoughts and feelings of others, thereby enriching yourself and everyone you deal with, which allows you to add even more value for others. And the upward spiral of benefit is without limit.

If you understand the mathematics of real influence— and believe in it— you can make yourself incredibly rich in a very potent source of power by dedicating yourself to serving others, moment by moment, in every interaction.

What does that look like in real life?

Be More like Lisa

Lisa knows the rules, often better than the bosses. She is relentless about ethics, procedures, and doing the right thing, but she also cuts through unnecessary bureaucracy. She is a workhorse who always has a very long to-do list and yet isn’t drowning in it because she executes on one concrete deliverable after another.

She is well regarded, but she does not seek to be “most liked” by her peers, subordinates, and bosses. Rather, she is focused on continuously improving the working relationships between and among the many people—up, down, sideways, and diagonal— who must work together on patients in emergency situations.

When “Lisa says so” that means she has vetted the available information and applied it consciously to the current situation. Lisa does not pull answers out of the air. She pulls them out of evidence-based rules, procedures, marching orders, good logic, and proven best practices.

Lisa is eager to please, but not more than she is committed to making the right decisions and taking the right actions— and helping others do the same. She focuses on what’s most important, in what order, and how to get it done.

People want Lisa to be more powerful because she uses the power she has, every step of the way, to help others avoid unnecessary problems, get more of the right things done, and build up their working relationships through more positive collaboration experiences.

That doesn’t mean that Lisa and the other go-to people I’ve studied are perfectly selfless saints. Rather, they have learned that true servant leadership— adding value to others in every interaction up, down, sideways, and diagonally— works. They know, to the core of their being, that their servant leadership makes things go better for everyone, including themselves.

That doesn’t always mean doing whatever their colleagues may need or want in the moment but, rather, being enough of a true servant leader to try to always do in the moment what they believe will ultimately make everything go better for everybody.

True go-to people, those who stand the test of time, truly believe in the peculiar mathematics of real influence: the best way to enrich themselves is by serving others.

Four Tactics of Real Influence

  1. Build and draw on interpersonal influence. Always conduct yourself in a businesslike professional manner. Be the person other people do not want to disappoint.
  2. Use the influence of specific commitments. Establish clear ownership and timelines for concrete deliverables with checkpoints along the way.
  3. Seek to influence through rational persuasion. Use good reasons and clear arguments, not assertions or emotions, to convince other people. That means relying on verifiable facts and solid logic.
  4. Influence by facilitating success. Do everything possible to support and assist other people in the fulfillment of their part. What are all the things you can do to make it easier for other people to deliver?

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