The circle of influence is a concept popularized by Stephen Covey in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Although Covey takes no credit for the idea, he was a master at explaining it in a way that is so clear and actionable that it has become part of our business lexicon.
Today, I’m going to do my level best to explain it to you in a manner that will allow a light bulb to go on and for you to be able to walk away from this episode and put a new habit into practice. Even if you think you’ve got the concept down, I encourage you to listen to this episode. It is always good to have a refresher.
I fall into this category myself. If you were to ask me if I live or embody the concept of circle of influence I would have said yes. I think of and employ the concept frequently. I’ve talked about a lot of the ideas in one way or another on previous episodes. I would describe this concept as a core of my philosophy and personality. And yet – I just re-read the chapter in 7 Habits and found myself learning more. Being reminded of little nuances I’ve forgotten. Being shown a different way to approach it. So, there is always something more you can learn.
Let’s start by defining the circle of influence. Think about your world in 3 buckets:
This you can’t control
Most people are pretty good about how they deal with the things they can’t control. There is a recognition that you can’t do anything about it, so you adjust your behavior in whatever way is relevant and you move on with your life. The majority of people recognize this situation the majority of the time.
The weather is a classic example. You can’t control the weather. You know it and, although you may be disappointed when an even gets cancelled due to the weather, you don’t let it eat away at you.
Another example I like to use is a sports example. When a referee makes what you think is a bad call, there is literally nothing you can do about it. You can yell and scream and post as many bad tweets as you want, it isn’t going to change the outcome. The reason I use this example is because I think it is an example of where people who otherwise generally recognize situations where they don’t have control temporarily lose sight of that fact.
When it comes to the things you can’t control, your best option is to recognize as quickly as possible that you have no control, which takes away their ability to control you. If you feel like this is an area where you need to so some additional development work, I suggest you listen to Episode 20 about Productive and Unproductive Worry.
Things you can control indirectly through influence
Within the circle is the circle of influence. These are the things you can control indirectly through influence. These are things that other people are responsible for, but for which you can impact their actions. Your circle of influence with your children, if they are still young, is pretty large. And, although it decreases as they get older, it is still a very large part of your circle. Your circle of influence at work is likely smaller than your circle of influence at home, but you still have influence. Your objective should be to increase your circle of influence to be as large as it can be.
I believe influence is a mindset issue. You need to 1. Believe you can influence the situation and 2. Take responsibility for your actions or response. The way you know if you are doing this is by looking at the language you are using:
Is the issue someone else’s fault?
Do you feel like you are the victim?
Are you talking in terms of ‘onlys’? If only I had a better boss. If only I had this certification. If only management understood that our customers are impossible to deal with.
You have influence over each of these if only’s. And you can take action to influence them. When you give up your right to take action, you’ve made the choice to dis-empower yourself.
“If only I had a better boss.” What about your boss do you have a problem with? What can you do to build a relationship with your boss to gain influence that will change the impact? If they are a micro-manger, it means that they need a high level of detail to be comfortable. Increase the level of detail you provide when you communicate with them. By proactively doing this, they will become comfortable with you – they will trust in the work you are doing and will no longer feel the need to micro-mange.
“If only I had this certification.” If you think you aren’t getting considered for a role because you are lacking a skill, what are you doing to go get the skill?
“If only management understood that our customers are impossible to deal with.” How can you help them understand? Are you documenting the scenarios that come up? Have you investigated the steps necessary to address the scenarios? Have you asked management for what you need to address the scenarios?
And, taking responsibility for your actions means that if you feel you’ve tried to influence and the outcome is still not acceptable, then you take action to move on.
Things you can directly influence
Which takes us to the final part of the circle of influence – things you can directly control. These are your habits, your mindset. Taking responsibility for your actions proactively is one of the key things that sets highly productive, highly effective, people apart. Taking action on your own behalf is a fundamental skill. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that you believe that you are the architect of your career.
As human beings, one of the things that sets us apart from other animals is our ability to be self aware. Our freedom to choose how we respond to a situation. When there is some sort of situation thrust upon us, we are the architects of our response. I’m not trying to imply that by having a positive attitude, you can turn a bad situation into a positive situation. Bad things happen. Sucky things will always suck. But, you have 100% control over how you choose to respond. You can let bad things eat away at you, impacting the rest of your life, or you can let bad things be one part of your story rather than the whole story.
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We’ve all had a failure at work. It is inevitable, so the most productive thing you can do is to have a set of tools to draw from when you are faced with the fall-out, which we will outline here:
Look at the failure as a learning opportunity
Although it doesn’t take the failure away, if you can reframe it in your mind, you can more easily move past it.
What did you learn from this failure that you can benefit from in the future?
Look at what behaviors DID succeed
Identifying what behaviors worked within the failure can help point you to areas of strength.
Understanding the areas where you are strong will help reinforce those behaviors in the future.
Don’t feel like you have to be good at everything
Failure may be an indication that you need to move on to something else. Is this area something you really need to succeed at?
Put the failure into perspective
Think about failures from the past. With hindsight, are they as bad as you thought they were at the time?
Rank the failure from 0 to 100 where 100 is nuclear holocaust.
Remember that other people are caught up in their own lives
Worrying about what others think about your failure is usually a waste of time because other people probably don’t even notice what you’ve done.
Those that do are likely close to you. In that case, project the failure onto them. What you your reaction be if they had been the one who failed?
What can you do to create a positive outcome?
Recognizing the type of worrying you are doing can help you get out of the worry loop by understanding what steps you can take. In this episode, we cover some common types of worry and how you can tackle them:
When you find yourself worried about what someone else is thinking, you are mind reading. To fight this worry, you need to find the thing that you can control.
For example, you think Henry doesn’t like you. You don’t know this for sure because you can’t read Henry’s mind. So, what can you do? You can ask Henry if he doesn’t like you. If you aren’t willing to do that, you can decide that there is nothing you can do to change Henry’s mind and move on with your life.
Focus on what you can control.
When you are worried about what the future might bring, you are fortune telling. There is no way that you can know what the future might bring because you aren’t a fortune teller.
For example, you might worry that your company is going to have layoffs and you are going to lose your job and end up homeless.
Not only do we worry about the future, we usually expect the future to bring the worst possible outcome.
Cognitive Distortion— people have a tendency to worry about a future that is bleak.
Ask yourself how probable the outcome is. Think about the chain of events that would have to be true for the outcome to occur. In our example, first, your company would have to have layoffs. Next, you would have to be on the list of people who are being let go. That means that you have to either be a poor performer, or in a role that is no longer necessary. Then, you’d have to be unable to get another job. And you’d have to run out of money. And you’d have to have nobody else to go to. And, and, and.
Once you see that the probability is a tiny fraction, you can stop worrying about it.
Worry about all of the things that you should have done. This means that you aren’t accepting the present as it currently is.
For example, maybe you catch yourself worrying that you should have been promoted by now.
Recognize reality as the place you have to start from. Then, determine what changes you need to make to get where you want to be.
What action can you take to move yourself toward promotion?
Worrying about ‘What If’ scenarios that will never have a satisfactory answer.
What if I have cancer? You can get tested and still not trust the results.
Identify the best possible, most likely, and worst possible outcomes. Then answer each one. What would be the next steps for each?
For more types of worry, sign up for our newsletter.
Also, learn about productive worry in this episode of People Move Organizations.
Learning to recognize unproductive worry will help you eliminate stress that you are manufacturing for reasons you can’t control.
When you find yourself worried about something, ask yourself:
1. Are you worrying about something that doesn’t have an answer?
2. Are you making up a chain of events?
3. Are you looking for the perfect outcome?
4. Do you feel like you overlooked something?
5. Are you trying to control everything?
In this episode, we talk about how to identify unproductive worry and turn it into productive worry by taking a few simple steps.
I teach people how to thrive at work. Let's connect on LinkedIn
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