Influencer, Know Thyself- April 2022

When I was a young man, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan. My martial arts teacher arranged for me to stay with the family of Mr. Maruyama, a respected member of the Japanese martial arts community. It was summer, and the Olympic games were approaching. This being the early ‘80s, the only Asian martial art in the Olympics at the time was Judo. There was talk of allowing the Korean martial art, Tae Kwon Do, as a demonstration event at the 1988 games in Seoul. Many Japanese citizens were upset that karate was not also considered. This became the subject of conversation one night with my host family. It also became a lesson in influence.

Maruyama being loyal to Japan, he felt that his native martial art of karate should be recognized worldwide. He felt that allowing only Tae Kwon Do in the games would give it higher standing, instead of equal footing (no pun intended). I approached the martial arts from my own, singular perspective, so I had a different take on the issue. I said that, for me, the martial arts were not a sport, and should not be treated as such. In my opinion, joining the Olympics would reduce the true nature of martial arts to a simple sport. It was during the debate that my lack of understanding of influence shone through.

Even though Mr. Maruyama and I stood on different sides of the issue, we remained respectful. But we still desperately wanted the other to accept our position. And, as with any issue, the more deeply held the belief, the less likely we are to change our minds. The style of influence I used most closely related to Inspirational Influence, where we connect to shared beliefs and missions. Inspirational influence seeks to connect people through a common purpose. The problem with my approach was, I tried to get Maruyama to accept my purpose as his own.

Maruyama, on the other hand, used Positional Influence. In Japan at the time, status meant everything. When an authority figure spoke, you listened. Maruyama was not only a high-raking figure in the Japanese martial arts community, he was also the head of the household; and this conversation with taking place in front of his wife, son, and daughter. I was not successful in influencing Maruyama to see things my way, but it was not because he was stubborn or unreasonable. It was because I made one of the most common mistakes people make when trying to influence others; projection.

Sigmund Freud first wrote about projection in 1895 (the year my teen-aged stepdaughter thinks I was born). Projection occurs when we take our own feelings—fears, anxieties, motivations, and desires—and place them on someone else. The human brain is kind of self-centered (okay, more than kind of). It thinks that if something is important to its host, it should apply to everyone else. Projection affects influence in that people use whatever methods of influence work on themselves to persuade others. It is easy to see how this mistake can affect leadership, sales, customer service, and team management.

When I used inspirational influence with Maruyama, I thought I was connecting to our shared respect for the martial arts. The more he resisted, the more I couldn’t understand why he didn’t get it. But my constantly referring to mission and purpose ignored the fact that he was relying on his position, his authority. So, the more I spoke of mission and purpose, the more I threatened his authority. Rather than persuading him, I was challenging his commitment. By projecting my point of view onto Maruyama, I doomed the conversation from the start, and probably insulted him in front of his family (lucky I am not a foreign ambassador).

How do you avoid this trap? Whenever you are in a conversation involving influence (which is most of the time), pay attention to the style of influence you use. Is it authority, passion, reason, pressure, pleading? Your style is likely to be consistent over time. Also pay attention to the styles other people use. If you can adjust your style to meet the needs of others, instead of projecting your way of thinking onto them, you will have more success. And, lucky for my relationship with Maruyama, karate was finally accepted into the Olympics.

An expert on influence and a keynote speaker and trainer internationally since 1989, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

. It is certainly one that all leaders must know how to manage—conformity.

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