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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #12 - Your Circle of Influence – Seize the Power

By Mary Silva Doctor - September 2012

Your Circle of Influence–Seize the Power

When I first heard of Stephen Covey’s passing this summer, I immediately thought of, and expressed gratitude for, one of the concepts from his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, that we use regularly in our client work–the circle of influence-circle of concern.

When working with a team that isn’t the executive leadership, like IT or sales executives, inevitably there’s discussion very early in the session about being the victim of company forces outside of their control–”If only the company had an overall plan, then we would know what to work on” or “If only Joe from marketing wasn’t such a controlling bully, then we could move more quickly.” In fact, I first learned this model prior to my work as a consultant, when I was a member on an IT leadership team whining about this at a Table Group Off-site. In all of these situations, I have seen Covey’s model help redirect the focus of the team back to their own group, working on the issues they can actually influence.

The Model
Stephen Covey defined two kinds of people in the world: proactive and reactive. To help define these terms, he created the concepts of the circle of influence-circle of concern. The circle of concern encompasses all of one’s worries, at the individual level, societal, global, and universal levels. In other words, it contains one’s daily anxieties about family, health, work, but also extends to issues with the government and larger-scale worries about nuclear war and the ultimate fate of the universe.

The circle of influence is an area within the circle of concern, and it encompasses the worries that one can have some effect on or control over. Covey defines proactive people as actively focusing on their circle of influence; instead of dwelling on problems they cannot change, they shift all of their concentration and energy to areas in which they can make a difference. By focusing on issues within their circle of influence, proactive people are the positive go-getters that help improve the world–and by doing so they broaden their circle of influence.

On the other hand, reactive people overlook their circles of influence and dwell on hopeless worries with no solution. Their negative thought patterns work to restrict their spheres of influence, as they only perceive and process issues that they cannot change. Reactive people feel impotent against life’s forces and tend to blame external circumstances for their shortcomings.

Covey encouraged everyone to become aware of where they are expending their energy: are you wasting it by worrying about problems you can’t change or are you applying it to be proactive about your life?

Apply the Model
As it turns out, this concept works in an organizational context as well. Departments, divisions and even project teams can create a healthy environment for their areas (circle of influence) while operating within the larger organization (circle of concern). These units can realize all of the benefits of organizational health, such as higher productivity, faster issue identification and resolutions, improved employee engagement, while getting the added benefit of increasing their influence in the organization.

This transformation happened to my IT team. We went from a department struggling to establish credibility in the company to one of the most highly regarded IT employers in the country capable of achieving results that competitors cannot match. Now as a consultant, it is rewarding to help other teams make this connection.

Make it Stick
So, what should you do if you want to create a healthy organization for your department or team?

  • Maintain sharp focus on what you can control–Keep a visual and daily reminder to focus your energies and efforts within your circle of influence and avoid distractions with organizational politics and/or other dynamics outside of your control. Constantly revisiting your team’s thematic goal (a short-term collective goal) will keep the team grounded.
  • Let your results speak for themselves–Others in the organization will see the difference in your team and may even try to imitate them and that’s OK. One of my clients talked with pride (and amusement) when other areas began holding daily check-in meetings after witnessing his team’s improvements through meetings and other healthy organization practices. This is how leaders and teams can subtly increase their circle of influence.
  • Develop a specific, team-wide communication strategy–At the Table Group, we often emphasize cascading communication lower in your organization within your circle of influence, but it’s almost as important to develop specific communication strategies dealing with departments and teams outside your circle. It is essential that all communications between different areas of the organization are clear and consistent, thereby fortifying your position as a strong, united team.
  • Honor your responsibility as a leader in the larger organization–This means the leader must avoid creating a sense of separateness from the rest of the organization within your team. It can be tempting to do this, but your team’s work still needs to be focused on the purpose you serve within the larger organization.

Covey’s model shows leaders that you can indeed improve your organization’s health from where you sit. Whether you are leading a department, a team or a project, you don’t need to wait for senior leaders to see the advantages of organizational health. Being a healthy team or department will create a more satisfying and productive work environment for the employees in your area. According to Covey, if you are able to make the world a better place while acting within your circle of influence, your influence will only grow. If the team you lead is able to become healthier and more productive, you may very well be planting the seeds for organizational health to spread.