You have more power than you think: Circles of Influence

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Circles of Influence is a tool created by Stephen Covey.

We use it to get people to look at all the things that concern them and help them realise they have more power than they think over things that feel out of their control.

The aim of Circles of Influence and the resulting conversations is to help people take responsibility for their work concerns, and thus be more proactive, productive and happier.

Here’s how to run the exercise – it can be done individually but it’s best with a group:

  1. On a large sheet of paper, draw a big circle, this is the Circle of Concern.
  2. Get your team members to write their areas of concern on sticky notes, and put them in the circle. There will be lots of things that are of concern to them or are factors that could be affecting how they feel.
  3. When they’re done, draw another smaller circle in the middle of the first circle, this is the Circle of Control. These are the things they can control.
  4. In conversation, move all the sticky notes in the big Circle of Concern that they can actively control, into the middle Circle of Control.
  5. People usually feel there aren’t many items that they can actively control. They may have a lot of stress and anxiety over the things they’ve written down and will feel they don’t have any control over them. Having no control is alarming.
  6. So, draw another circle in between the first two – between the circles of Concern and Control. This is the Circle of Influence.
    Circles of Influence
  7. Get team members to look at the ways they could influence some of the things that are out of their control.
  8. Maybe they can’t control them, but could they influence them? E.g. could they forge a better relationship with the person outside of the team who’s firing requests at them, and get to the root cause of that?
  9. Go through all the notes that are in the Circle of Concern and together try to move them into the Circle of Influence.
  10. When you explore these further, if you think about them differently, you’ll find that some of the concerns can go straight into the Circle of Control.
  11. You may also discover solutions and suggestions in the group.
Why it’s good

Circles of Influence is a great tool for resilience. If anyone feels out of control, you can question all of the things where they feel that, and see if they can have more agency about them.

For the things they simply can’t control, get them to stop worrying about them. You can’t affect government policy, or the weather… so just put those outside and park it.

At the very least, what is left is awareness of the factors that are outside their circle of influence.

Often it turns out, they realise they can influence more than they think, or they can change their attitude and their response to them. Even the act of acknowledging this creates some relief.

In a team, you’re trying to get to a point of safety where team members feel confident enough to be able to talk about the things they’re frightened of and neutralise those fears.

Doing that as a group means you really get to know each other, building empathy about what concerns you and where your stress comes from. Solving those problems together helps that too.

This is really good for building the rapport of a team: a little bit of vulnerability draws people in.

And it gets away from just focussing on conversations about the mechanics of the work, to acknowledging the emotional response, to the experience of doing the work, to the culture, and how we might be unconsciously creating problems for ourselves and our colleagues.

People are not naturally drawn to these conversations, so we have to find these tools like Circles of Influence to make it easier to talk about this stuff.

Here’s a story to illustrate this

What’s nice about using the Circles of Influence tool is the emotional arc that often accompanies it.

At the beginning, people are often reluctant to participate. So we usually start with people writing on their own.

An awkward bit follows where we try and fit things into the Circle, so we get people standing up around the chart, and have a sort of the cluster.

People often start venting, expressing their anger and their frustration – it can be quite upsetting.

When we get to the bit about the ways we can move things into the Circle of Control, even just having that conversation is empowering for some groups of people.

The emotional arc when someone realises they can influence something they were really worried about and felt they couldn’t control is really heartwarming.

There was a case of someone who was working with a senior exec, she found working with this person incredibly stressful: his personal manner was quite abrupt and accusatory, and he had no idea he was having this impact.

We had to try and make it safe for her to explain, and come up with some approaches for stopping conversations that were not helpful, usually end-of-the-day last minute requests that would need her to stay late.

She had felt completely out of control and unable to engage with the exec, and this thing that she couldn’t control.

In the end, she was able to speak to her manager, who had a side conversation with the exec, and she could begin to deal with some of it. Prior to that, there had been no mechanism for bringing it out.

She was able to move forward and be much happier at work.