Why Influence Is Gen Z’s Secret Workplace Weapon (and How to Start Building It Now)

Being a young person in your first job is never easy. But Robert L. Dilenschneider says we can navigate any workplace environment if we’re good at influencing others.  

It’s true for every generation of young people: Going from college campus to corporate America is a culture shock. But with the massive upheaval reshaping the workplace—think pandemic-related disruptions, dramatic social change, the rapid acceleration of AI—Gen Z may find adjusting to that new job to be especially rough. (Some recent less-than-positive publicity on how they’re perceived isn’t helping matters.)

Robert L. Dilenschneider has a word of advice for any young person who has just entered (or is about to enter) today’s tumultuous workforce: Focus on building influence.

“In unpredictable times and unfamiliar settings, the ability to influence others is the one thing you can count on,” observes Dilenschneider, author of The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know (Matt Holt Books, July 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377429-3-8, $28.00). “It’s more important than technical skill, knowledge, raw talent, and even work ethic.

“When we truly understand what causes others to listen and respond favorably to us, we can thrive in virtually any field and any job,” he adds.

There are lots of misconceptions about influence. It’s not about being pushy or manipulative or convincing resisters to change their mind. And the rise of social media “influencers” (with their short-term focus on getting “likes” and orchestrating superficial trends) has only confused the issue.

“Influence is really about deciding how to direct your power,” says Dilenschneider. “As a young person, time is on your side. Instead of confusing activity with progress, or getting caught up in things that might make you highly visible, you can approach your new job in a way that builds real influence from the beginning.”

A few tips for workforce newbies:

Start with a complete self-inventory. What are your values? You must start here, because this is what drives everything else. Influence is about who you are, not just what you do. When you’re young, you may still be learning about yourself, and that’s fine. But be sure to ask yourself why you want the power to influence others.

“Will you use your power for personal gain or for the greater good?” he asks. “Do you want to have the power to lord it over others or the power to make things happen that will benefit many? The way you use your power says a lot about your character and will determine your legacy.”

Ask yourself: How can I help others? Counterintuitive as it may sound, real influence comes from the ability to help the people around you and shape the world into a better place. This is what makes others want to follow you and what will ultimately drive your success.

“The more helpful you can be to coworkers, clients, and your employer, the more they will like you and the more they will come to count on you,” advises Dilenschneider. “When you use your skills and talents to help others succeed, not only will you draw others to you, you’ll become a better person and experience a real sense of fulfillment.” 

When networking, focus on what you can do for others, not vice versa… It’s not just shaking hands and smiling at networking events. It’s about really connecting with people based on shared values and being prepared to add value. And it’s not a one-way street.

“Focus on what you have to offer,” advises Dilenschneider. “Research industries and leaders you are likely to meet. Have something to talk about with them that will convey your knowledge and interest. And most of all—listen. The people you connect with need to come away thinking about what you could do for them, rather than the other way around.”

…and know that it’s an ongoing process, not a “one-and-done” activity. You may think the purpose of your network is to grow your business, make sales, recruit, or be recruited. But the truth is that it’s about building relationships. You are not there, hat in hand, seeking a job. That may come eventually, but don’t be so desperate to make it happen. Life unfolds in its own time.

Keep your name in front of people you want to connect with. Make a list of people you would like to know in your field, the media, politics, or other realms. Then narrow that list to a manageable number. Research their backgrounds, such as where they went to school, what boards they serve on, their charitable causes. Then, find ways to regularly connect with them.

“I know a fellow who wanted to reach three key people,” says Dilenschneider. “He put their names in his electronic Rolodex, and when something would come up in the news related to their interests, he would contact them with the information. It was an enormous help in making connections. Don’t overdo it, of course. You want to be helpful, not pesky.”

When making personal connections, know that the little details matter. Much depends on how you interact with others. Always be nice. Know birthdays and send cards with a short personal note. Use correct grammar and spelling. Give credit to others. And be respectful of people’s time: Return phone calls and emails promptly (within 24 hours is best).

Don’t underestimate the power of gratitude. In our nonstop, sometimes frantic lives, we may easily forget the importance of gratitude, the value of that often brief but vital connection we make when we take a moment to smile and say “thank you.” People benefit from saying it as much as the one listening appreciates hearing it. Vast emotional distances may be overcome in a moment by a “thank you” that conveys “I value you and what you do.”

Protect your reputation, starting now. The more power and influence you end up accumulating, the greater the efforts of others to take them away—or at least take them down a few notches. Assume your life is an open book. Social media has forever blurred the lines between “personal” and “professional,” so think before you post anything inflammatory, controversial, or politically sensitive. It could come back to bite you, many years from now.

Before you say it or write it, get clear on what you want to communicate. The more focused your communication is, the deeper the impression it will make. Focus begins with clear thinking. Ask yourself what result or action you want before you send the email, pick up the phone, speak up at the meeting, or write the speech.

“Make sure your tone and word choice match your goal,” says Dilenschneider. “Be succinct. Always. No one wants or has the time to wade through verbiage.”

Use the strong language of success. For example, avoid clichés. Not only do they make your message unclear—after all, what does “Get the ball rolling” or “Think outside the box” really mean?—they make you seem lazy. Be original. Always use the active voice, never the passive. Make your sentences energetic, not flabby.

“When speaking, as in writing, use active, muscular verbs,” advises Dilenschneider. “And please, avoid the temptation to ‘-ize’ a word. Don’t promise to ‘prioritize’; say that you will ‘set priorities.’ Use the strong language of success.”

Seek to be a problem solver and conflict neutralizer. Dilenschneider quotes Dr. Zoe Chance, an author, researcher, and professor at the Yale School of Management, on the question that she claims can “transform conversational dynamics”: What would it take for us to resolve this?1

“The key to having influence is to get people to focus on a problem that is clearly and succinctly stated (and usually, you’ll have to be the one to do the clarifying and the stating),” says Dilenschneider. “Then, you find out why the issue is so emotionally important to the people involved; finally, you offer a solution that satisfies all the parties needed to make the solution work.”

Own your mistakes. Mistakes are bound to happen, particularly if you are doing new and innovative things. Never try to hide from them or shift blame to others. Instead, own the mistake. Take responsibility, learn from it, and find a constructive way to move forward. Don’t wallow in failure. Do continue to take risks.

Even if your efforts don’t seem to make a difference at first, stick to them, advises Dilenschneider.

“Being new to the workforce is not easy,” he says. “There is always a learning curve, and, as a young person, you might have to battle some misconceptions older employees have about you and your age group. Just remember that investing in your influence skills is a long-term venture; the payoff will come. One day you’ll realize you’re fulfilled and thriving, whether it’s in this job or the next one.

1. Kwame Christian, “The Secret to Influence: Ask the Magic Question,” Forbes, June 13, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kwamechristian/2022/06/13/the-secret-to-influence-ask-the-magic-question/?sh=1f654ddb3c1f.

About Robert L. Dilenschneider:

Robert L. Dilenschneider

Robert L. Dilenschneider

Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know, formed The Dilenschneider Group in October 1991. Headquartered in New York, Miami, and Chicago, the firm provides strategic advice and counsel to Fortune 500 companies and leading families and individuals around the world, with experience in fields ranging from mergers and acquisitions and crisis communications to marketing, government affairs, and international media.

Prior to forming his own firm, Dilenschneider served as president and chief executive officer of Hill and Knowlton, Inc., from 1986 to 1991, tripling that firm’s revenues to nearly $200 million and delivering more than $30 million in profit.

Dilenschneider was with that organization for nearly 25 years. Dilenschneider started in public relations in 1967 in New York, shortly after receiving an MA in journalism from Ohio State University and a BA from the University of Notre Dame.

He has authored 18 books, including A Briefing for Leaders, The Public Relations Handbook, Decisions, and Nailing It. 

For more information, please visit https://robertldilenschneider.com/.

About the Book:

The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know (Matt Holt Books, July 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377429-3-8, $28.00) will be available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.



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