We are often told that the role of a student officer is to be a campaigner.
We’re told that to be successful, there’s a need to be creating petitions, training activists and and making a noise on social media.
Some SUs have KPIs like “I know the campaigns the SU is running”, or “x amount of students felt the SU campaign on matters important to them” included in numerous SU impact reports each year.
But while campaigning is an important part of the toolbox – and pretty essential in the year ahead given the cost of living crisis – aren’t most officers much more about “influencing” than “campaigning”?
When I was a sabbatical officer, I was often made to feel like I was betraying “the cause” by working within existing university structures. The idea of having to “schmooze” or “play the game” felt very foreign. But once I started approaching influencing with intention, I started to achieve for students – both within the SU and across the university.
We’re all influencers now
There’s a good argument that says that officers who have the most impact are the ones who are the best influencers. That doesn’t mean they have thousands of Instagram followers full of #ads or #sponsored posts. It does mean that they are able to influence decisions and decision makers within and outside of the university to get the best outcome for students.
It also doesn’t mean that campaigning is irrelevant or unimportant, and of course it is the case that influencing can be an important tactic when working, over time, in an organised and active way towards a particular goal. But it is to say that “influencing” is a skill all of its own, has a set of techniques and tactics that are the object of academic research, and is likely to be important to more officers more of the time when trying to get things done.
We often see those who are trying to gain influence over others as a negative thing – perhaps because of potential perceptions of manipulation. Yet we are influenced and influence others everyday, whether we intend to or not. And if universities are anything, they are environments where reward and coercive power is low, but expert and referent power is high. So the more that student officers (and the staff that support them) can learn how to influence those around them, the more successful they will be.
And if nothing else, where officers used elections to campaign on pledges that involved changing the union itself, using influence internally is likely to be an important thing to do with staff, volunteers and other officers.
How to do it
The “science” of influencing and persuasion suggests there are five categories of influence norms that officers should try to adapt in order to push their agendas forward.
People don’t like feeling indebted
The old saying goes, you have to “give to get in return” – people are likely to repay what another has provided at an earlier time. This means working hard to support colleagues’ projects or goals of SU-based initiatives, as they will be more likely to support you in return.
It also means demonstrating how objectives align with or add value to the key strategic priorities at the university. That means it makes sense to look at the institution’s current strategic priorities, what the VC reported to the last meeting of university council or Board of Governors, and asking around about what the senior people are trying to achieve right now.
So if the university wants to increase international student recruitment, and the SU needs funding for a project that will help students’ sense of belonging, demonstrating how the project will help international students feel welcome and be more likely to recommend the institution to friends and relatives back home is important – they’ll be more likely to support it.
An easy way to gain influence is to share gratitude. Handwritten thank-you notes to key leaders or allies who provided great support on a project or welcomed you in your first committee meeting cost nothing and may go a long way. When we thank colleagues for offering us an opportunity, they are more likely to provide us with other such opportunities when they come up.
The same is true for complimenting others. Giving positive feedback to university people for work they have done means they are more likely to reciprocate and try to learn more about our aims for the year. Sometimes we’re pushing for things in public – but when we’re playing by their rules, “criticise with a laser but praise with a floodlight” might mean a tweet thanking staff for having us at a working group or praise for their student-focussed contributions.
People prefer similarities
It is a fact of life that people tend to say yes more to those they know and like, so it is important that we try to make connections broadly across campus. Getting to know senior management is great, but what about those who operate student services or the library on a day to day basis? The more staff from across the university we have a good rapport with, the easier it is for them to agree to any requests we have.
That might mean inviting colleagues from different schools, units or departments for lunch or a coffee every few weeks – where we put in the invite and meet on our terms. Using the summer to request catch-ups is straightforward, but can be hugely underutilised by student officers. It may feel strange and nerve-wracking to ask – but the discomfort is worth it as people tend to chat much more openly in such an informal setting.
Put simply, if our ideas and goals are going to be “difficult” to implement and there are going to be moments where our agenda provides challenge, it will help if we aren’t also “difficult to work with”. That doesn’t not mean agreeing with everything that the university says – but it does means being respectful, thoughtful and helpful even when we do disagree.
People do what they see others doing
Us humans are social creatures, we like to fit in and tend to follow the herd. When we see a restaurant with a queue out of the door, we presume the food must be good. In a university setting, this means people looking to others to validate their choices.
Getting buy-in from the important people in a room before we advance a proposal can be crucial. Often, senior leaders will ask their peers for their views when making a decision. We might show leaders examples of other universities piloting a similar initiative, and we might identify the big players in whatever meeting we are proposing an idea to to give them a heads up about our ideas and answer any queries they may have before a presentation takes place. Where we have more influential people in the room on board, others will likely follow.
We sometimes need to remind our allies of social proof theory too. Senior staff that are helpful to the union’s officers or causes in public might need to be reminded that not everyone in the university is so helpful – and it will make a real difference if they can be more public about that help.
Commitment and consistency
Individuals like to be seen as true to their word, so it’s worth making the most of.
After a meeting or a conversation we have ended, it’s useful to document the decisions and commitments made. Summary emails that outline what was discussed and any agreed-upon issues or initiatives sent to appropriate senior leaders ensure things are not forgotten. It can also be useful to get some gratitude in here and to thank them for their commitment to acting to student opinion – even if it sounded a bit flaky at the time.
If there is a problem on campus that we know would not take huge resources to solve and we know is something the university wants to tackle, it is worth suggesting some small pilot proposals of how this could be tackled. It is easier to get buy-in for a smaller project than a larger one, and, once a leader commits to a small project we suggest, they are more likely to commit to larger ones later.
One aspect of influence where SUs tend to fall down is authority and expertise. We tend to be younger, more diverse and have less experience – so surely the value of our ideas and opinions is inherently lower?
Not necessarily. Being knowledgeable about topics isn’t as hard as it looks – a quick read of a Wonkhe article or a glance at a set of minutes can often give us more of an edge than we realise. And demonstrating expertise in understanding the student experience ought to be straightforward – we’re usually the only student rep in the room and so should make clear that through our conversations, casework and social media monitoring, we have a deep understanding of what makes students tick and what will work for them.