This is the week you’ve been dreading.
You’re in a room with 12 of your professional peers. You catch a few of their familiar faces. They look at you silently, waiting.
A facilitator nods his head: proceed.
Your task? Wordlessly move your peers to form an “influence line.” On the left: the most influential. On the right: the least. And somewhere in between? You. You must rank yourself within the line, too.
Enter: Unease. Your stomach twists into knots. Your mind races. You rehash the 100 different worst case scenarios that could befall your professional relationships and reputation as a result of your actions. How will your close friend react to being ranked 4th? Your frenemy to being ranked 11th?
Finally, you step forward. With great discomfort and awkwardness, you form your line and take your place within it. Then, you wait.
You feel the effects of ranking and being ranked. Time crawls, your heart pounds. You question, “What have I just done?!” Finally, the facilitator nods, and you breathe a moment of relief.
You find your seat. And you prepare yourself for the next person’s turn.
The Influence Line
Ah, the Influence Line exercise. If you actually imagined the faces of some of your peers — and considered how you might rank them and yourself in a line — you may have noticed a quickening of the chest, a tightening of the jaw, or a shallowing of the breath as you read along. Why is it so uncomfortable to rank our peers and ourselves?
It’s not the ranking that produces discomfort. Rather, it’s the sharing of the ranking that’s anxiety-producing. Taken as a private exercise, you could probably rank your peers without much strife. Yet to share that list, and to make it known, requires revealing true beliefs and owning our choices.
It’s an unusual set up, and that is why it’s so popular.
It’s taught at many institutions, but I encountered it as an MBA student at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
At Stanford GSB, Interpersonal Dynamics, or “Touchy Feely,” as it’s more affectionately known by students, is the class to take. According to Stanford GSB’s website, it’s been voted the most popular elective for 45 years running.
In the absence of feedback we make up stories.
Maria Lambert, MBA ’12
The course is built on the premise that self-reflection and introspection — while essential to our own professional and personal development — can only get us so far. To fully know ourselves, we need to know how we’re perceived. And that requires a rare type of honest, in-the-moment feedback that this course and exercises like the Influence Line are designed to elicit.
My own Influence Line memories remain crisp in my mind even 5 years later. I recall the internal conflict of ranking myself: I wanted to rank myself highly, but I feared coming across as too dominant or self-centered. So I settled for an inauthentic compromise (3rd; psychoanalyze as you will). I also struggled where to rank most of my peers. I particularly agonized about how ranking one of my closer friends 4th would negatively impact our relationship. Within the lines of my peers, I vividly remember the joy of being ranked first, as I do the shame of being ranked near the bottom.
The fascinating part? In all cases, I immediately made up stories of why I’d been ranked Nth in so-and-so’s line. I realized this is normally our default mode: in the absence of feedback we make up stories.
Which is why the Influence Line exercise didn’t end with the rankings. Instead, we spent the next several sessions honestly discussing what came up for us during the exercise. The ranking process was simply the catalyst for eliciting unspoken feedback and emotions.