You really want to influence others? Play chess! Part 11 of the blog series: Influencing yourself and others

Only 50 centimetres wide and tall full of black and white squares and yet the whole world! Chess is not only a board game, but also a conceptual model for managers. Anyone who has seen the series "Queen's Gambit" will understand why chess is so relevant for managers. Do you agree?

Survey: What do you think is the best game for managers?

  1. Chess: Because it forces me to take the other person's perspective before I act
  2. Poker: Because I must not only keep an eye out for uncertainties, but also for the character of the other person
  3. Tiddlywinks: Because it is all about giving the impulse with the right strength into the right direction
  4. Ludo: Always try to get things implemented, don't get angry and understand that luck plays a big part

Probably each game has its justification, but it clearly sounds better to think about castling than about straights or little green men on their way home. Moreover, I have never yet had a manager in my seminar who ascribed to other games than chess any influence on their management principles.

Innovation in the morning, Sicilian opening in the afternoon

But those who mentioned chess were confident that it was this very game that made them successful. One manager summed it up as follows: "I have been playing chess since I was a child - and just like playing chess, in my everyday management I force myself to see the situation from the perspective of others. If I know that perspective, I can plan my moves far better - and I am being less and less surprised".

As a consequence, it is not for nothing that there is also a pile of successful managers and entrepreneurs who play chess: Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, Deutsche Bahn board member Richard Lutz and, famously, Mark Zuckerberg, who, in order to enhance his skills, also indulged in lessons with chess world champion Magnus Carlsen. And since the super successful often brood over the 64 squares, there are even scientists who say that chess should not only be taught in schools, but also in companies' training programmes. i What a nice thought: innovation in the morning, the Sicilian opening in the afternoon...

In chess you want to win, but what do the employees want in everyday managerial life?

However, the successful change of perspective in leadership has an additional component that must not be forgotten. In chess I know exactly what the other person wants: namely to win. In everyday management, on the other hand, I very rarely know exactly what the others want.

Although we assume that we do know, I will tell you quite clearly and brutally that we are mostly gloriously wrong.

Care for an example? Experienced managers were asked to imagine what the motives for working as a call centre agent were and whether they differed from their own in any relevant way. The first assignment therefore: think through your own motives. That was easy. The managers found noble goals in themselves: constant learning, development of new skills, feeling good and seeing a sense of purpose in what they do.

Second step: putting themselves in the shoes of the call centre agents. Well that is easy surely, since these will operate in a completely different way compared to oneself. After all, people who work in a call centre are a separate breed, are they not.  Their motives then surely are good pay, security via a clear structure as well as lashings of praise. It certainly does not matter whether they are learning or have a sense of purpose.

The result: The managers were TOTALLY wrong. Checkmate in a few seconds, so to speak (like Bill Gates, who in a game with Magnus Carlsen made a mistake in second 15 and was defeated soundly after a mere 80 seconds). If the call centre agents were asked directly what motivates them, the first elements were: Developing new skills, followed by purpose and learning. Safety via structure came next, while payment came in seventh place (this already came in fourth place for managers).ii

This means that even experienced managers are unable to change perspectives in such a way that they really understand what other people want. Meaning: The whole idea of playing chess is of no use if I assume that the other party wants to take a walk on the chessboard, while in reality winning is as important to them as it is to me.

In case of cluelessness ask

Maybe this was just one single result and otherwise we can successfully achieve this change of perspective? Brace yourself to be very brave, since here comes the bad news: when it comes to understanding what someone wants, we simply are unable to put ourselves in the other person's position. Full stop. The proof? In 2018, the impressive number of 25 studies with close to 1,500 participants was evaluated.iii The sad outcome: we humans have no idea what the other person wants. Yet, if we put ourselves in their shoes, we keep on being very sure that we know exactly what they want, and can hardly be shaken in this presumed understanding.

What can you do instead? Something revolutionary. Ask! Simply ask what the other side wants to accomplish in general. You can do that with employees and - if you do it in a halfway intelligent way -also with executives and colleagues.

Conclusion: Play leadership chess with your employees/colleagues/chefs on a regular basis - but only once you have a pretty good idea what they actually want to achieve in the team, in the company, in their life - on their own chess board.

So what exactly can you do right now? On the one hand watch the wonderful series "Queen's Gambit" on Netflix and be inspired. On the other hand, each and every book will help you to learn about the real perspective of others. In my case, right now it is a book in which I shift into the thinking of people who after death want to upload their brains to the cloud. Something I have not given much thought to, but which the visionary and literary grandmaster Neal Stephenson deals with wonderfully. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell shows a kind of high-stakes chess game - involving all of our neurons! And how you can checkmate others in the cloud.

Click here not to miss any of the biweekly blogs on influencing. In addition, every two weeks you will be able to download a different chapter of the book "24 Karat Success" for free. The 24 chapters cover different aspects of how to influence yourself and others as PDF or ePub (eReader only) version.

Have a first glance at the book as PDF or ePub (only for eReader).


i Hunt, S., & Cangemi, J. (2014). Want to improve your leadership skills? Play chess!. Education, 134(3), 359-368.

ii Doshi, N., & McGregor, L. (2015). Primed to perform. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

iii Eyal, T., Steffel, M., & Epley, N. (2018). Perspective mistaking: Accurately understanding the mind of another requires getting perspective, not taking perspective. Journal of personality and social psychology, 114(4), 547.