How to Turn on the Charm Just learn to listen to colleagues and you'll be amazed by how hard they'll work for you.
By Jeffrey Pfeffer

(Business 2.0) – Every week a handful of my students arrive to class late and disrupt the discussion as they jostle their way to their seats. Or they come and go during the session, to get coffee or take phone calls. I think it often irritates their classmates; I know it irritates me.

But MBA candidates behave no less cavalierly than anyone else in the corporate world. At board meetings I attend, one director invariably hauls out his BlackBerry and thumbs out e-mails. At dozens of companies I've visited, I've seen bosses shuffling papers while talking to their employees, or workers sifting through e-mails during phone conversations. It's as if a new form of ADD has overtaken the workplace, and the habit of focusing on one thing or one person at a time seems merely quaint.

Yet that's a critical skill in running any business. Paying attention to other people, in addition to being the best way to learn from them, happens to be one of the most powerful means of influencing them. And influencing others is what leadership is about--getting other people to get things done.

If your boss or colleague likes to "multitask" during meetings with you, you recognize pretty quickly what that signals: You're not as important as the next e-mail or phone call. And that's the worst signal you can send: If officemates seek anything from each other, it is to be taken seriously and to command respect.

As Robert Cialdini points out in his best-selling book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, courtesy works as an influence technique because people are much more likely to do things for--and accede to requests from--people they like. And we're much more likely to feel warmly toward people who flatter us and make us feel good about ourselves.

Jack Valenti, soon to step down after 38 years running the Motion Picture Association of America, ranks as one of Washington's master influencers; the organization's considerable clout has a lot to do with Valenti's personal touch. As Valenti explained to my students recently, he returns all his phone calls--not just from legislators, but also from their low-ranking staffers. He recognizes the importance of congressional staff, and that a personal call from the head of the MPAA is much better than a call from one of his underlings.

Many other highly successful motivators--Warren Buffett, Colgate's Reuben Mark, Intel's Craig Barrett--likewise use personal courtesy and virtuoso listening as strategic weapons. All are said to make whoever they're listening to feel like the center of the universe at that moment, and the payoff is fierce loyalty. As UBS stock analyst Andrew McQuilling, who has followed Colgate for seven years, has said of Mark, "His employees would take a bullet for him."

How can the rest of us work that kind of magic? If paying rapt attention to others doesn't come naturally, reforming your ways is more difficult than you may think. Making eye contact with someone, for example, is a great idea, but it doesn't mean much if you can't get your brain to focus on the person you're looking at.

But I suppose it's a start. So are a handful of very obvious (and very underutilized) gestures, like turning off your cell phone in meetings, resisting the urge to interrupt, and setting aside e-mail for an hour.

The incorrigible multitasker, of course, will argue that there isn't enough time to answer so many phone calls and meeting requests, that e-mail is much more efficient at getting things done. I don't buy it: If you're constantly giving people the brush-off, consider how much time you're spending avoiding people, compared with the 60 seconds it takes to pay attention to someone, one time. And that one time can make a colleague a lifelong ally.