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Helping people to improve their ‘influencing skills’ is a justifiable form of leadership training. Leaders, at all levels of organisations, need to occasionally influence others. In fact it doesn’t just apply to leaders – it’s a basic social skill, and there are times when it can be very useful to all of us.

However, there is something unsettling about strongly emphasising the importance of influence within an organisation… You might guess I’m referring to the fact influence is really just the same as control, that control is control regardless of whether it’s done with a smile or a frown, and that it isn’t a virtue to be celebrated. Or indeed that an over emphasis on influence, or any kind of control, moves an organisation away from evidence-based decision-making and productive behaviour, and towards a political bureaucracy where merit and skill is overlooked in favour of the ability to negotiate and ‘play the game’.

But no, those issues are not the subject of today’s discussion, although they are important. This is my point: By strongly emphasising influence, it places the inadequacy of the leadership back into the hands of the employees. But how? Let’s bring in an influence consultant to help reveal the problem…

Consultant: “Hello everyone, in today’s session we’ll first identify all the problems you’re facing in your team. Then we’ll talk about the possible causes of these problems. Finally we’ll address the problems and discuss what you can do to fix them.”
You: “My boss is a raving lunatic and makes decisions bordering on insanity…”
Consultant: “Oh. This is a common problem. You need to learn to manage upwards.”
You: “I’m having a miserable time at work, I get no support whatsoever from my manager and I’m really unhappy.”
Consultant: “Oh dear. Haven’t you tried influencing the people around you to change their behaviour?”
You: “We’re under constant pressure because we’re made to work to completely unrealistic deadlines, when we raise the issue with managers they just make excuses.”
Consultant: “Sounds like you need more classes to hone your influencing skills! My rates are very reasonable…”

Because by making your problems your own responsibility, that’s empowering! Right? Right?!?

This is pretty much the ethos of neoliberalism, but within the workplace. The thing about political neoliberalism, like it or not, is that it operates democratically. We can vote it in and we can vote it out. The same can’t be said for senior managers – they aren’t elected in by their juniors, they are recruited by other senior managers or by the board. In this scenario, someone who isn’t elected can come in to power, make terrible decisions completely at the fault of the subordinate employees who should have stopped them from making terrible decisions. And that is ok?

You may have picked up some of my disdain for this approach… The sense of empowerment given to employees through influence is false. True empowerment comes from support, not from turning your workforce into modern day Machiavellis or professional a*s kissers. Furthermore, over-emphasising influence gives senior managers a get out of jail free card by placing responsibility of their actions back down to their staff.

Everyone has personal responsibility – of course they do – but trust, empowerment and support ultimately needs to come from senior management. Managers need to take responsibility for the people in their teams, otherwise they’re shirking their most critical duties.

The next time you get invited to an HR training event with the subject of ‘how to influence others’ or worse still ‘influencing upwards’ take heed of my words.