If you want to be a workplace influencer, don't rely on the quid pro quo

I'm fond of saying, "If you don't have authority, you've got to use influence." Sounds great, right? But 'influence' is often hard to define in the workplace. What does it look like? And, more importantly, how do you get it?

Merriam-Webster defines influence as "the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways." Unfortunately, I've seen many people, who were otherwise excellent at their jobs, interpret this definition to mean:

  • Bribing colleagues, or otherwise seeking to establish a quid pro quo
  • Threatening to withhold support for colleagues in the future
  • Badgering, bullying, and/or manipulating others
  • Charming, flattering, or otherwise seeking to ingratiate yourself with colleagues
  • Pointing fingers, blaming, complaining, or otherwise undermining team members
  • Going over people's heads to get what you need


Don't fall for the quid pro quo approach

The problem with these tactics is they are all akin to "influence peddling" --putting some form of pressure on people to get them to do what you want. That might work in the short-term, and maybe even longer. But what it won't do is make others want to work with you. In fact, it's likely that, over time, this type of inauthentic influence peddling will make your colleagues actively root against you.

Let me give you an example.

Probably the most common form of false influence in the workplace is the quid pro quo--if you do this for me, I'll do something for you in return. At first glance, what's the harm? After all, doesn't this count as adding value for others? Won't people respect you for taking the time to make mutually beneficial offers?

Not quite.

The thing about establishing a quid pro quo is, while it may feel like a generous offer of cooperation and camaraderie, at the end of the day you're not asking anyone for a favor. You're asking them to do their jobs.

Gayle, a real-life go-to person in a major actuarial firm, puts it very well: "I already get paid by my employer to serve you. What you are asking for, that's my job, not a favor I'm doing for you. What I'm asking of you, that's your job, not a favor you are doing for me."


Commit to building real influence

The way to build real influence--in other words, the type of influence that others want you to have--is to focus on how you can be of service. Don't ask what they can do for you. Ask what you can do for them.

Real influencers like Gayle make commitments and decisions based on what is best for everyone, not based on what they can get out of the deal: "People can depend on me, regardless of whether I need something from them or because I owe them. Whether I'm going to do that for you is a business decision: What's in the best interests of the business and all the various constituents here, taking everything into account, as best I can figure?"

This might sound idealistic. You may worry that, rather than build influence with others, you will simply set yourself up to be taken advantage of. Adopting a value-add mindset may rapidly result in overcommitment syndrome.

And it's true. There will always be insensitive, selfish, or manipulative people in the workplace. Establishing and maintaining boundaries around your time and your commitments are going to be a required discipline if you plan to add real value.

But don't let these realities hold you back. Most people want to be considerate, want to get better at working together, and want to make good use of your time as well as theirs.

Bruce Tulgan: Founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc. and Top Expert on Leadership Development and Generational Issues in the Workplace

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