I started out this series of articles with the line, “Influence is a soft power.” That raises the question, “How can power be soft?”
The term "soft power" is typically considered a political term, used often to describe international politics and the way nations and other actors—such as non-governmental organizations, institutions, and people—behave. The term also applies on the personal level, however, and to the workplace environment just as much as to world-stage politics. Business is simply a different stage of human interaction and performance, and while the setting and purpose of the workplace may be different, the behavior factors remain the same.
The same soft power you see in in geo-politics manifests itself in the workplace, in the office, in the warehouse, and even in the non-profit organization you work in. Politics is real, and understanding it is important for survival and success. The negative connotation generally attached to “politics in the workplace” is shortsighted, born from the frustration of those who do not recognize its existence or understand its practice. Wishing something away does not make it disappear.
Soft-power currencies are broad in scope and nature—the primary ones being the values, culture, policies, and rules that can attract or repel others to want what you want. These currencies are the opposite of coercion, threat, sanction, and intimidation. Coercion employs fear, and it is directly overt in style. Influence is a soft power, as is seduction. All are forms of motivation or demotivation, depending on how you apply them.
In every human interaction there is influence. Parents influence their children and children influence their parents. Customers influence employees and employees influence customers. There's media influence, legal influence, religious influence, and social influence.
Influence is not good or bad in and of itself. Your intentions and how they are received by others, your value structure and their value structure, play into the calculus of determining whether influence is good or bad.
Our modern culture seems to demand that everything must appear civilized, decent, democratic, and fair. There's an expectation that we will play by the rules. The reality is that human life is unfair, indecent, and that true civilization is a battle for power and influence. "Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good." Niccolo Machiavelli’s line is just as true today as it was in the time of the Renaissance.
To deny that politics in the workplace is important is naïve and dangerous. Many people believe that consciously applying influence, no matter how indirectly, is evil. These same people believe that they can opt out of the game and shun power. These people tend to carry their weaknesses and lack of power as moral virtues. They strive to demand equality in every area of life, insisting that everyone must be treated alike whatever their status. Using the shield of equality, these nonpolitical players attempt to use shame to alter the behavior of those they want to control.
Some people attempt perfect honesty and straightforwardness to counteract the techniques of those who seek power through deceit and secrecy. This perfect honesty inevitably hurts and insults those whom they wish to influence.
Even when you try to be completely objective and free of personal motivation, and even when you speak honestly and straightforwardly, others will fail to understand your motivations and believe, rightfully, that you're using your honesty as a power strategy. There is a natural distrust for the perfect Boy Scout.
Influence is amoral—that is, it has no morality in and of itself. Influence is neither moral or immoral. Your actions determine whether you are using influence morally or immorally. It is your choice to act for good or for bad.
Anyone who declares that influence is immoral should be regarded with suspicion. They may be playing the ultimate power game, cleverly disguising their guile and manipulations.
Since influence is a soft power that is neither moral or immoral, and since it is present in any human encounter, it is up to you to master the skills, understand the strategies and the techniques, and then align your use of it with your sense of right and wrong.
People expect to be influenced. People make great efforts to influence others. Leaders influence. Followers influence. If you want to accomplish anything of value through others, you must use influence to make it happen.