The problem with managing by influence

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One of the most common things you hear HR professionals and middle managers talk about is the concept of "managing by influence". I despise this notion, and think it's an old, outdated, and harmful concept in today's business world.

This isn;t to say that leadership doesn't matter. It is of course as vital now as it ever was before. And good leaders can indeed get people to perform at levels they might not otherwise have performed at. Great coaches, teachers, and orators can certainly influence people, but it's a by-product of their leadership.

I'm talking about the idea that if someone performs poorly, it's the failure of someone to properly influence them that's the problem. Under this notion, it's not George Bush's fault that we went to war in Iraq, it's the fault of the war protester for failing to influence him.


Martin Luther King wasn't a failure because there are still racists. Al Gore isn't a failure because we don't have more electric cars. And Ghandi wasn't a failure because there are still wars. Yet they all failed to influence thousands (or more) of people. An HR professional very well might have told each of them to spend some time trying to influence the people they'd never reach - all the while ignoring those that were seeking their leadership.

The same holds true in business and on projects.

Daniel Pink teaches us in "Drive" that what motivates people in today's economy isn't money, or carrot's and sticks, but is instead the freedom to do our jobs and our creative work in a time, place, and way that we want. People need enough direction to understand what needs to be done - and then they need managers to get the hell out of their way.

What's even more dangerous about believing in the power of "managing by influence" though, is that while a manager is busy trying to influence a poor performer, those that excel are being held back. I have worked on dozens of projects in a variety of organizations - from fortune 500 companies, to medium sized companies, to those that have just a few employees - and the single biggest frustration of people who were awesome, was management's inability or unwillingness to remove the people that were holding them back.

It's time for less management by influence and time for more more rewards for performance.

(And if you think reward means money, you still don't get it.)