Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Influence, Organizations, and Team Players

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Nick recently wrote about different forms of influence (see: On Influence and Hierarchy in Bureaucracies):

My modus operandi (see: Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants) has never been about acquiring or pulling rank but rather building, safeguarding and levering reputation and ability to influence.

In doing so, he hits on a concept I've been wrestling with. Regardless of what your job description says, you don't start jobs with the right level of ability to influence. It needs to be built.

However, there's always a balance to be struck. Building influence (which is largely building relationships) takes time, and it's time that could be spent working more directly on goals. I'd contend that organizations generally err on the side of narrow goals at the expense of systems, relationships, and, well, better definitions of those goals. But there are dark sides to personally spending time on the latter:

In Tragedy in the Commons - largely a collection of interviews with former Members of Parliament - the story that emerges is that no one ever reached a point where they felt they could just start doing the right thing. Even Cabinet members felt the need to "be good team players" and it was clear that not all were comfortable with the level of compromise. If this is true for end-of-career statesmen, senior decision-makers, I don't think this tension is going away any time soon for the rest of us.

And where building the ability to influence fits the above mold (being "a good team player") it can perpetuate bad systems. I wrote about this idea a while back (see: When Parameters are the Problem), in that sometimes there's a trade-off between doing the right thing and maintaining smooth relationships with our coworkers or hierarchy (and recognizing that sometimes we can get "the right thing" wrong).

I tried to walk that walk since I wrote that post: pushing back against faulty systems. My experience is that it's hard, uncomfortable, and the downsides are greater than I imagined. I'm not ready to rescind that idea, but I can see plenty of scenarios in which it's wise to shelve that maxim. It's an interesting dilemma in which the future I'd want for the public service writ large may be different than the advice I'd give individuals I care about.

Because these day-to-day decisions add up, over time, to those outcomes: influence through soft power or influence through positions in the hierarchy. And we should consider our approaches with caution and thoughtfulness.

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