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Do you have to be liked to have influence?

A recent client project has me thinking about the nature of influence.

The client is part of an industry that is controversial. Boosters and detractors tend to be divided along ideological and geographic lines, and several NGOs have their sites trained on them. The increasing distrust of industry generally in many parts of the world adds to the pain. This is a familiar story: most organisations feel like they don't get enough credit, or that the voices of others with a different point of view are too loud. The story often ends with a plaintive question: why don't more people like us?

It's nice to be liked, but is it important? How much does it matter in terms of the influence you have on the politics that affect your ability to operate effectively, or on the outcomes of policy debates to which you are subject? And if you're not liked, what are the other ways to exert influence?

There are many controversial individuals or groups that remain influential. In the US, the National Rifle Association is despised by millions and continues to take what many consider to be a completely untenable view on gun rights, but yet, despite ample evidence that their position is not shared by the majority of people, policy in the US consistently goes their way. Tobacco companies also continue to perform well financially, despite a large, globally organised anti-tobacco lobby and a wealth of scientific evidence linking their products to sickness and death. Here in the UK, pro-BREXIT campaigner Nigel Farage, who has unquestionably played a leading role in taking the country down its current path to an economic instability and political isolation, remains one of the most influential political figures in the country, despite not actually holding elected office. Each of these examples has supporters and detractors, but each, in their own way, has shown that being liked is not the only way to exert influence.

Love, fear, and matching agendas

Machiavelli told us that it's better to be feared than loved. In a sense, he's not wrong: intimidating or instilling fear can certainly help you influence things for the time you are able to create that climate. The resentment this approach creates amongst those to whom it is applied makes it inherently unstable, however. People who fear you almost certainly resent you as well and are gunning for you to fail - and when you do, no-one will be there to help. Coercion is not true influence.

Oxford defines influence as "the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something." There is a popular belief that people with influence can "get their way" at the expense of others who want a different outcome. There is certainly an aspect of truth to this - and indeed it is often the story told by the "losers" in a situation of influence - but in my experience, it is rare. More often, success comes to those who are able to match the agendas of people with an interest in a specific outcome. Skilled influencers are more akin to negotiators than mob bosses.

Building blocks

If that's true, then what are the levers of this negotiation? Most of us will agree that it's nice to be liked, but - particularly in the current climate - it's not always possible. When you find yourself up against ideological resistance or opponents who are intent on mischaracterising your organisation or advancing emotional arguments that fly in the face of the facts, you have to find other ways to get your point across. What are the other factors that can help you ensure a strong voice?

  • A large following Why do (a slim minority of) Instagram influencers live a good life? Because if they recommend something, at least some of their followers are likely to try that thing too. Whether your following is TV consumers, new mothers, or political activists, being able to reach large numbers of the right audience makes you influential to someone.

  • An essential role Here in the UK, the National Health Service has seen a steady decline for at least the last decade. I have nothing but respect for the thousands of honourable, dedicated people trying to make it work, but it is underfunded, wrongly focused, and subject to the political whims of the day, making it hard to create and follow a long-term strategy. Still, there's no one else to do the job, so if anyone in the UK wants to talk about healthcare, the NHS has a seat at the table. This type of influence is used by stakeholder groups like investors and industries such as Pharma, Mining, and Fossil Fuels. If they need you, your point of view will be heard.

  • Moral superiority Lots of people really don't like activists. The extreme attention-getting acts of defiance practiced by the likes of Greenpeace in the 80s and 90s have been supercharged in today's environment by the likes of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. But even if many people disapprove of the tactics, they are forced to agree with the end objectives. That gives their activity legitimacy and, quite often, allows them to set the agenda. If - like Greenpeace - you also have a top-notch team of lawyers, lobbyists, and policy experts to follow up with concrete recommendations, moral superiority can be a powerful tool.

  • A history of being right Pollsters, bookies, and Warren Buffett all know that no one gets every call right, but if you're generally on the winning side, you get a reputation for wisdom; maybe even clairvoyance (hence Buffett's popular nickname: The Oracle of Omaha). That reputation translates into influence. How many times have you heard someone say, "I don't like them, but I wouldn't bet against them"? A subset of this influence factor is almost certainly consistency: if you say the same thing over a long period, and that thing is eventually recognised as having been right all along, your credibility will be supercharged.

  • Wealth Many would prefer this not to be the case, but there's no getting around the fact that there's a positive correlation between wealth and influence. It seems unavoidable that - whether through political donations; the ability to hire advisors and experts; or the cult-like aura that often surrounds the wealthy; money can buy influence. The role of money in influence is usually overstated - in most cases, people won't act against their interests just for money - but there's no denying it's a factor. In political systems like that of the US, where candidates or political parties depend on private fundraising to do their work, it can be such a big factor of influence that it can distort or supersede fact, argument or societal interest - but that's another story.

  • Expertise There's nothing like mastering your brief. Deep knowledge of a subject matter is difficult to fake and challenging to combat. It is often true that expertise comes with an understanding of the million shades of grey that underpin any issue, and that can make it hard to get the point across clearly and concisely. But if you can make your expertise digestible, there's no question it can give you influence.

Understanding your influence mix

There are undoubtedly others specific to your organisation, and academia provides many different ways of looking at the influence of individuals and organisations in decision-making. As a practitioner of political influence strategy, I use this classification because it allows me to quickly recognise the individual mix of factors I can work with. But whatever framework you use, identifying your sources of influence is an essential first step to deciding how to maximise it.

Factors can change from issue to issue as well; if a winning football team suddenly pivots from sport to talk about sustainability, the mix of influence factors it can use to credibly get its views across will undoubtedly change. Moreover, the way you work with your influence factors on a given issue - how, when, where, and how often you communicate - matters. So too does the way a specific issue fits with other topics or challenges the organisation might be dealing with at any given time. There are very few islands in issue management. These next steps all merit discussion in their own right, but that's for another day.

As a first step, however, it’s important to get the foundation right. Influence can be a strange alchemy, but if you think about it strategically and take a long-term view, your efforts will certainly pay off.


Michael Ras
Michael Ras
Aug 15, 2023

Smart. Well done.

Replying to

Thanks Mike. I appreciste that from a master of the art!

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