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Wielding power with persuasion is the strongest way to lead

IF YOU think about it, persuasion and influence can be just the opposite of power. If you are loaded with power, why bother to persuade? Why not just command and have done with it? For some managers, that’s a question that needs answering.

Right now there is optimism about the outcome of the recent General Election – enemies become friends and lions lie down with lambs, as it were. Whether this all turns sour remains to be seen but the good things that appear to be happening seem to come from the fact that power, or the lack of it, has had to give way to persuasion. Those power-hungry managers should take note.

A good persuader is effectively a salesperson. Salespeople have very little power and understand that the power is in the hands of the potential buyer. From this position of apparent weakness the persuader must make a sympathetic friend from a possibly antagonistic stranger. One has, by using carefully selected words, deeds and behaviour, to make the other party feel good in your presence and wish to endlessly repeat the experience, thus producing such clichés as, “You only buy from people you like” or “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”.

But British managers, because they have real or illusionary power, often tend to lean towards bullying to get what they want. They almost naturally reduce the standing and the self-esteem of their employees.

If you think I am being harsh, take a look at a glossy company report. Photo 1, the Chairman, Sir Jack Smith. Photo 2, the Finance Director, Henry Jones. Photo 3, our new headquarters in Surrey. Photo 4, a cheery receptionist. Photo 5, a cheery lorry driver. So they don’t have names then? Why are we shocked when they don’t share our enthusiasm for the business? Imagine if that report said, Photo 4, “This is Laura Perkins, our most valued Receptionist and also Captain of the Surrey Amateur Badminton Team.” Photo 5, “This is Bill Watkins, skilled commander in chief of this 32 tonne juggernaut and World Hard Boiled Egg Eating Champion.” You don’t think Laura and Bill wouldn’t clutch this company report to their bosoms and be showing friends and family?

There’s nothing worse than the HR Department which claims to be touchy-feely, when in fact its bullying tactics are just as oppressive as the old “flog ‘em when there’s trouble at mill” days. The whip used is the reduction of people’s self worth and moral. The weapon of choice is the appraisal meeting. At some previous meeting you will have “agreed” to a set of goals and targets that should “progress your career”. Then at a subsequent meeting they tell you how you have scored. Now if they were honest they would score it, OK, Not bad, Just made it, Pretty Hopeless, and Fired. This they claim is not team building so they have come up with rubbish like, Excelled, Exceeded, Met (meaning no good) and Not met (meaning fired).

Imagine that you and your partner have had a loving relationship for twenty years and as a treat your beloved offers to prepare a meal of your dreams. You decide on duck, orange sauce, peas and new potatoes. The dish is prepared with love and care and is placed before you with the question, “How is it my darling?” Imagine the reaction if you produced, without comment, a clipboard and started to tick boxes. “Peas – Met. Orange sauce – Not met.” If you weren’t wearing that food a moment later I would be surprised, so what makes you think you could treat your employees like that?

I’ve a friend who works for a bank and gets truly distressed when she gets a “Not met” from her much younger line manager. Perhaps she isn’t much cop at her job, I thought, but then I discovered that one of the “Not mets” was because she didn’t get involved in the egg and spoon race at the annual picnic, marking her out as failing to be a team player.

By coincidence I got trapped by a senior manager of this very bank on a long haul flight, so just to quell the boredom I decided to take him to task over these ghastly appraisals. He admitted they were awful, that they destroyed moral and caused valuable workers to give up the will to live, but then went on to explain that it had been a project imported from the US at huge expense and no one had the clout to actually kill it off.

There’s the story of an unruly dog that had a tendency to foul on rugs. Every time the dog is caught doing this the owner thrashes it and throws it out of the window. This goes on for weeks with the dog clearly learning nothing, until finally one day the dog does his business on yet another rug and then jumps out of the window. If we set unachievable and unrealistic goals, targets and penalties, we do not teach understanding, but simply how to avoid being caught out. How do you train the dog? You wait until it relieves itself in the garden and reward it with a biscuit. It is a good leader’s job to catch people doing things the right way rather than pointing out when they do something wrong. Perhaps consensus politics will work after all.

Geoff Burch is the author of Irresistible Persuasion: the secret way to get to yes every time (Wiley, £10.99)