Influencing within Organisations (2nd edition)

Robert Aitken (Lecturer, Department of Marketing, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand)

Personnel Review

ISSN: 0048-3486

Article publication date: 11 April 2008



Aitken, R. (2008), "Influencing within Organisations (2nd edition)", Personnel Review, Vol. 37 No. 3, pp. 352-354.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is a difficult book to review on many counts, not least because although I started out disliking it, I ended up believing that it does have much to recommend it. The author provides a compendium of convincing advice and usable tips that are focussed on the martial art of self‐preservation in a managerial and organisational jungle. I chose this language, the language of combat, because the author urges us to “fight”, to “struggle” and to “survive” in what is assumed to be a hostile environment. The book is a “survival manual” for those looking to engage with the enemy and win a seat at the counsel table. While this analogy may be true of certain organisations, it positions business practice generally, and management in particular, as arenas in which those most skilfully trained and tactically adept will triumph. Providing such an opportunity to see organisations and individual's roles within them in a more critical and competitive light is definitely a good thing. Placing them in a context of “every man for himself” is more questionable. The underlying premise of the book – that it is a jungle out there and the only ones who will survive will be those who manipulate the system and the people in it most effectively for their own self‐interest – is, for modern business increasingly embracing relationships based on trust, integrity and responsibility at macro and micro levels, just too Darwinian.

The book is exhaustive in its coverage of different forms of communication and different types of influence. From how to remember people's names, through starting and sustaining conversations with strangers to re‐ordering controversial items on an agenda to increase “nod through” the book is a comprehensive catalogue of opportunities to influence. It is enjoyably articulate, easy to read and understand and extremely well structured. Major points are carefully referenced and illustrative examples provide useful and empirical support for, and evidence of, the practical application of the advice that is given. However, the idea that anyone could sit down and tell you how to manage an audience, convince an employer or influence your friends and enemies seemed controversial to a new‐age postmodernist like me. I was weaned on discourse analysis, semiotics, constructivism and collectivism, all of which make it clear that not only is there no absolute truth but also that reality is a series of negotiations and competing alternatives. Reader‐response theory, for example, tells us that meaning is in the mind of the beholder and nothing can be taken for granted. Indeed, oppositional readings are as common as dominant ones! How then is it possible to say that the colour of your tie, the width of your pin‐stripe or the open‐toedness of your shoes will really make a statement about you that will be read clearly and accepted accordingly?

In the ironically titled, “Managing meaning and defining reality” section, the author suggests the following:

The main weapon of definition is language. It makes a difference if your proposal seeks to “introduce cuts in capital expenditure” as opposed to “increasing investment at a slower rate”. Euphemisms can assist you. Rather than recommending increasing taxes, which can stimulate opposition, you might seek ways to “enhance revenue”. If you are unsuccessful, you can always explain it away as a “success deficiency” (p. 253).

Such management speak, avoidance of honesty and reliance on obfuscation usually fools no one and often serves to harden already negative attitudes. How is it possible to develop respect and trust, critical components of leadership, for example, when readers are exhorted to:

… highlight threats from outside the company to justify your proposals. Exploit or even invent a crisis. To maintain your credibility, however, your invented crisis needs to materialise, so play safe and put it in the future (“We need to act now to avoid a crisis in two years' time”). In those two years, everyone in the room, including yourself, will have moved on (p. 260).

The section on non‐verbal communication, in particular that part devoted to forms of dress, formal codes of posture and facial expression, is an illuminating example of the author's perpetuation of a managerial mind‐set that many believe has long since passed its use‐by date. Advice to interviewees about how to sit, how to smile and where to put your hands, is a classic example of a formula for success that is at best archaic and at worst misleading. Certainly, while extreme examples of gesticulating, slumping, gushing or grunting are to be avoided, the emphasis in any formal application process should be on honesty and sincerity. How these qualities manifest themselves are a privileged insight into the uniqueness of the person you are interviewing and a more natural illustration of the candidate's suitability for the position.

However, any movement towards understanding begins by identifying, examining and questioning all underpinning assumptions. Two key assumptions that underpin this book are first, that it is possible to manipulate and influence others and second, that it is your responsibility, as an aspiring leader, to do so! The first of these is understandable given the culture of the notional organisation that contextualises the book. The second is not. This is an ethical dilemma that is not addressed, and this lack of acknowledgement makes the book feel strangely dated and coldly out of step with contemporary and enlightened managerial imperatives of empowerment and integrity. The organisational imperatives that are taken for granted suggest that systems are more important than the people who run them and individuals are valued according to their efficiencies rather than their values and relationships. Indeed, the whole area of interpersonal relationships is strangely under‐valued given the new‐age principles of integrity, openness, honesty and humility that characterise contemporary management practice. The aggressive and combatative nature of much of the advice in the book will appeal to those thrusting career‐driven competitors inspired by The Apprentice television programme. For those with more relational and values‐based priorities it will encourage them to return to “The Great Egg Race”.

The author suggests that the book sits somewhere between Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince and Douglas Adams' Hitch‐hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I would suggest that it is much closer to Sun Tzu's, The Art of War.

Perhaps it is the unproblematic and reactionary acceptance of conventional and archaic notions of personnel management that underpin the book's approach that is so difficult to get past. For those who need to get past and extend their repertoire of skills and their sphere of influence, this is a must have. As the saying mentioned at the start of the book reminds us, “If you can fake sincerity, you've got it made” (XV).

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