Who are you influencing today?

No one?

I assure you that is most definitely not the case.

Whether you are aware of it or not, whether you like it or not, everyone has influence. You are always exerting it, and it can be dangerous to pretend it’s not there. Not necessarily dangerous in a bodily harm sort of way, but in a careless lack of responsibility for who we hurt sort of way. And — I know you see this coming — it’s more true for leaders, whether that leader is a CEO, a cubicle worker, a receptionist, a parent, bus driver, police officer or anything in between. 

Here’s what I mean. Think about a situation at work where a coworker is complaining about being picked on by the boss. It doesn’t really involve you at all, and you don’t consider yourself a ‘person of influence,’ so you don’t give much thought to how you respond.

“Ugh, I know!” you say, agreeing with their frustrations. You lament the unfair treatment and you disparage the boss in question. Seems normal, right?

But you have exerted influence. Even assuming no one else heard you, you have seriously influenced your coworker. You’ve reaffirmed their belief that this isn’t their fault, and they are somehow helpless, the boss is a jerk, and they are fully justified in their judgements. You’ve unconsciously joined in a behavior of complaining and blaming and so made them more comfortable doing just that, and you’ve reinforced their belief that this boss is the worst.

Regardless of how the boss is actually behaving (they may well be a jerk), you haven’t helped your coworker. You likely have made the situation worse. You have inadvertently exercised negative influence and squandered an opportunity to exercise influence for the better — looking for solutions, sharing different perspectives, offering to help your coworker identify the real underlying problem and how to address it, building up your team…instead, they may be walking away feeling no responsibility, helpless, completely at the mercy of the boss and perhaps even smug in the process because the situation is all about the boss’s bad behavior, rather than the influence they can exert for change.

We can see this problem exponentially on social media. Cruel and divisive memes are so easy to post when we don’t think anyone will see it. I only have 46 followers, so who cares!? we think. No one will really see this. And if they do, it probably won’t matter to them. That’s what we tell ourselves. But misery loves company, and we gravitate to those that think and feel as we do. That way we don’t have to question ourselves, challenge ourselves, risk being wrong, or worse — risk realizing we actually have culpability in the situation. Who wants any of that when we can just deflect?

We all have influence. Sometimes that influence lifts people up, gives them courage, changes their mind or talks them off a literal or metaphorical ledge. Sometimes those same things happen and we don’t even realize what we’ve done. And sometimes the results are less positive. But either way, if you fail to recognize and own your influence, you can’t choose how to use it. And if you’re not doing so intentionally, you may be doing so dangerously.

Who are you influencing today? How are you choosing to influence them?