Beware False Influence

Some of the most common forms of false influence you will encounter in the workplace and how to handle them.

False influence comes in many forms. Don’t fall for it.

The Outright Bribe

Make it clear that you would never do business that way. You might do the other person a huge favor by urging them to reconsider their behavior. Regardless, you should probably alert the authorities.

But what if it’s just brownies?

Let’s hope that outright bribery is rare or nonexistent in your workplace. And if it ever happens, you know what to do. Usually, though, workplace bribery comes in forms so subtle, you might even wonder if it counts as a bribe. What about the person who just “wants to bake brownies for you” whenever they want to influence you to do what they need?

The brownies feel like sort of a bribe, but you don’t want to be a jerk. Help the person as best you can, but share the brownies with others, and give the baker credit where credit is due.

The Quid Pro Quo

Perhaps the most common form of false influence you will encounter in the workplace is neither so noxious as a bribe nor (mostly) innocuous as brownies, but simply reciprocal cooperation (or not) used as leverage. When you seek help from each other, there is an implicit—or even explicit—exchange of cooperation.

A true go-to person does not keep a tally sheet—real or imagined—of equivalent favors to be traded for inducing colleagues to take specific decisions or actions. If you believe in real influence, you serve others because that’s what’s right and that’s what creates the most value for everybody, in the short and the long term.

The Freeze-Out

Then there’s the flip side of quid pro quo: the freeze-out. Meet their meanness with service. If someone is trying to coerce or punish you, show them you are here to do your job for them and everyone else, as best as you possibly can. It has nothing to do with their willingness to help you. You are still going to do your job.

Charm, Flattery, Politicking, and Appeals to Personal Rapport

At the other end of the spectrum are colleagues who seek to charm or flatter you, or otherwise ingratiate themselves—all forms of false influence at work. Although certainly more pleasant than being nasty or revengeful, you still need to beware. Don’t slip into the traps of politicking and appeals to personal rapport.


Workplace politicking and personal rapport are not good business reasons for making decisions or taking actions in the workplace. They are complications at best and, at worst, can lead you to make the wrong decisions or take the wrong actions. In the real-world ethics of real influence, the best politics in the workplace—and the best way to protect personal relationships with coworkers—is to stay focused on the work.

Going Over Your Head

When somebody tries to go over your head, don’t get angry. Instead, apply real influence thinking and seize the opportunity to seek greater alignment with your boss and the chain of command. Revisit whatever you are doing (or not doing) in your work with this colleague who is going to your boss. Ask your boss for clear feedback and direction about exactly how to proceed in that working relationship with that colleague: what, why, how, when, and where. Maybe your boss will need to seek greater alignment with the top boss. In any case, take your colleague going over your head as an opportunity to serve the colleague, your boss, and yourself by confirming your alignment with the boss or else realizing the need to recalibrate. The more people find you are in lockstep with your boss, the less likely they are to go over your head.


If someone who is counting on you is badgering you a lot, they are probably worried their project is not going to get the attention from you that it deserves. Just ask them, “What can I do to reassure you?” Then sit down and go over the whole timeline of the project and schedule a weekly check-in meeting to monitor each other’s progress. Timelines and regular check-ins work a lot better than badgering.

Finger-Pointing: Complaining, Blaming, and Undermining

Instead of getting upset or insulted, regard finger-pointing as “customer complaint data” and use that data to improve. When you genuinely take criticism seriously and with gratitude, authentically take it as a valuable service that can help you get better, you turn a potential negative into a true positive. Plus, it makes such a favorable impression on people when you respond favorably to their criticism.

Bruce Tulgan is the best-selling author of “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” and the CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done,” is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers on July 21, 2020, from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at:

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