When people work together, they often have to act jointly, even though they would make differing choices if they acted independently. This tension between personal perspectives leads people to try to influence each other. In any given culture, some influence tactics are nearly-universally regarded as ethical, and some unethical, but we can debate about most of the rest.
The ethics of these choices are worth debating, because we all would prefer to be treated ethically ourselves. One possible framework for that debate is a set of ideas due to Virginia Satir[*], which she called The Five Freedoms. We all have these freedoms:
- The freedom to see and hear what is here, instead of what should be, was or will be
- The freedom to say what one feels and thinks, instead of what one should
- The freedom to feel what one feels, instead of what one should
- The freedom to ask for what one wants, instead of always waiting for permission
- The freedom to take risks in one's own behalf, instead of choosing to be only "secure" and not rocking the boat
Here are the first two of these five freedoms, with applications to influence in organizations.
- The freedom to see and hear what is here…
- When we limit what people know, by withholding or by delaying dissemination of information, especially for our own benefit, we're probably over the line. Even when the motive is to make the information more palatable to its recipients, we're at risk.
- Example: Your spouse receives a great job offer, but it's a two-hour commute. So you try to find a nice place to live halfway between your two workplaces. Just after you buy a new place, you get laid off. The company knew all along that your department would be cut, but they didn't want to say anything until a "more appropriate" time.
- Some influence tactics are
nearly-universally regarded as ethical,
and some unethical, but we can
debate about most of the rest
- The freedom to say what one feels and thinks…
- When we limit what people can discuss, whether by policy, pronouncement, or tacit understanding, we're probably over the line. Sometimes these limits even apply to conversations among those who already possess the subject information. These constraints can harm not only the targets of the constraint, but also the organization itself.
- Example: The boss announces to the team that the deadline must be met, and that we aren't discussing deadline adjustment — just how to meet it. Some deadlines can't change, but this tactic is common even for deadlines that can change. Restricting the discussion for the convenience of some could keep the team from finding a solution that's even better than meeting the deadline. Limiting what people can say deprives us of access to their creativity.
For more about the Five Freedoms and their relationship to a sense of organizational safety, see What to Do About Organizational Procrastination.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.