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 [Note 1], 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.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
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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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Reverse Micromanagement
- Micromanagement is too familiar to too many of us. Less familiar is inappropriate interference in the
reverse direction — in the work of our supervisors or even higher in the chain. Disciplinary action
isn't always helpful, especially when some of the causes of reverse micromanagement are organizational.
- The Attributes of Political Opportunity: The Basics
- Opportunities come along even in tough times. But in tough times, it's especially important to distinguish
between true opportunities and high-risk adventures. Here are some of the attributes of desirable political
- Before You Blow the Whistle: II
- When organizations become aware of negligence, miscalculations, failures, wrongdoing, or legal infractions,
they often try to conceal the bad news. People who disagree with the concealment activity sometimes
decide to reveal what the organization is trying to hide. Here's Part II of our catalog of methods used
to suppress the truth.
- Grace Under Fire: II
- When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the
other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able
to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
- Please Reassure Them
- When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability
of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that
role falls to you.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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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.