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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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- The "What-a-Great-Idea!" Trap
- You just made a great suggestion at a meeting, and ended up with responsibility for implementing it.
Not at all what you had in mind, but it's a trap you've fallen into before. How can you share your ideas
without risk of getting even more work to do?
- When Others Curry Favor
- When peers curry favor with the boss, many of us feel contempt, an urge for revenge, anger, or worse.
Trying to stop those who curry favor probably isn't an effective strategy. What is?
- Before You Blow the Whistle: I
- When organizations know that they've done something they shouldn't have, or they haven't done something
they should have, they often try to conceal the bad news. When dealing with whistleblowers, they can
be especially ruthless.
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold
responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- Big Egos and Other Misconceptions
- We often describe someone who arrogantly breezes through life with swagger and evident disregard for
others as having a "big ego." Maybe so. And maybe not. Let's have a closer look.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on November 1: Risk Creep: I
- Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep? Available here and by RSS on November 1.
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- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:
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- 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.
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.