Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 27;   July 4, 2007: Ethical Influence: I

Ethical Influence: I


Influencing others can be difficult. Even more difficult is defining a set of approaches to influencing that almost all of us consider ethical. Here's a framework that makes a good starting point.
The Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Passed by Congress on September 25, 1789, and later ratified by the States. The Bill of Rights specifies a number of political freedoms, many of which overlap with Virginia Satir's Five Freedoms. Many thinkers have proposed enumerations of freedoms for various contexts. Search for "bill of rights" to find some of them. Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives.

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:

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.

With your indulgence, I'll address the remaining three freedoms next time. That's me exercising Freedom #4. Go to top Top  Next issue: Ethical Influence: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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.


Virginia Satir was a pioneering family therapist. More Back

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