The Case for Soft Power

Forget “command and control” or “rule by committee”. Instead, build coalitions of support. Then show the way forward.

They say that there are two kinds of power. “Hard power” is about rank, authority, and protocol. When somebody relies on hard power to exercise influence, they explicitly demand compliance. It’s brutally efficient, but it can sometimes come at the expense of other people. “Soft power”, on the other hand, is all about motivating others through mutual trust and shared interests. When someone exercises influence by building coalitions of genuine support, they encourage compliance. It’s terribly slow and often painful work, but the benefits (usually) outweigh the effort.

In reality, both are necessary — just not in equal measures.

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All power is a reflection of perspective

I’m reading this book titled Reinventing Organizations. Based on what I’ve gleaned from the first 50 pages, the author’s premise is that any human organization reflects a common perspective on work, people, and values. He argues that these perspectives reflect specific stages of human consciousness. Successive stages of organizational development employ different methods for managing people at scale, and all of them are still operational today.

Each stage is assigned a color. “Red” organizations are purely authoritarian, for example. “Amber” organizations apply a strictly militaristic structure and rely heavily on protocol. Born out of the Industrial Revolution, “orange” organizations primarily seek to operationalize humanity and continuously optimize it for performance. Conversely, “green” organizations are relationship-based and rely on consensus to make decisions. Apparently, there’s now evidence for the emergence of “teal” organizations, which value individual contribution/potential in the pursuit of meaningful work. Or something.

Anyway, the point is that how organizations manage themselves depends on shared mental framework. This framework translates 1:1 with how power is expressed, such as through punishment and fear, rigid hierarchies and protocols, or bonuses and performance-based incentives.

I find this all very interesting, but so far I personally don’t identify with any one color or manifestation of power. If anything, my organizational mental-model would be “gray”. To me, how people, organizations, or cultures behave are just spectrums along a continuum. There are always extremes and infinite grey in between. There’s therefore no such thing as the best or right way exercise power because the “optimal” way to manage people or get shit done depends entirely on the spectrums unique to each organization.

In my case, I work for a German tech company with employees all over the world who work remotely. We’re mission-minded, values-driven, and allergic to hierarchy. According to the author, we’re probably an “orange/green” organization that wants to be “teal”. I just see different monochromatic contrasts and gradients. But so what? What’s more important is that power is exercised appropriately in any context in order to achieve the best possible outcomes.

This is where “hard” and “soft” power come into play. My chief responsibility is to ensure that people are working on the right things at the right times in order to achieve measurable results. Even though I have a designated rank that includes official management responsibilities, relying on hard power alone would be ineffective (and possibly destructive) in this context. When your company culture values transparency, inclusion, and self-determination, you can’t just tell people what to do.

But even if I could, or if I worked in an “amber” organization with 30 different seniority levels, telling people what to do isn’t my style, or, in my experience, generally very effective. Besides, super-smart/values-driven people (like the ones here at eyeo) don’t usually like being told what to do. Furthermore, people tend to do their best work when they’re genuinely engaged and co-own the final outcome. That’s why I rely mostly on soft power.

What does soft power look like?

To be clear, soft power isn’t about asking people to do things. Rather, it’s about inspiring them. There’s a big difference.

When a manager or leader asks somebody to do something, the subordinate or peer first considers their relationship with the manager/leader. In a hierarchical organization, no matter how explicit the “ask”, the “demand” is implied. In organizations that are more egalitarian, “pretty please” is implied. In either case, the other person’s motivation for doing something is solely about the person asking. If they like or respect that person, they’ll probably do the thing. If they don’t, they either won’t do it well, or at all. But even if they do do their job well, chances are the end result will be sufficient (at best), because their only real goal is to complete the work and avoid further pestering. So, asking for things isn’t really an expression of power at all.

Conversely, when a manager or leader inspires somebody to do something, the subordinate or peer primarily considers their potential contribution to solving a problem or maximizing an opportunity. In any type of organization, a truly motivated person will find a way to get something done because they actually care about the outcome. And if they care, the end result will likely exceed expectations. This is the truest expression of soft power.

To inspire people, real leadership is required. The manager/leader must identify a problem or goal, define a clear vision, actively solicit support, and then facilitate/coordinate any contributions needed to complete the task. They must be willing to listen to feedback, answer questions, and broker compromise. They have to constantly translate goodwill into meaningful action. And, most crucially, they direct energy towards a certain destination without prescribing a particular path. A wilting wallflower or passive-aggressive micromanager can’t do any of those things well.

When to use (and not to use) soft power

Obviously, relying on soft power alone is problematic as well. Imagine a life where everything can only get done if you “inspire” them to so. Nothing would get done. Or, at least, nothing you want will get done.

I have a basic rule of thumb I apply when making decisions. It helps me navigate the myriad problems I have to solve every day — everything from approving software requests to resolving interdepartmental conflicts. When is it better to use one’s title and authority, or do the hard work of building support for something?

It’s simple, really:

  • If a decision will affect only myself or another person, use hard power.
  • If a decision will affect lots of other people externally, use soft power to minimize risk, and hard power to maximize potential.
  • If a decision will affect lots of other people internally, definitely use soft power.

In practice, things like approving software requests, conferences, and equipment purchases don’t need “buy in”. I’m doing something for another person’s benefit, and have the explicit authority to make those kinds of decisions. I use hard power in these case.

Now let’s say, as a Product Manager, I want to release a new feature or product. Although my decisions should always be informed by research, the perspective of those with deeper expertise, and the technical requirements necessary to execute those decisions, I’m the one who ultimately owns the roadmap (i.e. the prioritized list of specific tasks the project team is expected to execute). Therefore, I use hard power to decide on individual roadmap items. However, there are always technical, legal, business, or user experience issues that aren’t just complex, but could also hurt our users, the team, and/or the company if we don’t get it right. In these instances, I use soft power to build the trust and willingness needed to take chances, alter course, or hit the “kill” switch.

But if, again as a Product Manager, I want to institute a new process that others will have to adhere to if they want to contribute to the product, doing so unilaterally will probably result in resistance, resentment, or outright circumvention. People always want a “heads up” if something is going to impact their day-to-day life. So if I really want a process to work, I should seek buy-in from all my stakeholders before anything gets instituted. That’s when I use soft power.

How does soft power work?

Saying that soft power is a person’s ability to exert influence by inspiring others is perhaps too lofty. In reality, I think of it a lot like coalition building — which should NOT to be confused with committee building. A coalition is a group of people that share a common vision and are prepared to do something about it. A committee is a group fo people assembled by virtue of position or importance, and who are tasked with making decisions that others will act upon. Obviously, the former will be far more conducive to getting shit done than the latter.

With this in mind, I go about building coalitions of support within the organization based on some straightforward principles:

  • Any coalition is build on trust and mutual interest.
  • Trust is the byproduct of familiarity, consistency, and honesty. There are no shortcuts.
  • Mutual interest is the byproduct of personal understanding, acceptance, and a sincere desire to achieve the same outcome.
  • In order to translate desire into meaningful action, each member must feel empowered to act, believe their contribution will matter, and share ownership over the final result.
  • Meanwhile, every member of a coalition is a peer-volunteer. Their is no chain of command, or an actual requirement to participate.
  • The job of the coalition leader, therefore, is to ensure alignment, develop a plan, and facilitate the process.
  • As such, the end result may not conform to the leader’s personal expectations, and they must be willing to accept that result.

This is why effective leadership is vitally important. The “leader” must lead without telling people what to do. They have to sell a vision, anticipate problems, resolve conflict, broker compromise, and coordinate activities so as to deliver the expected outcome. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work.

There have been times when I attempted to build support for something that everyone agreed was a worthwhile goal, but nothing happened. There are times when I’ve met collective resistance, or really upset some folks in the process (in which case, again, nothing happens). There are even times when end result is not at all what I had hoped it would be. But I’ve learned, ironically, that it all still helps to build trust over time because I regularly invite people to participate in things, instead of demanding that they comply with my whims. So, the next time I want to build a coalition, goodwill and cooperation are often much easier to foster.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, hard power should be a lever one pulls rarely and for a specific, limited purpose. Soft power is a tool that should be used whenever the consequences would impact many others. (The bigger the impact, the more soft power is required).

When power is used appropriately the result is trust and credibility. The more trust and credibility there is, the less one needs to pull rank or build support. Many times I don’t have to exercise any power at all. I just need to present the problem, and many times people are naturally to contribute to a solution. Not because I ask them politely, but because they know through previous experience — that I just want to make something better.

Personally, I don’t like thinking in terms of “power” since I believe that, ideally, power should be shared whenever possible. But hard levers and soft tools can sometimes be useful when you want to get shit done, done well, and for the right reasons. Which is really what I care about most.