Hard power is familiar to us all. It’s the use of force. And economic power, in all of its forms of reward and penalty, is equally common. But how can you effectively collaborate with others and get people to do what you want, without incentives, sanctions or coercion?
In the geopolitical domain, Joseph S. Nye coined the term soft power for this form of gentle persuasion. But soft power is equally valuable in organizational settings — arguably more so.
The Organizational Need for Soft Power
In today’s world of matrix management, holacracy and adhocracy, few managers have any sort of formal power to wield. Yet you’re still required to get things done, on time, on budget and to specification.
So, let’s look at how you can deploy soft power in your workplace, on your projects and when you are leading change.
What is Soft Power?
When Nye coined the term soft power, he asserted that “seduction is always more effective than coercion.”
Soft power builds on your social influence. This, in turn, reflects the reality of day-to-day human interactions. And they are equally valid at work as anywhere else.
What Type of People Do You Like?
I bet there are a lot of answers. But I’d equally wager that all of the following are true. I’d bet you like people who:
- You trust
- Help you out
- You see often
- Listen to you
- You can believe
- Respect you
- Make you feel good
- Are like you
- Are like who you want to be
So, what’s the secret to soft power? It’s simple: be all those people listed above.
Once you start to do this, you can use soft power to shape, reinforce and shift the perceptions and opinions of colleagues, clients and other organizational stakeholders. We’ll examine 12 ways you can do this.
Trust is an essential part of soft power, and to earn it, you need to constantly live up to your commitments. Integrity is also about the extent to which you act with authenticity: doing and saying what you believe is right, rather than succumbing to pure pragmatism.
A reputation of integrity is a long-term investment, and that sterling reputation can be besmirched with one poor choice. So, make integrity your first priority whenever you face a tough decision.
Wouldn’t it be a nice world if everyone just helped everyone else? Human beings like the quality of helpfulness so much that when we encounter people who are happy to offer help without expecting a return, we immediately like and value them. There’s even a name for that behavior: paying it forward.
Building up credit in your bank of favors and helpfulness is a great way to grow your soft power.
Nye talked about the importance of attraction to soft power. And attraction starts with familiarity: we like what we are comfortable with, and we are comfortable with what we know.
Therefore, many brands spend a lot of money on brand recognition advertising: establishing familiarity with their product in the minds of their target market. Invest time in getting to know — and be known by — the people you want to influence.
With some people, there is nothing they need better than a darn good listening to! Because, in general, the quality of listening in the workplace is pretty poor. We’re all in a rush; we all want to say our piece. So, we often half-listen at best.
When people know that they can speak to you and you will listen intensely to what they are saying, they will often seek you out. They’ll feel you have wisdom to impart and see you as a powerful coach and mentor. Ironically, it’s often the people who say the least that can influence the most. This is, perhaps, the softest of soft power!
Authority also comes from your knowledge, experience and expertise. When you have this kind of authority, people will seek out your advice, feeling confident that it will be well-informed and therefore reliable.
Once again, less is more. If you confine yourself to offering opinions only on matters where you have an informed point of view, people will come to rely on your thoughts more. Trusted advisors are able to combine integrity, helpfulness, familiarity, listening and expertise to create a reputation people trust.
How you come across to people is important. Do you treat them with respect? Are you able to remain courteous, even when you are under pressure? Diplomacy is a key part of soft power.
Manner, however, is about more than just manners. We associate a certain authority with those who demonstrate confidence without showing arrogance. This is as difficult a challenge for us in organizations as it is for nations on the world stage.
“People like people who are like themselves” is a cliché because it is true. So, take time to discover the points of common interest between yourself and your stakeholders. Listen to their concerns and try and see the world from their point of view.
Finding out about people’s interests, and then making a point to talk about them in small-talk, is a powerful way to build rapport. If I think you share one of my interests, I am more likely to like and trust you.
Charm is a shockingly effective way to get people to like you and so be influenced by you. Common courtesies, a simple smile and a few well-placed compliments can go a long way to attracting people to you and bringing them under your spell.
Be careful with your compliments, though. Make sure they reflect genuine observations of things that will matter to the person you are complimenting. If I have put a lot of effort into crafting an important presentation, I don’t want to hear that you like my tie. I’d rather you notice how the structure of my talk made the core message easy to understand.
Because we are social creatures, the promise of a relationship, and the opportunity to deepen it, are powerful motivators that you can exploit effectively to influence people. When you help them to feel part of an in-group, you feed their need to conform and be part of a social structure, leaving them more willing to treat you as a valued part of their group too.
Note that the in-group / out-group distinction can differ in its definitions and implications from one culture to another. In Japanese culture, the respect and courtesies I referred to under charm are afforded to members of an out-group (soto), whilst members of your own in-group (uchi) are treated with greater familiarity and casualness.
As social animals, we don’t just crave belonging and a desire to be part of an in-group: we also want status within our group. When you are able to treat people with the respect they believe is due to them, and even elevate their status a little and treat them with more respect, they will want to reciprocate the favor in some way.
One of the things I have learned is to treat junior people with great respect. Seek them out and give them your time. They may not have influence now, but the soft power you can exert over them, through treating them well at the start of their career, will extend as they rise through the ranks of their organizations.
Our need to control our environment is a fundamental part of being human. As soon as we feel we have insufficient control, we suffer symptoms that we describe as stress.
When you give people control over an aspect of what is happening, they will respect and like you for it. So, the granting of control over specific aspects of organizational choices or decisions around change is a powerful way to exert soft influence.
And, because people feel a need to exert control, by directing that urge, you minimize the likelihood that they will seek to exert control in other directions.
We all want to feel useful and effective. So, my final example of soft power is when you help people contribute. The positive feeling they get as a result of being able to achieve something is a reward that they will want to pay for in terms of granting you favors or concessions.
So, setting up chances for others to do something useful are a way to gently persuade. Invite people to join in your success and make contributions. Help people to find ways they can succeed. They’ll feel in your debt forever.
Don’t Underestimate Soft Power
Soft Power is the strongest form of power. If you rely on hard power, there’s always a chance you’ll run into someone with a bigger stick than you have. And, if economic power is your favored approach, what happens when you meet someone with deeper pockets? But soft power doesn’t compete in the same way. You make friends and they act as your friends. Nothing can beat that.
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