Tag Archives: compliance gaining

What Counts as Genuine Persuasion?

Bill Lumbergh in Office Space
Gary Cole’s Bill Lumbergh in the film, Office Space

When there are differences of opinion, the richest forms of communication still allow those with contrasting views to walk away, without penalties. 

The word “persuasion” is the preferred term to identify moments when one individual or group attempts to alter the beliefs or behaviors of another.  But the word is frequently misused, especially if one “persuader” has used extra-verbal inducements to get what he or she wants. It’s interesting that when Aristotle wrote his own study of persuasion 2500 years ago, he noted that the use of knives and torture counted as “inartistic” forms of influence.  He didn’t miss much.  He would no doubt marvel at the additional bludgeons we moderns use to threaten physical or psychological harm.  The modern equivalent of torture might be the denial of fair compensation, extortion, the possibility of a bad job review.  The ways we can cow each other are nearly endless.

Properly used, “Persuasion” occurs when an individual freely assents to what another asks. No coercion. No risk of retribution.  No organizational advantage has figured in the outcome.  Everything else that may look like persuasion is really what could be called  “compliance-gaining,” as when a boss “asks” an employee to work late.

This is not just an academic distinction with little real-world application.  The difference actually matters. To fully understand persuasion we need to know who or what is actually doing the heavy lifting. The use of threats, power or position are all coercive, a fact that takes away a receiver’s opportunity to truly exercise their own judgment. 

As a student of this subject, I’m not especially interested in the idea of compliance. In communication terms  there’s not that much going on.  There’s no grace in using force or a power advantage.  In such cases the unequal distribution of power does most of the work.  It’s like shooting animals within a fenced game reserve.  It’s easily done, but not very sporting.

What is interesting is how we manage to perpetuate the delusion of free choice. My impression is that managers often see themselves as having a knack for engaging with employees, as with the smarmy Bill Lumbergh in the iconic film, Office Space (1999).  The soul-destroying demands made by Gary Cole’s character are covered in a sticky syrup of forced collegiality. Lumbergh may believe he has the pulse of the office, but the film knows better.  As this clip from U-tube shows, he doesn’t have a clue.

Office Space – Working Tomorrow

Scene from Office Space

By contrast, there’s real pleasure in participating in communication where every side retains the right to walk away with no penalties. That fulfills our faith in a democratic values, especially another person’s right to their opinion. That’s why democracies are called “open societies.”

The problem is the indiscriminate mixing of persuasion and compliance-gaining as more or less the same thing . For example, journalist Steven Greenhouse misses the point when he notes in a recent Atlantic article that Wal-Mart “persuades” its employees to be anti-union. What his otherwise useful reporting actually describes is pure coercion. Try and unionize and you are simply out of a job, or your unit is shut down. Similarly, courses and texts in “leadership” often trade heavily in the language of equal-to-equal communication, ignoring explicit organizational hierarchies.  All of this is represented in phrases like “team-building” and “group problem-solving:” the kinds of things we are likely to hear from faux-egalitarians like Lumbergh.

No one wants to be the apparent autocrat issuing orders. Most of us would like to be seen as good listeners open to the ideas of others.  But openness needs to be earned by accepting the right of an audience member to say no, without penalties.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

Papering Ourselves to Death

paperwork commons wikimedia.org
Source: commons wikimedia.org

The rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often rule-making leads to the measurement of success in terms of compliance rather than initiative.

In a debate on the explosion of American lawsuits a few years ago the famed law professor and trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz described one litigation strategy used by large corporate defendants as “papering the other side to death.” He meant, of course, that a lawyered-up organization can intimidate a plaintiff  by requiring so much data and information that the cost of a “win” becomes too risky and time-consuming.

The phrase has always stuck with me as a perfect representation of a common bureaucratic impulse. Paper has perhaps been replaced by online documents and files.  Even so, there seems to be a natural tendency to bureaucratize even the simplest processes, ostensibly to be “uniform.”  But in fact these rules function in part to mystify others into compliance. No one, for example, reads the “conditions of use” fine-print attached to nearly every downloaded application.  But the sheer volume of their legalese lends authority to the source. Or try having your car or yourself serviced at a facility that is supposed to assure us to keep things in good working order. The front desk clerk taking down your information is now likely to go through a prolonged data-entry mode that leaves little time for a description of the problem that brought you in.  Filling in forms seems to be a primary function that exists for its own sake.

Our organizational life seems to thrive on hiring and promoting rule-makers: policy specialists, compliance officers, lawyers, professional writers, contract law specialists, employees charged with reviewing procedures, and especially organizational members–some with OCD tendencies that make them ready to see any free choice as a vacuum that needs a procedure. After all, someone must police the miscreants who would initiate a novel approach to a routine task.

“Procedures” nailed down in multiple pages of “steps” have the perverse effect of replacing individual initiative with a gloss of uniformity.  Organizational culture naturally wants uniformity, which is not itself a bad thing. The problem is that the folks who write the rules seem to self-select, forming groups who are all too willing to “paper” the rest of us.

Alas, this compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists motivated to reverse the process. So organizational culture typically embraces a snowballing accumulation of regulations.

Even college professors aren’t immune from this tendency, especially when setting up rules defining the  work status of their colleagues. The pedant in all of us loves to make guidelines, rubrics, checklists, worksheets, mission statements, instructions, directives, standards and criteria. People who might better spend their time on scholarship often drift into generating handbooks of rules for even the most simple of professional tasks, such as observing a younger colleague’s teaching. The arc of a college teacher’s professional career is now tracked, classified, quantified, compared against a rubric, assessed by insiders, assessed by outsiders, tested in online questionnaires, burdened with filings to outside agencies, and itemized in reports to higher-ups. One wonders how Princeton’s Albert Einstein would have responded if told that his career arc at the Ivy League school was out of compliance with the guidelines applied to all of the school’s disciplines.

The rhetorician Kenneth Burke called this tendency to over-produce regulatory flotsam “the bureaucratization of the imaginative.” It’s a perfect phrase. Reining in creativity by “regularizing” work simplifies organizational life, but has a deadening effect on innovators. In effect, the rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often this impulse leads to the measurement of success in terms of compliance rather than initiative.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu