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The Power of Social Networks & Opinion Leaders

June 27, 2009 Leave a comment

Some time ago my PC crashed and being old it was not worth replacing. The first thing I did was to talk to friends who had gone through similar experiences, and I prepared myself for the new purchase by talking to vendors about their products and by checking books and reviews by acknowledged experts. Then I shared with my network details of the models that I had investigated. By that time I had already decided on the PC I felt would best fit my requirements, but in talking to my friends I was persuaded to change my mind and pick a different model.

I purchased that machine and it is giving me excellent service. I don’t believe that this experience is at all unusual; indeed, I think it’s quite commonplace in dealing with everyday problems of all kinds. Most of us welcome support in addressing our challenges, and seek the help and advice of our social networks in resolving them. The example shows that I did not exclude expert commentary, but it also shows that intervention by familiar trusted social elements is often what provides the final, but most influential, recommendation in the decision-making process. This is because these members of a trusted network ensure the ‘safety’ and ‘cultural fit’ of the decision. Other arms-length elements provide guidance, but in the final analysis they often seem too distant from the complexities of the local situation to be persuasive or perhaps trustworthy.

For me this episode says a lot about the power of networks and defines many of the principles of “opinion leaders”. It got me wondering why, if we follow this process so frequently in our everyday lives, we do not follow it in our organizational lives? Well, guess what – as individuals in informal organizational communities we do! Unfortunately, we don’t formally recognize it, or attempt to address its ramifications or leverage it as a matter of organizational policy and practice. Maybe it’s so commonplace that we all fail to see its utility, just like goldfish are said to fail to comprehend the need for the water in which they swim. Or maybe it’s just not technologically sexy enough.

This acceptance of the power of networks and opinion leaders is at the heart of much of what I and TLA’s Associates ( www.tlainc.com ) bring to our various assignments and I’m delighted to dialogue on  this if you feel like contacting me …

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Rationality-Emotion Balance

June 23, 2009 1 comment

One may provide all the rational understanding and wherewithal for individuals or communities to accomplish a given objective, but if they don’t want to do it then it won’t happen, or the effort will be half-hearted with predictable results. Surely this simple truth is common knowledge, but much of the organizational managerial establishment still doesn’t get it – having ‘power over’ may make you feel good, but it’s a strategy that starts off suboptimal and goes down hill from there.

Of course organizations do routinely operate under a façade of rationality, but they still over-emphasize the goal-orientation that drives them, and under-value the expressive affective arenas of life; this in spite of a large influx of women into the workforce. In 1973 Gerard Egan wrote “Emotional repression in undoubtedly still a far greater problem than emotional overindulgence” [1]. Some thirty-odd years later this statement is as true as ever in my opinion; society still equates management capability with emotional maturity. This translates as the control or repression of feelings, and organizations continue to use the word ‘emotional’ in a derogatory sense. Indeed, since managers are often guarded in their feelings, they prefer others to behave in the same way: “It is thought uncivil, rude, unconventional, unwarranted, and even obscene to express feelings toward others. Emotional insulation parades under such euphemisms as ‘respect for others’ and ‘the dignity of privacy’” [2]; I would go further and include that it parades as ‘respect for our leaders and managers’.

Putnum and Mumby quote Lutz who sums it up well: “In addition to treating emotion as a physiological state, people regard emotion as a value-laden concept which is often treated as ‘inappropriate’ for organizational life. In particular, emotional reactions are often seen as ‘disruptive’, ‘illogical’, ‘biased’ and ‘weak’. Emotion, then, becomes a deviation from what is seen as intelligent” [3]. Perhaps there is a fear in leaders and managers that focusing on emotional energy leads to loss of control; this is not the case: “Organizations do not need to abandon instrumental goals, productivity, or rationality to develop alternative modes of discourse. Emphasizing work feelings calls for including what is currently ignored or marginalized in organizational life. Rationality is not an objective, immutable state. Rather it is socially constructed and cast as the dominant mode of organizing. Rationality and technical efficiency, however, should be embedded in a larger system of community and interrelatedness. Perhaps organizations of the future could offer society a new alternative, one shaped by emotionally-connected creativity and mutual understanding as necessary elements for human growth.” [4].

A growing issue is that so much interpersonal communication is no longer face-to-face but ‘second-hand’ – mediated through technology, and “Technology makes it easy to fake authenticity, to manipulate it, to have encounters that seem authentic but are not” [5]; however, although technology such as email seems tailor-made for the powerful elite to hand out ‘the tablets’, social networking tools such as twitter and facebook offer huge opportunities for honest social interaction, and indeed demand a level of emotional honesty for social network trust and acceptance. I am encouraged by the way social networking tools leverage the community-influence of individuals to combat ‘power-over’ e.g. the political struggle in Iran. I also see why there will be resistance to inclusion of such tools in an organization’s inernal-use technology portfolio – but we can hope!

Social systems are highly complex and there is no guarantee that a particular seemingly desirable starting condition, such as the widespread introduction of social networking technology into organizations, will result in a desirable end-state. I do believe though that it would be a step in the right direction, helping to redirect the emotional labor that employees currently expend in subverting authoritarianism and emotional control, and channel it such that they display leadership in, and take personal responsibility for, shaping their own self-organizing system. “Here, ideally, people would give up some of their uniqueness to help build the edifice or common system, rather than clamoring for more power for their system, which then gets experienced as power over other people” [6].

Human nature being what it is, I do not believe that it is possible to build a paradise where an organization will fully succeed in dealing appropriately with all the complexities of the interactions within its social systems. I do believe however that an organization can strike an adequate balance between power-over/rationality/technical efficiency and non-rational factors, such that each field contributes to, and supports the other, in optimizing performance.

I contend that by adopting this approach the quality of work, and work life of the organization, would be vastly enhanced over time, and that the ground would be well prepared for general adoption of much needed traits of leadership and personal responsibility at all employee levels. I would like to hear your views – please contact me to further explore these topics..

Notes

[1] Egan, G., Face To Face, Brooks/Cole Publishing, Monterey, 1973; pp. 61

[2] Egan, G., Face To Face, Brooks/Cole Publishing, Monterey, 1973; pp. 64

[3] Putnam, L.L., Mumby, D.K., Organizations, Emotion and the Myth of Rationality, in S. Fineman (Ed), Emotion in Organizations, Sage Publications, London, 1993; pp. 36

[4] Putnam, L.L., Mumby, D.K., Organizations, Emotion and the Myth of Rationality, in S. Fineman (Ed), Emotion in Organizations, Sage Publications, London, 1993; pp. 55

[5] Lukensmeyer, C.J., Parlett, M., Power, Change, And Authenticity: A Political And Gestalt Perspective, British Gestalt Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1997; pp. 7

[6] Lukensmeyer, C.J., Parlett, M., Power, Change, And Authenticity: A Political And Gestalt Perspective, British Gestalt Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1997; pp. 13