Over the years I’ve had an aversion to the use of the adjective "soft" to describe anything associated with the dynamics of organizations.
Most particularly, the use of the term "soft skills" to describe the people aspects of leadership capability tends, in my experience, to subordinate these in some managers’ minds to what they see as the ‘real work’. More importantly from an informal coalitions perspective, the association of 'the people side of organization' with what is often dismissively referred to as the "pink and fluffy" stuff means that the very fundamentals of organizational dynamics – the complex social process of human interaction – get lost.
This process is far from ‘pink and fluffy’. It is power-laden and political. It involves the coming together of people with differing and often competing interpretations, interests, ideologies, and identities. Much of the process takes place informally, ‘in the shadows’ of the formal structures, systems and procedures. And it is influenced by taken-for-granted patterns of assumptions that have arisen over time as a result of past sense-making-cum-action-taking interactions. All of these factors, and others, arise because organisations are dynamic networks of people interacting with each other. So it seems to me that an understanding of these dynamics, and how they impact upon business change and performance, should be at the heart of HR practice. Sadly, it isn’t.
"Soft power" exercised through coalitional activity
So what about the notion of "soft power"? Mark McKergow has identified this as one of the central characteristics of "Host Leadership" that he advocates in his related website, and about which I blogged earlier. Is this similarly tainted by the use of the adjective "soft"?
Leaving aside the implied suggestion that an imaginary construct – the state – has the ability to influence anyone (whether in "soft" or "hard" ways), the broad thrust of the idea resonates strongly with many of the themes that are embodied in the dynamics of informal coalitions. The fundamentally political nature of the process involved in using "soft power" is clear from its roots in international diplomacy. And much of the writing on the use of this approach in practice highlights the centrality of formal and informal coalitional activity in mobilizing action behind the desired shifts in policy and behaviour.
In the book itself, and in various posts, I have identified the broad characteristics of coalitions. Amongst these are the following:
- Participation in coalitions is voluntary - people ‘sign up’ because they want to. This is consistent with McKergow’s idea that "the soft power of invitation" is a central characteristic of host leadership.
- The coalition-building process relies primarily on emergent social interaction (i.e. conversation) to define membership and mobilize collective action.
- Coalitions magnify the ability of those involved to influence organisational outcomes. They do so by harnessing the power of collective action in a concerted manner ‘outside’ the formal, 'legitimate' structures and processes of the organization.
- People do not have to agree on everything or share an identical set of values to make progress. Coalitions emerge from the temporary coming together of people who may have diverse - and potentially divergent - motives for participation. Despite this, in relation to a particular objective, they set their differences aside. Coalitions may therefore have the characteristics of a ‘partnership of principle’, a ‘marriage of convenience’ or anything in between.
- The leadership of coalitions arises from people having sufficient power (in the eyes of relevant others) and a compelling enough story to cause others to perceive, interpret and value things differently, and to ‘sign up’.
- Whilst a single leader of a coalition might exist, or emerge over time, leadership behaviour is likely to occur at many points in a successful coalition.
- Coalitions tend to be transient and relate to specific issues, rather than being long-standing and all embracing. They necessarily have fuzzy and ill-defined boundaries.
- Because of the shifting patchwork of issues that surface at any one time, no single coalition is likely to be dominant for long periods.
- Coalitions come into being to facilitate the achievement of a commonly desired outcome, which participants believe will help them to further their diverse individual and/or collective agendas.
According to Nye,
"Soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them." (Ref.#1)
As originally conceived, the concept applied to inter-national relations. Coalitions are often spoken about in similar contexts, as well as describing a particular form of inter-organizational arrangement. However, in Informal Coalitions, I focus on inter-personal (i.e. intra-organizational) dynamics. That is, on the complex social process of everyday interaction that comprises what we describe as "the organization".
In an organizational context, informal coalitional activity happens all of the time. It occurs with or without a manager’s mindful involvement - and whether or not they themselves are inclined to favour what might be seen as "hard power" choices (such as "command and control" and/or "incentive-led" approaches) in relation to their formal management task. In the light of this ongoing, 'shadow-side' activity, the only meaningful choice that a manager has is whether or not to engage with these dynamics in a deliberate and informed way – seeking to mobilize collective action around organizationally relevant themes.
With one qualification, then, the notion of "soft power" sits comfortably with the coalition-building activity that is embodied in the informal coalitions approach to organizational leadership. The qualification might appear semantic but is, I feel, fundamental. That is, it is not power per se that is "soft" or "hard". Power is a relational dynamic. And constantly shifting power relations are played out continuously, in the give and take of day-to-day interaction. The relevant question is therefore whether people perceive this interactional process in which they and others are involved to be co-operative and inviting ("soft"). Or if instead they feel that the exchanges reflect a coercive or calculative relationship between themselves and others ("hard").
Earlier, I asked if the term "soft power" might be tainted by the use of the adjective "soft", in the same way that I believe the notion of "soft skills" has been. I’ve answered "No" to this, given that its use as originally conceived by Nye recognizes the inherently political nature of the process. My only caveat would be if its application within the frame of "hosting" were to deny these dynamics and imply that host leadership was in any way a ‘soft option’ – devoid of the hidden messy and informal dynamics (including 'hard' choices) that characterize everyday human interaction.
Ref.#1: *Nye, J. (2004) Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Public Affairs, US.