Why Forcing Your Will On Others Usually Doesn’t Work

It’s so hard to accomplish something great. And it’s made more difficult when you have to rely on others to succeed. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to fix every problem, straighten out every hitch, and achieve all your goals by mandate? To say, “Just do it or else!” In the flux of our daily business life, with all the disappointments, obstacles, and surprises we face, it’s completely natural to sometimes want to “force” an issue.

I do so now and then, and I can testify that it feels good. (“Ann, I don’t give a hoot what sort of problems he’s facing,” I shout. “Tell him to get it up and running by tomorrow afternoon or I’ll pull all my business away.”) It’s emotionally satisfying, but pragmatically ineffective. Yes, you can goose the occasional ne’er-do-well with a well-worded threat, but most of the time all you’ll get for your troubles are foot-dragging, excuses, and passive aggression.

In a pamphlet titled “Persuasion vs. Force” www.MarkSkousen.com, Mark Skousen quotes British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: “The creation of the world, said Plato, is the victory of persuasion over force. Civilization is the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force, however unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in the general society or in a remnant of individuals.” “Now the intercourse between individuals and between social groups takes one of these two forms: force or persuasion.

Commerce is the great example of intercourse by way of persuasion. War, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force.” Skousen says you can measure the quality of civilization in a society by the degree to which its behavior is ruled by persuasion, as opposed to force. “My vision of a responsible free society,” he says, “is one in which we discourage evil but do not prohibit it. We make our children and students aware of the consequences of drug abuse and other forms of irresponsible behavior. But after all our persuading, if they still want to use harmful drugs, that is their privilege.

In a free society, individuals must have the right to do right or wrong as long as they don’t threaten or infringe upon the rights or property of others. They must also suffer the consequences of their actions, as it is from consequences that they learn to choose properly. “We may discourage prostitution or pornography by restricting it to certain areas and to certain ages, but we will not jail or fine those who choose to participate in it privately.

If an adult bookstore opens in our neighborhood, we don’t run to the law and pass an ordinance; we picket the store and discourage customers. If our religion asks us not to shop on Sunday, we don’t pass Sunday “blue” laws forcing stores to close; we simply don’t patronize them on Sunday. If we don’t like excessive violence and gratuitous sex on TV, we don’t write the Federal Communications Commission; we join boycotts of the advertiser’s products. “Several years ago, the owners of 7-11 stores removed pornographic magazines from their stores, not because the law required it, but because a group of concerned citizens persuaded them. These actions reflect the true spirit of liberty.”

If persuasion is a sign of the quality of civilization in society, perhaps it is also a sign of the quality of leadership in a business or other organization. Great businesses are those that seem to run themselves. The employees readily embrace the core values and goals of the organization and motivate themselves and others to pursue those goals and values — not because they must, but because they want to.

At AGP, my largest client, about 400 people work long, hard hours making sacrifices and taking on extra responsibility in order to achieve the company’s many goals. AGP’s chairman and CEO, BB, exemplifies in business what Mark Skousen praises in the social sector. He’s a strong believer in personal liberty, a soft-spoken advocate of personal responsibility, and an active promoter of libertarian values both in his daily e-zine (The Daily Reckoning http://dailyreckoning.com/) and in his relationships with employees, colleagues, and associates.

In all the time I’ve known BB, I’ve never heard him issue a command or make a threat. Sometimes, when he’s very sure of a course of action, he might say something like, “If I were you, I’d do such and such” — but he always leaves it up to the employee to make the final decision. When I talked to BB a few years ago about joining up with him to help AGP grow, a young executive interrupted us to ask what he thought should be done about some problem. “I don’t know,” he replied. “What do you think we should do?”

That seemed like a pretty “laid-back” way of handling that concern. But when he did the exact same thing again and again — at least four times during the time we talked together — I realized it was much more than laid back; it was a deliberate approach to management. What I’ve learned since then is that there are many advantages to using persuasion rather than force in business. Among them: Sometimes, people don’t listen to you. And, sometimes, they are right.

Sometimes, you discover that your good idea isn’t so good after all. Your employees learn to understand your vision, not just to obey your commands. Your business becomes one with a future that is determined by reason rather than authority. You make fewer enemies. I now have a successful business staffed by hard-working, loyal, and creative people — not because they are required to work certain hours or meet certain standards but because they are inspired by the goals of the business and are motivated by the financial, social, and personal rewards that come to them by achieving those goals.