The Power of Social Force in Leadership: Using Tone, Language, and Body Language to Influence Change

| 5 min read
#management #leadership #interpersonal #psychological-safety #getting-stuff-done

One of the biggest areas of struggles I had when I tried my had at management was the understanding of how I could get people to do things. I don't mean this in a negative sense where my reports weren't doing their work. I was thinking more in the literal sense of, at some level there's nothing stopping someone from blowing me off. I was an inexperienced and nervous manager and this concept seemed all too possible. For the most part, in modern engineering teams, personal ownership is encouraged. Leaders are responsible for framing the work and then allowing engineers to take that work and run with it how they see fit. This is really helpful for the majority of situations and the implementation drop-off/disconnects are either non-existent or positive because the people owning the work get to be the ones making the decision. When we talk about leading through influence we're often talking about persuasion, i.e. using the language of someone else's priorities in order to convince them that the thing you want to do is a good thing to do.

Often, as I discovered, as a manager, people will simply do the things you ask. And, the higher up you go, the more likely that your status will give you a good amount of leeway in terms of how quickly people will do the thing they think you're asking based on the stories they've built in their head about you, and that becomes its own sort of problem.

However, there are situations, even in high-autonomy teams, where nudging is important. People need to be aware that their interpretation of a situation isn't tenable in the current context. When you're working with people who are disconnected from you, who are similar level, or if you are trying to push through an issue that you think might be dragging on (like a discussion that's getting bikeshedded), there are social cues that I've seen the best managers and leaders tap into in order to get things done: I've started thinking about it as "Social Force".

It's the Jedi equivalent of a force push, but you're doing it with words instead of with fantastical powers. The basic idea here is that there's a shift in tone and demeanor you'll use to communicate that you've exited the "getting people excited about this potential" phase and entered the, "this is happening and let's figure out how to do it".

Why is it important

Firstly, even good teams will swirl on topics that are ultimately either not up for debate, or not so important as being worth the amount of debate being given. Managers have a duty to step in and stop bike shedding at the source, and social force is an important use of that. Secondly, when working across boundaries, especially at larger orgs, social force is a way of communicating importance about a certain task. And finally, social force is a good way of making your boundaries pretty transparent. One of the challenges of working in a emotional safe environment is that it can make every request feel value neutral, collaborative, and like a group decision. But not everything is. Some things are in fact quite important, and it's important to be able to communicate that without being mean, rude, or unclear.

An artificially created pencil sketch of one person tapping on another person's forehead, as though they are pushing them A color pencil sketch of someone force pushing another person's thoughts

What are the limits

That all being said, social force has its limits. If you go around trying to force push everything in sight the power is going to diminish. Social force is best used when there are clear implications of consequences for failure to go along. What's important here is that the consequence is not firing or dismissal, it's something more uncomfortable, like, "I'm going to annoy you until this happens" or "you won't get to do the thing you want until we get this done". It's not "Do this or your fired". That's the equivalent of a force choke and is a basic sign of a toxic workplace.

This means that social force has similar limits as other sorts of social negotiated behavior. You can only do it so long as other people respect the authority (or the nagging) of the pressure you're putting, and so long as you're not using it so much that it becomes ineffectual, annoying, or destructive to the emotional health of the environment.

How to Do it

There are a few key indicators about using social force that are verbal, even on zoom calls. Speech tends to become more direct, and the response might cut someone off to indicate its importance. There's a change in language from questioning or uncertainty to concrete and action oriented. The statement tends to be a smidge louder, a bit sharper, and end almost terse. Your statement won't go up an octave at the end, it will end firmly. The goal is to create the implication that "this is happening and let's talk about how" rather than "What do you think about this?".

Use It Wisely

In terms of being a good leader, it's most effectively deployed not when it's about "we should do it this way because I'm right" it's deployed in situations where you need to make other people start caring about a situation, project, or outcome that they might not because it's important for the people you lead. If you're not deploying this as an avatar for others, you're probably just being an a**hole. It's not about getting people to do what you want, it's about situations where the social cost of the discussions are higher than the cost of nudging the solution through.

As I said, this isn't the type of thing you want to use often. It's most effective when it's used sparingly, there's a clear outcome you have in mind, it won't destroy trust, and you have a reasonable chance of it working. If you try to nudge people directly in every meeting you're in, you'll get tuned out, or asked to leave the meeting. And occasionally, you will have to back it up. Especially when working across divisions/responsibilities/etc. the "consequences" piece is less about formal threats and honestly more about being annoying. So if it doesn't get the outcome you need, you should be ready to nag and push (and basically create some discomfort) until it gets there.

Use Your Powers Wisely

Like I mention in How to Lead a Good Meeting, keeping control of a conversation as a leader is an important part of creating a healthy working environment. "Social Force" is a tool in that toolbox to ensure productive collaboration. However, it's equally important to understand when conversations shouldn't be shut off, to understand the real costs of using "social force" and learning from the feedback you get about situations when you could have used it better, or not used it at all.