Matthew Lieberman in his book Social, Why our Brains are Wired to Connect states that the brain is actually wired to connect. We are social beings and being social is important for our well-being. Lieberman writes: “neuroscience research indicates that ignoring social well-being is likely to harm team performance (and even individual health) for reasons that we would not have guessed.” (p.10).

Yet the demands of today’s fast paced world do not encourage connection. Our communications are instantaneous and impersonal. We tend to catch up with each other via Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin, connecting virtually rather than socially. In the workplace productivity is today’s mantra. We need faster and more productive output while keeping costs down. In our working world, the drive for cost efficiency often comes at the cost of team building. We are so busy that we believe we do not have time for socially connecting in all facets of our life including in how we speak to each other .

Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People talks about “borrowed power.” This power exists in the relationship with the person to whom we are interacting. For example, as parents, we have parental power over our children. As managers and employers we have “management and direction” authority over those who work for us. Whenever we use this “relational” power as a coercive tool to get people to do what we want, we are using “borrowed power” according to Covey.

Since in today’s fast paced working world we interact less on a social level, we tend to use “borrowed power” to get what we want from people. Suzette Elgin in her book How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable writes (p. 33):

Parents say that there is no way that they can get through to their kids without using hostile language; teachers tell me that control of the classroom absolutely requires it. Employers and supervisors, despite massive evidence that punishment is the poorest of motivational tools, insist that without hostile language in the workplace nothing would ever get done properly.

The use of “borrowed power” and the use of “hostile language” go hand in hand. The more that hostile language and borrowed powered is used, however, the less effective it is and the more destructive it becomes to relationships. Covey writes that using “borrowed power” has a limited shelf life (p. 39):

But borrowing strength builds weakness. It builds weakness in the borrower because it reinforces dependence on external factors to get things done. It builds weakness in the person forced to acquiesce, stunting the development of independent reasoning, growth, and internal discipline. And finally, it builds weakness in the relationship. Fear replaces cooperation, and both people involved become more arbitrary and defensive.

 

And what happens when the source of borrowed strength- be it superior size or physical strength, position, authority, credential, status symbols, appearance, or past achievements – changes and is no longer there?

How often have you heard someone you know say, “I have had enough” or “I don’t care anymore”? If a person at work is subjected to enough ‘borrowed power’ and ‘hostile language’ eventually work becomes just a job, not a passion. The more those in authority use “borrowed power” the quicker those subject to that authority see their job as a means to an end, a paycheck. When work becomes just a paycheck, the work force stops being a team. Elgin tells us that it doesn’t have to be this way.

There are alternatives to hostile language. Elgin writes (at p. 36):

Hostile and hurtful language is neither the only way to deliver such messages, nor the most effective or efficient way. It’s just the easy way. It’s the way that comes most quickly to mind and requires the least thought and effort, just as opening your back door and flinging your trash out into the yard is. It is, in short, the lazy – slothful- way. There are other ways, if you are willing to use them.

So, what are those other ways? Stay tuned to find out.

Ronald Pizzo is a partner at Pink Larkin who practices in the area of dispute resolutionReach him at rpizzo@pinklarkin.com.