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Throughout history, empires were erected, revolutions were staged and science flowered. Yet, the colossal mould of these events, in our minds, could have easily dissolved the sheer fact that they were orchestrated by specific people. It is easy to forget the Tunisian whose self immolation coupled with zealous activism by influential citizens, spawned what would later be the Arab spring. By the same token significant incidents that ever happened gathered momentum through relationships built by leaders . Relationships lubricated fulfillment of their interests. And on a closer look influence was at their nexus. It is a constant that stretches its tentacles into various relationships existing in organizations from corporations to social movements. What strategies can one use to gain influence, better still how can one wield it effectively?
Studying Law was a rather insipid experience for the young Hungarian, Ignaz Semmelweis. His distaste for the subject culminated into a switch to medicine, a field that indulged his passion eventually leading him to a job at the obstetrics department in the University of Vienna in 1846. Working as an assistant at that department meant tackling the challenge of childbed fever which was prevalent in maternity wards in Europe at that time. Dissecting corpses of patients that died from the disease, doctors would find puss and large amount of putrid flesh. Some Medical practitioners believed childbed fever was caused by “polluted air” known as miasma while others thought it was a result of pus, which they mistook for milk. Breast milk was then thought to be a product of menstrual blood under the belief that there was an anatomical relationship between the upper uterus and the breast. It would not be long before Semmelweis discovered that mortality rates were higher in the clinic attended by medical interns compared to the second one attended by midwives within the department. What was even more startling was that women who gave birth in the streets never caught the disease. He suspected that interns spread the disease during childbirth after handling corpses. His suspicions were confirmed when his colleague died of the illness after accidentally pricking himself with a scalpel while conducting a postmortem on a woman who had childbed fever.
Without haste, Semmelweis commanded those in his ward to wash their hands with chlorinated water before attending to mothers giving birth, a practice that significantly reduced mortality rates. It was now clear that there was only one cause of the disease which he termed as “cadaveric contamination”. As soon as he revealed this theory to his senior, Johann Klein , it was refuted. The idea was radical and went against the medical zeitgeist at the time. Rather than carrying out experiments and publishing his findings, Semmelweis became entrenched in political battles with Klein. His battles with Klein almost resembled those of Thomas stockmann and Peter Stockmann in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the people; where Thomas was the politically inept scientific genius battling Peter, a shrewd politician with clout and a knack for manipulation. Simmilweiz’s close friends urged him to write papers on the discovery, he would hear none. In fact he had an such an aversive attitude towards writing that would later cripple his career. Consequently Semmelweis lost his job , the medical community in Vienna turned against him. He subsequently left Vienna for Budapest where he got a job at the University of Pest. There too his seniors disbelieved his theory. As a last resort, the vexing swamp of skepticism compelled him to write the only report on his findings, Die Ätiologie, der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettfieber (The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever). Unfortunately it did not fully explain the logic behind his theory and attracted even more vehemence. Semmelweis’s behaviour grew aberrant and his wife thought he was insane, he would eventually die miserably from blood poisoning after incurring a gangrenous wound in 13th August 1865 at the age 47. It was several years later that Louis pasteur promulgated what we know today as the germ theory. A discovery that could largely be credited to Ignaz Semmelweis.
Many a times we find ourselves in circumstances that command voicing suggestions or instituting executive decisions that may not settle well with our colleagues. Just like Semmelweis most of us choose the quick path of shoving instructions at subordinates if we happen to be in a position of power, or rebelling with a panache that borders tyranny if we are not. Yet others will altogether swallow back their reservations to avoid conflicts at all costs. Solving this classical problem commands that we understand the primary ways through which we generally gain influence. The first path to influence is power which often involves control of resources while the second path is status which derives from positive social judgements of others. Ignaz Semmelweis could only implement his findings in the ward that he had control over. His position at the ward gave him power. On the other hand convincing those beyond his reach of power would require that he earned status.Social psychologist Edwin Hollander formulated a an insightful process through which we earn status. He promulgated the concept of idiosyncrasy credits, the freedom to differ from a group’s expectations. Idiosyncrasy credits are earned whenever a person contributes towards a group’s goals. Subsequently, one earns enough idiosyncrasy credits to the point that deviating from the crowd expectations does not trigger any negative reactions. Had Semmelweis properly conducted experiments and formally published his findings, he would have earned credits that would have seen him earn status amongst his peers making them more receptive to his findings.
Likewise, it is always prudent to place yourself in positions that allow you to exercise your strengths. This way, you will be able to make contributions and consequently earn status among your peers. Semmelweis’s profession required him to carry out experiments and consequently publish research papers on his findings. Sadly, writing wasn’t his strength as he abhorred it to the core of his being. As a result he could not bring himself to influence his superiors and peers alike because the germ theory was too novel in that era. It smashed the expectations of those in the medical field which vastly rested on misinformed theories. He never earned enough idiosyncrasy credits to deviate from his colleagues’ expectations.
As a manager, you will be tempted to use your powers on a frequent basis but this approach quickly breeds resentment and may hurt productivity in the long run. Instead you must coalesce the exercise of power with status building. In fact studies conducted by organizational behavior researcher Adam galinsky and colleagues have shown that individuals occupying high power roles with relatively low status end up having more conflicts with their colleagues in lower ranks. This in effect results into a vicious cycle where those with power frustrate those under them because of their resentment and vice versa escalating conflicts further. Thus you might want to earn the highest qualifications in your field or even occasionally take part in basic technical work as your juniors to demonstrate your capabilities as some executives do which yields massive respect in the long term. With hope that Einstein will not have been offended, we can safely conclude status without power is blind and power without status is lame.