In every presidential election year, it seems, editors come up with the idea to send reporters out in search of the same story: "Go find corporate bosses out there," they tell some cub, "who are trying to strong-arm their employees to vote for one candidate or the other." Unbelievably, every time, they find some. The 2012 batch includes CEOs sending memos explaining whose platform they think will help the organization thrive (and encouraging employees to vote accordingly, lest jobs be lost) and even one who sent his people to a rally. Given the power dynamics involved in the boss/worker relationship, this is a bad idea, and not only because it's, well, a bad idea. It also makes no sense because...
You probably won't sway them.
Today's climate of employee dissatisfaction, distrust and disengagement, as reported in numerous surveys conducted by organizations ranging from the Conference Board to Gallup and human resource consulting firms, will surely keep Scott Adams in Dilbert ideas for years. However, it is not an environment conducive to employees looking to their bosses for life guidance. Trust is necessary to influence others, and that trust is missing in many workplaces.
If an unpopular boss tells workers what to do, they are likely to do the opposite out of spite. But the theory of psychological reactance suggests that, even when the boss is not otherwise resented, people will react against any perception of a new constraint by rebelling against it. So when employees hear that something is being asked of them that wasn't required in the past, and seems out of bounds, a good number of them will feel the need to prove their freedom and independence. So bosses' attempts at influence can easily backfire in the voting booth.
It diminishes your influence in other realms.
To achieve ambitious goals, bosses need to be able to mobilize resources. They need, in a word, power. But power doesn't come automatically with a promotion and title. It is always a relationship negotiated on some level between two people. And while the idea of workers nullifying a boss' power might sound extreme -- like that memorable scene in the movie Norma Rae when the employees turned off their machines, orders from the boss notwithstanding -- defiance can be, in the realm of knowledge work, quite subtle and pervasive.
When workers join an organization, they sign on to accept direction and decisions from a boss who they understand to have more information and expertise in a given area, such as strategy or finance. Bosses who presume to advise their employees on politics are counting on that influence to carry over to the nonwork realm. What they don't understand is that the process can work the other way. If a boss tries to exert influence in a second area and is unsuccessful (because he or she is not perceived as an authority, or in a legitimate position to advise) the effect is to undermine the boss's power in the primary area. Telling someone to do something, and having them deliberately do otherwise, costs the boss some degree of both legitimacy and credibility across the board. Again, in an era when bosses are already as likely to be objects of scorn as of admiration, this is a risk few are in a good position to take.
It takes you off-message.
And then there is the issue of focus. Focus is not only part of what makes an individual powerful, it is vital to an organization's success. Leaders must therefore be masters of focusing their organizations on the goals and activities that will have greatest impact. It isn't easy to transmit a clear signal through all the noise of the modern enterprise. Employees' attention is distracted by everything from poorly conceived projects to the office rumor mill -- not to mention sports (the famous March Madness basketball pools, for instance) and silly Internet memes. CEOs have to stay relentlessly on message, and make that message, in A.G. Lafley's words, "Sesame Street simple" to keep everyone pulling together in the same direction.
The last thing a company facing a difficult economy and competitive challenges needs is a CEO that uses communications channels with employees to introduce yet another distraction: politics.
These three reasons probably go pretty far in explaining why, even with election fever running high, reporters end up finding so few examples of CEOs -- especially in public companies -- trying to influence the voting behavior of their workforces. What's important for them, their shareholders, and, by the way, our economy, is keeping the focus on customers, operations, and strategy. They might dearly wish you'd vote for their favorite candidate. But the power they need to preserve is their own.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review.