This week, Toronto sports talk radio is dominated by baseball fans, foaming at the mouth regarding how weak their baseball team looks. The weakness being complained about isn't a lamentable win-loss record but rather the insult of the Blue Jays allowing manager John Farrell to forgo the final year of his contract to take a job with the rival Boston Red Sox.

Fans, it seems, would've felt better and had their jilted scratches itched had the Blue Jays punished Farrell and made him sit out the year. This would have made the Blue Jays appear strong, viable, and ready to attract top talent.

But this reaction is typical of an all-too-common misunderstanding of what constitutes strength and weakness—especially in workplace settings.

A successful workplace is one in which people with diverse skillsets are recruited and motivated to work together in pursuit of a common mission. How to motivate people to work together is the subject of a complex field of study, but the core strategies can be reduced to four.

  • Position: I follow the instructions of my boss because she is my boss, in the same way I pull over when the police car with flashing lights pulls up behind me. It is the authority of the office, and not necessarily any buy-in to my task, which motivates my behaviour.

  • Coercion: Closely related to position but distinct from it is the motivation that comes from reward or punishment. It may be the positive reward of a paycheque, perqs, or social status or the negative reward of losing my job or going to jail if I fail to follow instructions, but the key remains I complete the assignment because of the consequences of following or not following, and not the action itself, which motivates my behaviour.

  • Relationship: I have a relationship with the person who asks me, and out of respect for that person, I do the requested task. That person may not even have the legal authority to force me to do the task, but I aim to please and get satisfaction from making another person happy.

  • Expertise: I accept the appropriateness and wisdom of the task being assigned, either because I have thought through the matter myself and agree with the decision or because I respect that the person asking me to do that task is competent and I defer to their judgement and expertise.

All of these are legitimate tools for influencing others, and all need to be used from time to time. There are times when the failure to exercise the authority of position is indeed a sign of weakness. There are, however, also times when the exercise of authority, just because you can—yielding to short-term impulses over long-term interests—is equally a sign of weakness.

Employees who don't want to be part of a mission are rarely going to be effective contributors to that mission. Keeping them corralled using the influence only of coercion and positional authority is unlikely to be effective. On the other hand, cultivating an ethos where respect for the individual and commitment to the long-term mission is enhanced is more likely to be a favourable brand element in recruiting a future employee.

Radio ranters and sports columnists who understand strength purely as the exercise of testosterone-flexed muscle, be it physical or organizational, are unfortunate illustrations of the cultural blinders regarding what constitutes strength and weakness. It is not the use of authority, but the wise use of authority for a greater purpose, which constitutes strength.