Taming Organisational Politics
Organisational politics are undoubtedly a negative force to contend with. However, with the right approach, the beast within can actually be energy for positive change.
Kevin McAlpin & John Van Maurik
It’s little talked about but present in the majority of organisations. In dealing with it, no one should want to compromise their integrity. But there is light — that’s why we’re raising questions and exploring the mechanics of the how organisational politics, the dark side of business, could work for you.
Why is it so many of the people you meet in life have the intelligence, the knowledge, the skills and the experience to be a success in business but never quite get there? Others are well on their way to the top but somehow fall by the wayside.
Why is it that some people thrive in the cut-and-thrust of the business environment and others fail?
The answers may lie in the type of animal cunning employed in one’s office politicking. Perhaps it is down to taking a moment and asking if are you a fox, a sheep, a donkey or maybe a wise owl?
Confused? All will become clear, and what’s more; the answer could well mean the difference between success and failure in your career.
Embrace the Dark Side
As a coach you often have to “turn to the dark side” as they say in Star Wars to take clients through situations where organisational politics are at play. This means revealing just how unpleasant and underhand colleagues can be and how to look out for and combat these shoddy shenanigans.
Ask any group of individuals about organisational politics and they will moan, groan and tell you all their war stories and the underhand ways of organisations and the ladder to the top. But do organisational politics need to be negative, or is there in fact such a thing as playing positive politics?
There’s no doubt organisational politics are the norm in business. A recent survey of 428 managers found that while 55% felt that organisational politics was unfair and unhealthy, over 75% believed that successful executives need to be good politicians.
Benjamin Franklin coined the phrase: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” But anybody who has worked in an organisation will probably add a third element to the list: organisational politics. Avoiding any of the three is downright impossible, no matter how important you are, and – as Julius Caesar found out – by the time you get to say “Et tu, Brute?” it is usually too late to do anything about it.
The Silent Influence
While conflict between individuals is usually overt, in the open and noisy, organisational politics is a form of conflict which is often silent, less obvious and less often discussed. Little has been written about it and it is not often openly discussed. Could this be because people find the subject distasteful or because they think it is unworthy of attention? It is certainly not found in the syllabus of any MBA programme or management courses. This is surprising when you consider more strategies have floundered and more careers come to grief because of organisational politics than for any other reason.
People have been aware of political game-playing since the beginning of time – or at least since the beginning of organised life. Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was first to coin the phrase “political animals” well over 2,000 years ago, while much later Charles Darwin declared that “all things start in vision and mystery and end in politics”.
So what should you do when you are confronted with or suspect organisational politics? Do you deny its existence? Avoid it? Rise above it? Accommodate it by indulging in it yourself?
Whatever stance you take, you will be presented with dilemmas. By not playing the game, do you let yourself down? By playing it, do you sacrifice your integrity, thereby letting yourself down in more far-reaching ways?
These are difficult questions. Indeed, if you are a management trainer, team coach or group facilitator, a high proportion of the extracurricular questions (i.e. those asked in the bar at the end of the day) focus on these thorny issues.
The short answer to the integrity question is a categorical “no, never sacrifice it”. However, it is possible to retain your integrity and still be politically smart. In the United States, the Center for Creative Leadership conducted a study of the reasons why fast-track managers derailed. They found that young executives often displayed characteristics of extreme ambition, drove themselves and other people hard, and did not care what others thought of them. Frequently these characteristics manifested themselves in political manoeuvres, but it was those same characteristics that undermined them later in their careers.
Senior managers needed to be more strategic, take longer-term perspectives and be more skilful and considerate in dealing with people. Those who remained over-ambitious, abrasive and willing to do anything tended to come unstuck. In short, those who lived by the sword, died by the sword.
Further light is shed on the integrity vs. survival dilemma by research carried out at Birmingham University, which divided people into four different animal groups when it came to politics. The criteria for the grouping depended on whether they were interested and informed about what was going on politically in their organisation and the extent to which they put themselves or the company first.
The first animal type, the sheep, did not know what was going on but were loyal, hardworking and put the organisation first. They tended to be cannon fodder. Donkeys, on the other hand, also did not know what was going on, but put themselves first, often grumbled and were stubborn about adapting to changes. They were usually given more work and were overlooked when it came to promotion.
A far more positive animal was the wise owl, who knew exactly what was going on and who was doing what to whom – but did not indulge in any malign manoeuvres him or herself. Owls were loyal to the organisation and had high integrity. They did not always reach the top, but they did enjoy respect from colleagues and were more secure than most.
Finally, there were the foxes. Foxes knew and played all the political games and, being ambitious, always put their own interests before those of other people, as well as the organisation itself.
Which animal would you choose to be? Having asked that question of a large number of managers of different nationalities, the invariable consensus is that you need to behave like an owl while knowing how to think like a fox. In other words, without sacrificing your integrity or self-respect, you need to know the games and how they are played in order to counter those that might be played against you.
But what are the games that foxes play? The following represent some of the more common ploys. The list is ever-growing and you may care to add to it from your own experiences:
- Discrediting someone else, often by sarcastically implying that what they did was “courageous” – i.e. foolish – or by damning with false praise
- Hoarding information and either using it to one’s own advantage or releasing it only when you have benefited from it in some way
- Manipulating meetings – never giving straight answers and using the meeting to promote your own viewpoint
- Spending inordinate amounts of energy to impress, please and flatter those more senior
- Spreading rumours to undermine other people’s initiatives – even if false, the harm has been done
- Playing power games between departments and, by implication, dragging all those who work for those departments into the game
- Abusing your power by putting colleagues and subordinates into difficult positions, often passing the onus of making your own difficult decisions on to them
- Covering up your own mistakes and trying to shift the blame for them on to other people
- Hogging of the limelight and somehow managing to claim promising initiatives as your own
- Never being around when things go badly wrong, yet always being ready to say “I told you so”.
Survival in the Jungle
So how do you counter these ploys, manoeuvrings and manipulations? The following general strategies may be helpful as an overall guide:
- Be aware — understand the opportunities for politicking that the foxes may seize;
- Study the politicians – look for trends, common characteristics and repeat behaviours. From these learn to anticipate what they might get up to
- Ask yourself why these people are playing politics — could it be due to ambition, boredom, fear, love of power or even love of mischief? Knowledge of motive may well lead to detection and prevention, as Sherlock Holmes would tell you
- Try to defuse situations wherever possible, and insist on straightforward dealings from everyone without this appearing to be appeasement.
- If this does not work, approach possible allies and go for strength in unity
- Finally, there is the option of confronting the issue with Mr or Ms Fox and showing that you understand what is going on. But be sure that you are on firm ground before you start. As this may result in conflict of a more open kind. Choose your subject carefully, assess the other person’s strengths and weaknesses, and be sure your facts are correct.
Positivity from Conflict
Remember open conflict handled correctly can have a positive effect on performance.
Van de Vliert identified three occasions when conflict can be used beneficially:
- To bring about change: Conflict is a vehicle for radically changing organisations. The existing power structures, entrenched attitudes and established behaviour patterns can all be dramatically modified through conflict
- To change group cohesiveness: Conflict between members in a group (intra-group conflict) can increase hostility between members and overcome complacency. External threats (inter-group conflict) can cause group members to bury their differences and pull together more. The importance of perceived internal differences is reduced and group cohesion increases
- To improve group organisational effectiveness: The stimulation of conflict unleashes a new search for goals and new methods for their achievement. Successful conflict resolution can create more trust, openness, interpersonal support, and thus more organisational effectiveness.
Research by Mintzberg found that organisational politics can also have positive and negative functions. He outlined them in the following table:
|Positive functions||Negative functions|
The use of politics can correct the slowness of more formal methods of influence and add flexibility to these methods.
Inequality, discrimination and unfairness
Political activity tends to result in ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’, in which the interests of minority groups who have little formal influence can be ignored.
Political usage acts to ensure that the fittest and strongest in organisations are brought into positions of influence and leadership.
Distorted decision making
Political activity tends to be used by individuals and groups to promote only their own interests, which means that decision criteria can be narrow and parochial.
|Promotion of multiple perspectives||
Politics can help ensure that all sides of an issue are aired and debated, while more conventional forms of influence can result in only one side being heard.
|Ignores interests of stakeholders||
Because some individuals or groups are able to exercise the real power within an organisation other stakeholders simply have their interests ignored.
|Facilities change||Politics can be used to promote changes that are otherwise blocked by normal systems of influence.||Inefficiency and time wasting||Political behaviour, which often involves extensive lobbying, alliance building and subversion of the formal influences processes, uses up inordinate amounts of energy that could be put to better use.|
Political activity can help to ensure that decisions get implemented.
|Unequal power distribution||
Power corrupts and, once tasted, is an addictive drug. Thus the use of political behaviour develops a taste for power, which can all too easily gyrate in one direction. Power differences in organisations should desirably be minimised rather than allowed to become greater.
Awareness is Your Ally
The fact is that there are no easy answers, although there can be guidelines. But in order to prosper and for your strategies to be effective you must at the very least be aware and learn to apply this awareness in ways that enforce your position rather than detract from it.
All your skills in questioning, listening and, above all, using your intuition must be deployed to ensure that you are effective, no matter what the situation. Keeping your antennae out all times and having a few counter-measures in your kit bag need not compromise your integrity. It does not mean that you necessarily become a fox, but it does make you a better owl.
So far we have described the negative side of politics, often about following the individual’s own agenda to the detriment of others. The next step is to play the positive politics game and do it not for your own gain but as a way of facilitating change, leading the organisation forwards and breaking down silos. It is simply a case of understanding the culture, managing relationships and understanding the psychology of individuals, teams and organisations.
Many important steps you might take to get ahead are political, without you even noticing. Key stakeholder management is a common concept but is this not political? Understanding organisational power lies with those in non-formal positions and therefore, using their influence as well as the formal hierarchy, is that not politics? The answer is surely yes, the only difference at the end of the day is the person’s intention. If the intention is right and you know the rules of the game all you need to do is play by them.
Politics are alive in any organisation and often a taboo that they avoid tackling. By having a healthy balance at work and positive relationships, managers can work more effectively without having to deal with negative issues.
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