If you work in an organisation with other people, you will encounter organisational politics. It is inevitable. If you are planning new strategies or organisational change, you will have to cope with organisational politics.
It is an extremely naïve position to expect the members of an organisation and other stakeholders to exist in an environment which is bereft of organisational politics. Office politics are a fact of life and they must be coped with.
Twice in my career I have worked in organisations where organisational politics have either prevented the achievement of stated goals or caused damage to the organisational purpose. Managers ended up spending more time on petty disputes than getting on with the job at hand. However, it is equally naïve to expect an organisation to exist in a political vacuum where everyone is expected to ‘just get on with the job’.
In developing plans and strategies, you will no doubt be dealing with a level of organisational change and during that change organisational politics will be evident. In developing plans, you must be cognisant of potential political eventualities.
Whilst people in an organisation will work towards a common goal; they will collaborate; they will also compete, for reward, for advancement and for power. This competitive imbalance leads to organisational politics.
Power is a major driver of organisational politics. This can be those with power exercising it; or those craving power trying to achieve it. For some obtaining power is an end in itself. The more power a person obtains, the more political they become, and perhaps need to be.
Organisation politics can arise from both internal and external pressures on an organisation. They can develop vertically within an organisation through layers of management; or horizontally between department and peer groups.
Much of the organisational strife of the UK in the 1970s was caused by demarcation disputes between various peer groups in an organisation. One strike at the BBC was caused by an argument over the Play School clock. Play School was a programme for toddlers which opened with a musical clock which displayed an item which was the episode’s theme.
The union for the scenery shifters argued that the clock was a piece of scenery therefore it was their responsibility to look after the clock. However, the electricians union argued that the clock contained electrical components and as a piece of electrical equipment it was their responsibility. The inability of BBC managers to solve this demarcation dispute ended up with both the Scenery shifters union and the electricians union going on strike. This stopped all studio recordings at Television Centre and several programmes, including the Doctor Who serial Shada, had to be scrapped.
The Play School clock affair is a clear example of a minor dispute being used as a trigger for power games between different peer groups and management.
External organisational politics can include legal action, whistleblowers and unofficial leaks.
Internal organisational politics can arise from obstructive behaviour, grudges, covert lack of support, the bypassing of superiors, favouritism, outstanding obligations and favours, informal groups and cliques, badmouthing and rumour-mongering.
Some people enjoy playing organisational politics, others, like me, hate it. To some playing politics in an organisation can be an enjoyable game. I recall one former colleague who could be best described as a barrack-room lawyer. They would deliberately play opposing groups off one another as they enjoyed the resulting chaos.
However, organisational politics can have unpleasant consequences, especially where threatening tactics are involved. They can lead to bullying and increase stress levels.
People do not act rationally or logically. They act emotionally. That affects an organisation’s political environment.
So how do you deal with office politics? Here is a short checklist of issues to consider:
- People are People, not just organisational animals: Which is one reason I hate the term Human Resources; it has evolved from the 1970’s concept that people are an organisational input similar to power of raw materials. It infers people are part of the machine, not free-thinking individuals. It is therefore important that managers developing strategies and organisational change get to know the people in the organisation beyond their work status.
- Learn to Listen: Organisational grapevines are not just malicious rumour-mongering. Listen to what is discussed in your organisation but also learn t evaluate what you hear.
- What are the Rules? How are people expected to communicate in your organisation and how do they actually communicate. Do you have a shared, open culture of communication or a strict hierarchical communication model. Are members of the organisation expected to stick to strict protocols or is individualism encouraged? How is influence enacted?
- Criteria for Success: What has worked well in the past? What hasn’t? How have senior managers behaved when placed in a similar position? And what was the outcome of their actions? What did senior managers do to get to their position and how much is this reflected in people’s reaction to them?
- Alignment: How do personal ambitions fit with those of the organisation? The closer the fit, the greater the likelihood of successful strategic change. Are personal ambitions consistent with the values and beliefs of the organisation? I know of a charity where it appears senior management are more concerned with personal reward and status as opposed to the defined charitable goals.
- Build Relationships: Link with information and power brokers across functions and departments. Be prepared to trade information.
- To thine own self be true: You have to be able to sleep at night and face yourself in the mirror. Don’t abandon your personal values. Instead use your behaviours and actions to become what you want to see.