Office Politics

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:

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. Build Relationships:  Link with information and power brokers across functions and departments.  Be prepared to trade information.
  7. 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.


Don’t worry it may never happen

As an ex-pat Scot, I regularly visit the pages of The Scotsman newspaper.  the Scotsman is a broadsheet based in Edinburgh and it covers all the big national stories as well as those affecting Scotland.

Over the weekend, I chanced upon two stories in the paper.  the first was an opinion piece on the future of Scottish agriculture outside of the EU.  It highlighted some of the UK government’s recent press releases relating to the trade in agricultural produce once the UK has left the EU.

In recent weeks, press releases have highlighted the prospect of selling pigs trotters to the Philippines and deer antlers to China (they are used in Chinese traditional medicine).  The article equated these press releases to applying lipstick to a pig.  Firstly, the trade deals mention were in the low millions of pounds not the billions needed to replace the drop in trade likely after we leave the EU.  Secondly, UK agricultural and food suppliers already carried out a lot of this form of trade from within the EU.

As a trading standards professional, I regularly had to inspect two large poultry processing factories.  Both of these factories exported chicken heads and feet to China.  In total these factories processed around 2 million chickens a year.  The value of their existing chicken by-products was larger than some of the trade benefits quoted in the UK government press releases.

The second article I spotted was a survey of UK and EU CEO’s by Thompson Reuters.  This survey stated that 69% of CEO’s had yet to include the potential effects of Brexit in their corporate strategic plans.  The survey also stated that 21% of those surveyed had paused or stopped investing in the UK as a result of Brexit.  The International Trade minister Liam Fox was given a score of three out of ten for his performance so far.

The spin applied to the survey in the article was that company CEO’s were not worried about Brexit.  I would suggest that many have yet to become worried; that they are in denial at the potential chaos of the UK’s exit from the EU.  I suspect many company directors still believe that Brexit isn’t going to happen.

The problem is that there is not a lot of time left before the Brexit deadline for CEO’s to plan and get their act together for a political and economic whirlwind.

To illustrate the lack of thought that is being applied to the process of Brexit, I refer you to two of the position papers recently published by David Davis, the cabinet minister for exiting the European Union.

The first of these relates to the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  The second is the position paper relating to the continuity of the availability of goods for the UK and the EU.  Both of these documents are the thinnest of gruel.  They consistently lack the appropriate detail to give business an idea of how life outside the EU will look.

The paper on the Irish border is particularly awful.  It talks of the border remaining identical to now.  Goods will be able to cross the border freely, as will people.  But such an assertion stands directly against the facts of the Republic being inside the EU and the UK outside.

The proposals in relation to customs are particularly baffling.  Two options are given.  The first is the ‘have your cake and eat it Brexit’.

The paper argues that the UK could leave the current European Customs Union and set up an identical but different UK/EU customs union.  This would allow the movement of goods to go on unhindered.  At the same time, the UK would be able to go out and make new free trade agreements with other states.

There is no way that the EU will agree to such a situation.  It would allow third-party nations which have agreed a free trade agreement to siphon goods through the UK into the EU avoiding existing tariffs and customs controls.

The second option is that a class of ‘trusted traders’ either side of the border are exempted from customs and tariff law.  In particular, the UK government wants to exempt small firms from such measures.

This is a bonkers suggestion.  You cannot have one law for some and a different law for others.

In summary the UK government proposals for the Irish land border are a recipe for smuggling, people trafficking, tariff evasion and carousel fraud.  The position paper resembles a first year undergraduate politics essay.

The paper on the continuity of the availability of goods is equally terrible.

It only talks about goods up to the point that the UK exits the EU.  It states that goods placed on the market prior to the UK exit should be treated as they are currently and not under the new arrangement between the EU and UK.

What this means is that goods made or ordered at five to midnight o March 31st 2019 will be EU goods and treated as such.  Nothing is said about the status of goods made or ordered six minutes later on the first of April.

The paucity of detail in these position papers should have businesses of all sizes extremely worried about the potential effects of Brexit.  They clearly show that the UK government has no strong policy on Brexit and little idea how life will look outside the EU.

Beware, get contingency business plans and strategies ready now because it looks like the UK out of the EU will be a particularly unstable place to do business.