Office Politics . . .

Almost every organization I deal with is infested with office politics, some much more so than others, and few are gaining any real benefits or value therefrom.

Rampant office politics is perhaps the most prevalent obstacle to organizational success and a leading cause of staff turnover. It’s truly difficult to get things done in the face of conflicting agendas, misaligned priorities, unfinished business and the interference of personal goals. Politics, though, is nothing more than the science of using power, and power is necessary to get things done.

The formal power that’s exercised by owners and appointed leaders is a major factor in driving the organization forward but the informal power that results from office politics can divert, limit and even neutralize the strategic intention. Let’s face it, we cannot live with it and we certainly cannot live without it; so it has to be managed simply because politics in any organization is an integral part of the fabric that holds people and ideas together.

Besides it provides two vital functions – firstly it acts as an EWS (early warning system) flagging those issues where there are concerns which cannot and should not be ignored. If they are ignored, they’ll only surface later in other forms and create even larger, more complex impediments to progress.

The second service is that it stimulates discourse – discussion, debate and dialogue – which is an essential element in the creation of value. We might need to discount the posturing and dramatics to find the core essence in dissent, but it’s invariably there to serve us.

Business history is replete with examples of situations where such discourse was stifled and the final outcomes were far less than hoped for – the Time Warner merger with AOL is one that springs to mind. The architects of the deal decided to act without the usual internal debates so that office politics would not delay the decision process. They were successful in the process and major losers in the eventual outcome.

May I suggest five brief strategies that will allow office politics to do their job in alerting us to dissent while yet stimulating useful input? These aren’t ‘rocket science’ and each may need to be tailored to the organization’s culture, but each has proven value in making the organization more comfortable for the majority while not interfering with the creative processes.

  1. Use selective consultation by first drawing a political map showing interest groups, interactive styles, known agenda and vested interest groups and then invite individuals to contribute in small, controlled groups. Avoid wasting time, energies and morale by exposing all parties to every meeting – this only provides a forum for the political players.
  2. Use a two-step consultative process so that the focus is on specific issues rather than political positions. The first step deals with input gathering and the second step seeks consensual decisions. This means that you have control of the information during its most virulent phase and can manage emotional levels.
  3. Use Venn diagrams to manage the process. In order to achieve optimal input deal with each party initially as a whole circle of interest; analyze the content of each circle to identify shared or over-lapping interests and possible coalitions and then chair a decision-making session by building mainly on those shared issues.
  4. Between group meetings, hold one-on-one dialogues with the aim of promoting commitment to key aspects of the overall strategy rather than seeking endorsement of the entire plan. Allow for adaptations which will permit greater sharing, broader coalitions and specific learning opportunities for participants.
  5. Key to this entire process is the principle of separating issues from positions. All identifiable ‘positions’ or stands need to be dissected into the component factors of which they are built. This is best accomplished during cool, reasoned and controlled individual confrontations rather than in the heat of the open forum.

There are a few, fortunately very few, people who actually thrive on the political approach. They prefer to confront in public, to ignore mandates and codes of conduct / rules of engagement, to sacrifice relationships, and to fight for their personal interests whatever the cost to the group. They are not concerned with adding value to or through others and others may even be considered as dispensable, and yet they can do this in the most charming ways.

These individuals are not good team players in that when they are not persuaded that others can contribute anything to their advantage they will ‘take’ rather than ‘give’, they’ll ignore information/opinions that do not support their personal objectives and will be seemingly oblivious of any need to preserve the dignity of others.

If your objective is to create organizational value through synergy and consensus building, you’ll need to recognize that these persons will not work to earn their place on the team and they’ll contribute very little. They will use office politics solely in their own interests for they, in their perspective, are more important than the organization.