Organization Politics – Truth or Myth?

 

I recently conducted a 2-week course on Being Effective as a New Leader which was offered as part of an initiative from Sunstone Business School. A theme that I heard from many participants was ‘politics is creating too many problems for me’. It was brought up by people with deep experience in leading teams, as well as newbie managers. While I tried to help address their ‘politics’ issues, it was clear that it is a more deep-rooted phenomena than I thought. Based on my discussions with these participants and others I have been talking, it seems that there is too much of office politics going on that impacts people. This post is an attempt to analyze ‘organization politics’ and offer some thoughts on dealing with it.

Let me start with a personal story: In 2007, I moved to US headquarters of the company I was working with. This was a senior leadership role (and a change from Test to PM discipline for me), reporting to a newly hired (and very seasoned) SVP Engineering. Many of my peers were new in the company too. I was struggling to work well with my new peers and my new manager (while keeping my team insulated from these issues and focused on delivery), and I was doing my best to get agreement amongst them by working individually with them (to understand how I can get them to work with me) and collectively (to make sure decisions are collectively agreed to). While I was describing my daily struggles to my wife, I said: “If someone sees from outside various meetings I do and what I say in those meetings, they will say I am deeply political. I would have said the same if I wouldn’t have been struggling with this right now.”

Here are a few examples of ‘political’ situations at workplace that I have seen or others have described to me:

  1. You propose a new way of doing things to your manager, he outright rejects it. You try a few times, he keeps rejecting it. You give up “my manager is too political, he doesn’t want me to hog the spotlight when this thing succeeds”.
  2. You are driving a company-wide initiative, with multiple cross-functional teams working together to come up with better quality process, and you don’t get support from engineering team members: they don’t attend your meetings, never respond to emails, rarely pick up their phone. You try to escalate to your boss but he said he can’t do anything; engineering team doesn’t want you to succeed. You give up – “engineering team is playing politics with us, this initiative can’t succeed”.
  3. You are part of a senior leadership team, and have been working for 10 years in the company. You have a new manager and a few new peer. They seem to gang up against you whenever you point out that a new initiative won’t work because it has been tried before in this company. Your manager thinks you are blocking progress, and you think that your manager wants you out of the company to serve his own political needs.

Have you seen these in your organization? Please share any situation you have faced or observed at your workplace which can be termed ‘political’. This will help me shape my next post as I analyze and offer suggestions.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

6 comments

  1. My experiences have been that politics is sometimes embedded into the working of companies:

    1) In some companies I have experienced that opportunities and growth is offered to people from a certain caste or community. Though this is a question of equality but the opportunities for growth stay limited within a circle.

    2) Another instance which I have come across if I am driving a new initiative which will be immensely helpful to the organization it gets pushed down between the push and pull of different managers. So in case I need to successfully push things through then it would depend also on my inter-personal skills with people outside my group to take things through.

    3) The part which concerns me is that growth, recognition and appraisals are clouded by politics at times and the best candidates necessarily get the best.

    1. Thanks for your comments. For #1, if you are sure this is happening, it is very clearly not the right company to work for; you should get out of it as soon as you can. #2 is a standard process in which decisions get made in an organization (though it can get very clouded by #1 and other equally bad reasons). I will discuss this in more detail in a subsequent post, but I don’t consider #2 as ‘politics’ in its traditional bad meaning. It is a by-product of the complexity of an organization (it doesn’t happen in very small companies where everyone knows everyone else and their motivations), and anyone desiring good career growth must learn how to get favorable decisions through these push-pull from leaders involved. In healthy organizations, such push-pull is actually better for the organization because no one person has full understanding of implications of a decision, and it is important that everyone puts forth their perspective, and optimal (which may not be the best in any single perspective) decision is taken.
      #3 is where you need to be more aware and empathatic to other perspectives – best is a very relative and subjective term in an organization. Best for engineering may be bad for marketing, and excellent for HR may be quite mediocre for sales, and there is no objective way to calculate absolute value of ‘goodness’ of a candidate. As someone said, ‘it is better to be done than to be perfect’.

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