Organization Politics – Anatomy of Office Politics

In the previous post Organization Politics – Truth or Myth, I presented a few examples of situations that can be described as ‘political’ in nature. I also talked to a few more managers and individual contributors since then to understand a few more examples of such situations in various types of organizations. In this post, I will discuss characteristics of a situation that might be tagged ‘political’ by some.

When I recounted my story in the last post, I didn’t include my lesson from it. For me, there were 2 lessons:

  1. A situation demanding complicated decision-making phase is very likely to be seen as political by observers. So it is very important to be transparent and consistent about what I do as a leader in such situations.
  2. Politics lies in the eyes of beholder. One person may claim the situation to be ‘politics’, while another may claim it to be ‘complex decision-making and persuading multiple stakeholders to your point of view’. Since I can’t control perspectives too much, I should learn to deal with such perspectives.

Anatomy of Organization Politics

In an organization, politics is almost always used in a derogatory sense, a black mark of sorts on the organization culture. When someone claims “I want to do great things for my company, but the office politics doesn’t let me do it”, he almost always means he is a good guy getting into a situation that makes him do bad things.

Here are a few more situations which are likely to be tagged ‘political’:

  1. You are impacted by a decision that didn’t go in your favor, and you don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be in your favor.
  2. You see some managers/leaders favoring one person much more than others, even when the person may not be the most capable person around.
  3. You see someone making decisions by getting influenced by ‘friends’, rather than making a ‘rational’ decision.
  4. You see bizarre decisions being taken when multiple divisions/groups of the company are involved.

All ‘political’ situations are decision-making situations. A decision in an organization needs to maximize the value that organization creates as a result of this decision. Understanding decision-making in an organization is critical to understanding organization politics. Situation and Stakeholder characteristics of a ‘political’ situation are worth reviewing.

Situation Characteristics

A decision-making situation which seems political typically consists of these elements:

  • High visibility, high stakes –The situation is under spotlight and decision has a big impact on one or more of stakeholders or their groups..
  • Lack of transparency – There is little clarity about how the decisions will be made (criteria to evaluate options, generating multiple options, validating assumptions, etc.), who will make decisions, how do people contribute to decision-making process, etc. Even after the decision is made, detailed information about the decision rationale and process doesn’t flow readily to the teams who are impacted.
  • Multiple ‘right’ answers – There is no clear right or wrong answer, and there are multiple ‘good’ solutions to the problem being addressed.

Stakeholder Characteristics

Stakeholders exhibit one or more of these behaviors:

  • Rigid Viewpoints – Participants are rigid about their viewpoint and unwilling to budge from their position, because they think they have the right answer and others are just wasting time.
  • Strong self-interest – Personal incentives at stake (year-end bonus, public recognition, bigger responsibility, “I-told-you-this-won’t-work” etc.) are very important for stakeholders.
  • Conflicting incentives –Stakeholders have conflicting incentives and self-interests (organizations have conflicting incentives set up by design to ensure debates and optimal decisions)

Decisions which come out of such situations and stakeholders are very likely to be seen as ‘political’ by many people – participants as well as observers. In the next post, we will look into ways to handle these situations and why we should handle them rather than walking away from them. Stay tuned!

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