Election years aren’t the only politics out there. Corporate politics are an interesting sort of game. While oft-maligned, they are in many ways ingrained in everything that gets done in a large corporation. Certainly systems and checks can stop undue influence and limit personal bias, but those checks themselves are an indicator, not defeater of that department’s political power.
A helpful way I use to distinguish these politics is by comparing them by intent, one benign and the other malignant.
Benign politics are political exchanges entered into to evaluate and align with diverse needs and perspectives for the benefit of the organization. Politics in this case are conversations where different business units discuss their initiatives and priorities in light of organizational initiatives and priorities. They generally don’t exert undue influence on work progress, but may slow work down from time to time.
In healthy organizations benign is the norm. While wholesome in intent, benign interactions can be burdensome and cause significant time cost. A measure of benign politics is necessary to guarantee proper controls, ownership, and diligence around resources and departmental priorities. These politics can be diminished to some extent by limiting involved parties and articulating roles clearly. A strong network and some early groundwork can really limit disruptions from these political exchanges.
In malignant politics, the intention is self-establishment, control, and blame shifting. These politicians evaluate the potential value a success or failure will have to their personal position or department. Consider this example: a leader of a group was consulted on an exploratory piece of work. His job was to understand the work and provide a resource with current state process knowledge. When a broader group was brought into the second consultation, seeing that his role was a contributor, not controller, he objected to one of the speculative end states and dominated the conversation. In the end his involvement was reduced from secondary contributor to informed third party because he could not function without full control.
Now, you can certainly slip into malignant politics through ignorance and lack of self-awareness, but those who start that way are far more troublesome to witness.
Confrontation amongst colleagues isn’t the transgression emotive legalists would have you believe. Nor is it license to abuse as the office trolls hope it will be. Instead, like any other interpersonal dynamic, it has it’s proper and balanced place in the work environment.
I’d like to highlight two virtues that help people navigate the vices of legalism and license. Our first and most important virtue
Humility: Humility is the the will to allow knowledge of your limitations to be a factor in your decisions. You must believe others are intelligent and may have access to facts you do not have. When confronting others, the exercise of humility serves as a check against unconscious motives and allows for reasoning to be discussed with positive intent and be received with self-reflection.
Ask yourself these questions in the next confrontation:
-“Is the other person a complete fool?” (usually no)
-“How could I be convinced they are right?”
-“Did I consider that point?”
-“Am I understanding their rationale or getting tripped up on their (sometimes poor) communication?”
Humble people can handle confrontation with both a sense of duty and fairness that inspires others. This leads us to our next virtue.
Purposiveness: Purposiveness is the understanding that confrontations ought to have a reason rooted in the group’s shared values. Confrontations should be limited to those times when a communal purpose exists for the confrontation. The confronted can use the virtue of purposiveness as well by determining the time and weight of confrontations in which others engage them.
Ask your self these questions in the next confrontation:
-“Is it worth challenging them on that spelling error/neologism if I know what they meant?”
-“Is there a common value that we can agree on?” (otherwise the conversation can’t get anywhere)
-“How much weight does this challenge deserve?”
-“Is this the right setting to engage the topic in discussion?”
When a commitment to shared values exists, confronting parties can depart amiably, knowing even when they disagree on method they are agreed on what really matters.
There are times when a cause is lost. Knowing how and when to bail are sometimes more valuable than knowing what could possibly be done to fix the problem. I am reminded as I currently watch the NBA finals of the look people have in their eye when they see their own failure laid bare before them. Those situations need to be addressed and then learned from, but you need to act quickly.
Let me tell you a story about sitting in that mire too long. I once worked in an office for a medium sized financial corporation. One of my coworkers “Brenda” was shoehorned into her current role after being rolled over from her 3rd acquired corporation. Now Brenda had a wealth of old institutional knowledge, she was great with historical policy and culture. However, she began to be pressed when asked to participate in implementing the new strategy and branding in some local offices. She wasn’t on board.
The things out of her mouth were always negative. “The old way was better”. She did this for years while half assed work continued to flow from her desk. She knew that she was dragging everyone that she contacted down. She was miserable. But she refused to look for other options within or without the company, because this is what she had always done. I witnessed a slow descent. Everyone that had been affected by the malady she spread seemed to work like there was slowly less and less purpose to what we did each day.
In the end Brenda was let go. It was the best thing that could have happened to her. In addition everyone who had worked under her was reshuffled and given a new task. Her project was ended and a new approach was taken towards effecting the rest of the desired culture change. How much pain and money would have been saved if the original lost cause was identified and removed right away? Sometimes progress comes from cutting away that which would drag us down a deep and inescapable descent.
The other day my morning coffee spilled all over my hand. Upon closer inspection, I found that the lid was a close, but not correct match for the cup. As to how this happened, I assume the catering company that runs my coffee shop repurposed lids from their other operation rather than buying the branded lids to match their cups. Visually, the change was imperceptible, but this minor misfit gave new meaning to my morning coffee waking me up.
I like this story because it is a great example of how seemingly small, inconsequential changes can prompt significant pain for your end users. In this case, the lid fit on the cup well enough for the powers that be to make the change. However, as a customer, I experienced metaphorical and literal pain as a direct result of the unnoticed or disregarded mismatch. At the core of this challenge is that the group making the decision to change the cup lids solved their lid problem quite admirably, but failed to consider the resulting consequences for the user.
In short, small matters matter and the viewpoint that can see which matter most isn’t inside (employees) looking out. It’s outside (customers) looking in.