We have come across an extremely wide range of beliefs about organisational politics in our coaching, most of them surprisingly antagonistic to the very idea or erroneous in relation to why politics exists, and what it is good and necessary for. A large percentage of managers and even senior managers we have worked with reject politics, and the people who engage in it, outright. In our experience, technical experts, perfectionists and a high percentage of female managers are standouts in relation to rejecting organisational politics.
Yet there are very good reasons why organisational politics exists and why we can’t do without it. In order to understand those reasons, we need to examine what politics is first. The essence of organisational politics is the reciprocal exchange of information and favours to negate or bypass the inherent inefficiencies of large hierarchical structures, which includes the power structure. In this broad meaning politics is anything that isn’t based on structure, role authority, process or policy.
We do not believe that an alternative, very narrow, definition of politics as ‘progressing self-serving agendas contrary to organisational goals’ is of any use, although there is a body of work out there based on this extremely narrow take on it. There is plenty of politics happening in any organisation that is not contrary to organisational goals and not primarily concerned with self-advancement.
For example, politics is used to control or enhance information flows, form networks or coalitions, temporarily undercut or ursurp role authority, to halt or slow down the consequences of poor decisions made ‘higher up’, to bypass cumbersome decision making processes, to lobby for resources, to seed and socialise ideas and so on. It is also used to advance individual careers, for example by managing impressions.
In contrast to widely held beliefs about the benefits of meritocracies and ‘good’ organisational cultures, politics is essential for the functioning of any complex human endeavour. Any hierarchical organisation without politics will likely drown in superfluous information (think endless meetings and emails with CC to all) and be prone to either make no decisions or consistently poor decisions. Of course this conjecture cannot be tested as organisations without politics simply don’t exist!
In order to understand why, we need to take a brief detour back in time, to when we first developed our current, complex language, which happened sometime between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. Not only did that new language allow us to communicate and pass on knowledge and information about the world, it also allowed us to gossip. In fact, most researchers today believe that gossiping was the primary purpose of this new language, the whole knowledge and information sharing was more of a by-product.
This means that up to the point when we started to develop large-scale hierarchical structures some 5,500 years ago, everything was politics! We also know today that none of these hierarchical structures ever lasted very long and even today, with over 5,000 years of experience behind us, the average life span of a large company is only 20 years (it was 60 years in the 1950s). Sure, there are other factors at work, but we remain much better at gossiping and politics than at building lasting structures and processes.
If you can accept that politics came first and the whole structure/process thing was bolted onto something that existed at least 25,000 years prior, then it makes a whole lot more sense that organisational politics is here to stay. Apart from a handful of politics-free examples that would mostly be described as ‘inhuman’ (such as an Amazon warehouse where workers wear GPS bracelets that track their every move), we do much better in large structures when politics is seen as necessary and desirable. Sure, it has some undesirable side-effects (e.g. in the form of self-serving agendas and by enabling narcissists to progress), but they are outweighed by the positive effects that correct for the inefficiencies inherent in multi-level hierarchies.
What are examples of ‘good’ politics? The simplest one would be seeding and socialising an idea or proposal with managers and stakeholders before the formal ‘submission process’. This seems like a no-brainer, but it is politics. If you were to strictly follow the process in most organisations, you would write, say, the project proposal and enter it into the project management system via some formal submission. Most people would instinctively know that doing that wouldn’t work and decide to canvass for support first. This is better for the organisation and all the people involved, as the chance of success increases if support can be garnered this way and bad ideas can be killed before resources get invested.
The more interesting examples revolve around mitigating role authority and decision making authority. You will likely recall an instance in your career where someone ‘higher up’ made a bad decision either out of ignorance or out of self-interest. When good politics is at work in such a scenario, the political actors might go over the manager’s head (bypassing role authority) or quietly ignore the decision and do something more productive or better aligned with organisational goals.
What political strategies to pursue in a particular instance and under particular circumstances requires ‘political nous’, which can be learned. It requires learning about people’s personality and their wants and desires. It also requires learning about the ‘currency’ used for decision making. Power, status and significance are examples of such currencies, but so are principles, values and the greater good. What you see will be based on what you have (so far) learned to pay attention to, yet all of them are present in a healthy political environment.
Becoming a political actor further requires learning about the unwritten rules of politics, such as the principle of ‘plausible deniability’. Understanding reciprocity and the rules of trading information and favours are also important to learn for any manager. We coach most of our senior manager clients in some or all of these areas, as there seems to be both a lack of knowledge and skills in relation to politics in most organisations we have come across.
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