Friday, August 7, 2009

No politics, let’s play it straight

The word ‘politics’ is one of the most overused words in corporate life. And while saying so, I’m not trying to imply that ‘political behaviour’ is the least observed behaviour in the world of business!

And now that I have already accomplished my first objective of disorienting my readers, let me progress my thoughts!

It’s a common observation that every one in the corporate community privately and publicly acknowledges the prevalence of political behaviours in their respective organizations. And reality is not far removed from this common belief. In this context, we have to understand that the word ‘politics’ is invariably (almost every time without an exception) used with a negative connotation. We all know the positive/neutral aspects of this word—such as, an academic discipline that is woven around the study of power, authority, state, governance etc. But, my focus today is going to be on the commonly used/understood meaning of the word politics—which essentially means presence of negative/corrosive/counterproductive/manipulative behaviours & processes within an organization.

Having defined the scope of the discussion, let’s now look at the specific behaviours that can be clearly construed as political and possible pointers in coping with such situations.

At a high level I would like to classify these behaviours as :

1: Acts of Commission: i.e. active factors

2: Acts of Omission: i.e. passive factors

One small note before I proceed further. I’m not suggesting in any manner that the Active factors are more serious than the Passive ones. Their impacts can be same or different, depending on the situation but will rarely depend on which class they fall in. To demonstrate this point, I would like to take an example from our great epic The Mahabharat. We all know that the Pandavas were manipulated by the Kauravas into gambling and eventually losing everything, with the help of all evil machinations of their maternal uncle, Shakuni. Dhrutarashtra, the father of Kauravas did not play any role in enticing the Pandavas to continue to gamble, but was aware of the decaying situation at every stage. In this example, the players who exhibited political behaviours were the Kauravas, Shakuni and Dhrutarashtra. The first two actively manipulated (Acts of Commission) and the third passively participated (Acts of Omission) by remaining silent, when just one word of command from him would have stopped any further rounds of unfortunate events that led to the great war of Mahabharat! Such can be the destructive power of the Acts of Omission!

What are the Acts of Commission?

This class-name is self-explanatory. Hence, let’s jump straight into the types of behaviours that fall in this category.

Although I have no specific order in mind while presenting existence of these behaviours, Gossips come to my mind as the most predominant one in this category. Gossips, though some times can create some common-interest groups within the organization, they still prove to be overall acting against the organizational interests. Main reason being, lack of accountability/responsibility on parts of those who actively take part in such informal gossip sessions—even though many times their belief is that they are doing it in the best interests of the organization! Let’s say an organization has a very senior manager whose professional and personal behaviours are not in consonance with the stated values of the corporation. Invariably, such behaviours lead to silent gossips within those employees who would like discontinuance/immediate stoppage of such behaviours but have no courage to escalate to right levels! Inevitably, as gossips progress, they enrol newer and newer employees and the whole chain leads to ‘morale erosion’ within the organization.

Rumours are equally (if not more!) destructive. They don’t spread on their own. They are spread through ‘active carriers’ or the ‘rumour mongers.’ The essential difference (whenever there is one) between the rumours and the gossips is that there is almost no occasion when the rumours are actively spread with an organizational interest (even ostensibly!) in mind.

Enemy is out there is a standard plank used very commonly by the managers. It is a very cunning and convenient way of managing people. Essentially in this approach, the managers continue to impress upon their reporting folks that the world outside their department/section is out to harm them and therefore call for unity within the department/section/function! What a terrible way to ensure unity—that is clearly against the spirit of inter-group harmony and organizational unity.

Shadow boxing or latent lobbying is also a commonly observed negative behaviour. The manipulative individuals within the organization create surrogate voices and proxy objects through their bosses, colleagues—literally anyone who they can influence. One example will illustrate this pattern. The Sales Head can’t stand the Production Head—both personally and professionally. And he has neither the ability nor any will to constructively confront him. So, typically what he does is: speaks to the Logistics Head, Procurement Head—behind-the-scene ganging-up begins here. Once he has some people on his side, he then goes on to induce them to take some action that he influences. At this stage, the Sales Head influences the two other Heads to go to the CEO and speak adversely about the Production Head. A classical hi-tech way of playing this game is via using that avoidable feature in the email called the BCC! My readers, who extensively use emails for their day to day (existential!) communications surely won’t need me to give even one example to stress this point about the BCCs. We all witness it's misuse day in and day out!!

And then one can see equal examples of ganging-up by the majority. In total defiance of all diversity and inclusion principles, people do come together on the basis of majority segments they belong to—be it regional, gender or indeed functional. To my mind this is another dimension of bullying by using real, virtual, acquired (or at times even perceived) positions of power. Suppressing views, voices and opinions is an extremely political behaviour. Punishing any kind of dissent--no matter how compelling the dissenting argument is or how passionate the dissenting person is about the organization’s well being and progress—is so counterproductive that continuance of such leadership behaviours can seriously affect organizational effectiveness and morale. The problem gets further compounded when managers reward and recognize employees for individual loyalties rather than for their organizational contributions! And a real debacle happens when managers promote their personal favourites even in selecting folks for rewarding individual loyalties!!

Hiring and promoting clones is yet another type of anti-diversity, cocooning-in-one’s own-comfortable shell type of a syndrome. This is their way of establishing consensual behaviours and proactively avoiding potential dissents—although many a time constructive dissents are more robust and productive in the long run than the weak consensus.

When cocooning assumes larger proportions it gives rise to creation of fiefdoms, silos and turfs. Politics spreads across organizations when people restrict others’ movements and initiatives by putting artificial boundaries and drawing virtual lines of control. Power, authority, control, defense, attack, protect are some of the key political words that rule people’s behaviours when these games begin on the corporate turf. And most importantly, when such barricades are unnecessarily created, people respond in a competitive language even when not necessary—and even worse, collaboration effort made to go beyond the battle lines is treated with contempt within the ‘camp’ and such behaviour is, often times, even discarded as one that is devoid of courage. Such is the power of negative political forces within the organization!

Democracy, in the modern day living, is a key word in any governance. Modern day managerial styles can’t therefore stay away from this magic word. Anything democratic is good and non-democratic is bad—is the maxim managers would like to be seen to be following. But the catch is—you can be recognised as democratic, only if in actual practice you are one! And there lies a problem. We can see cases after cases of democratic facade nicely standing in front of autocratic citadel of power! It’s precisely this gap - between the stated position and observed behaviour (difference between 'saying' and 'doing') - which can be yet another way of identifying political behaviours within organizations.

After sufficient ‘leadership bashing’ let’s look at some other active political behaviours that are rampant across the entire organizational hierarchy.

Cover your B*** strikes to me first. People demonstrating these traits invariably propagate atmosphere of distrust amongst colleagues. For every action that they take, they either shift ownership of the decision behind the same to someone else, or they don’t act until they are formally instructed to do so. In either case, if something goes wrong, they create a prior alibi. Apart from seriously damaging trust, such behaviours erode the entrepreneurial and risk-taking appetite of the organization.

It has always amused me how the following two types of behaviours, which are really exactly opposite to each other, have a similar negative effect on organizations. One finds many employees who literally have maniacal focus on delivering selectively negative messages and there are equal number of folks who avoid confronting negative issues. Slightly deeper perusal of this point will lead us to the conclusion that both these create the same political effect within an organization. Active and repeated negative messaging (Acts of commission) spoils the fabric of authentic relationships, while confrontation avoidance (Acts of omission) leads to communication breakage that also leads to spoiling of relationships! It is only proper for me to highlight one more shade around confrontation and that is confronting people and not the issues. As we observe quite frequently that when the individuals are questioned around their ideas/suggestions they become defensive. They construe such questioning as questioning of their individual competence and not the ideas in reference. Now, let’s look at the other side of the coin. Those who are questioning: are they really constructively critiquing the ideas or they are being judgmental about the people who have advanced those ideas. Quite commonly, they are passing judgments about people’s capabilities, and therefore the resultant defensive behaviours.

Having touched upon major Acts of Commission let’s now take a quick look at the Acts of Omission.

In this regard what else can precede over succumbing to authority? Silent sufferance is nothing but a major cause for the destruction of organizational peace and harmony. Dhrutarashtra’s example above throws some light on this point, but not fully. The world has seen many benevolent regimes being highjacked by the overambitious despots. This couldn’t have been possible without passive participation of the silent majority that succumbed to the authority. Corporations are no different. There is enough evidence to show how employees have chosen to ‘fall in line’ leading to ‘cultural crises’ with far reaching proportions.

Logically the next one in line is ‘procrastination’. This is little different from the point above and even more widespread. People do not need managerial browbeating or indeed any external force to get into this kind of behavioural pattern. They just do it out of either their inability to take decisions/stands or sheer inertia to act or unwillingness to take on any responsibility/accountability. All this creates ‘decision/action voids’ within organizations—and guess, who benefit out of it? Of course, those who are actively looking for manipulating every situation to their advantage. I underline the word ‘their’ advantage and the ‘organizational’ advantage. Could they have asked for a better situation than having such procrastinating accomplices?

And finally, written communications are at the core of corporate transactions. Passive passengers know it well. They, therefore, just don’t commit to anything in writing. They are averse to making commitments that are objectively verifiable at a later date. Effect? Yet again, ‘trust collapse.’

In summary: The journey to ‘organizational change’ has a major milestone called ‘behavioural awareness’. And hopefully, the thoughts presented above will help us synthesise our past actions in way that we can weed out what may constitute ‘political’ and reinforce the ones that will strengthen ‘apolitical forces’ in the organizational stream—a dream each one us should cherish and chase.


Roopali said...

Hi Abhay,

This is one of the most interesting articles I have read so far around Organizational politics. Great insights into the examples of 'active' and 'passive' politics right from mythological times. Most of us fail to believe that being ‘passive’ is not participating in politics and you have very rightly explained ‘how’ we do. I am in agreement with most of the recommendations you have proposed to address the problems, however constructive confrontation I believe is the most powerful weapon, I have experienced that can not only address problems but also build relationships.

Indeed a short, but in-depth thought provoking insights around Organizational deterrents . A great piece of guide as well !!!


Unknown said...

Actually what Abhay has written is scary. Scary because it is so true. But also because many organisations will be competitively overun in times to come because many competitors will learn how to create teams which focus more on enhancing customer value than on internal politics.

Perhaps a non heirarchial/flat organisation is something that will help? I read a recent article and am copying the link here --

Just in case the Link does not open, this is an article about a successful re-engineering done by a company called favi in which the highlights of the changes were as follows --

1. Every customer has a single FAVI linchpin who oversees all aspects of the relationship which are handled by the team.
2.Says the CEO: “I came in the day after I became CEO, and gathered the people. I told them tomorrow when you come to work, you do not work for me or for a boss. You work for your customer. I don’t pay you. They do.
3.The linchpin is a critical position of high strategic importance, so the CEO handpicked each one. In effect, what happened at FAVI was that it moved from being one big plant to being a couple of dozen entrepreneurial miniplants housed under one roof.
4. The lack of hierarchy solves a number of problems. With work at FAVI organized into horizontal customer teams, job titles and promotions become irrelevant, so they are no longer a distraction. All that energy is channeled into the work itself, which at FAVI is of the highest quality.

Thanks for instigating this debate Abhay.

Anonymous said...

I read with a lot of interest on your dissection of politics as seen and perceived in the realm of the corporate world.

I think it was extremely well written and though provoking.

-Souvik Chakraborty

Anonymous said...

Hi Abhay -

I really liked it. Primarily, I have seen dominant "in-circle"s that typically become the voice of the organization. I have also seen bits where organization and leadership encourage openness and honesty but fail to lead by example. Lastly, there is an act of "Kissing Up" in addition to commission and omission. This however gets you engaged and you behave to please others and drain the organizational effectiveness by not addressing the real issues. This is a hybrid of commissioning like artificial sweetner and you also act with omission for real issues.


Abhay Valsangkar said...

Great comments Himanshu...appreciate it...Cheers, Abhay

Amit Malik said...

Hi Abhay

It is so real life and we all live these instances everyday, passively or actively and that is a choice we make willingly or unwillingly.

Another important behaviour demonstrated by leaders is to publically make a team member look bad /incompetent so that they keep breeding the TINA (There is no alternative to me) factor.

This is insightful and thought provoking.

Abhay Valsangkar said...

Thanks Amit. You are right in pointing out the TINA factor. It is so true! It's high time, leaders created conscious dispensabilities--the only way for their growth and therefore for the entire chain of command they lead. Cheers...Abhay

Manoj Bejawar said...

Good Post and Good insights...