Politics exists in any organisation of two or more people because this word describes the attempts to influence. Unless nobody is trying to influence others in the organisation, there will be political activity of some sort. Usually, this activity is categorised as either positive or negative.
Negative politics is where there is a high degree of self-serving agendas running riot and people are being harmed in the process. If there is a high level of transparency, care, respect and focus on the organisational agenda, it is usually regarded as positive politics or influence.
Which is right?
The obvious right answer is positive politics. Are you sure? In fact, it is not so straightforward for two main reasons.
Firstly, life and politics are never as simple as black and white, positive or negative. There is always a relative perspective to consider. What is right for one person might be completely immoral for someone else. And, what is harm anyway? While someone physically dying is clearly harmful, if someone has their nose put of joint, is embarrassed at a meeting or is blamed for causing a project failure, perhaps they ought to toughen up — or maybe they are just not cut out for working here?
At the end of the day, you cannot please all of the people all of the time, so it is inevitable that someone will feel slighted or harmed as you drive through results for the organisation. They will no doubt blame their failure to get what they want on the negative politicking while you are just getting the job done.
The answer to this particular dilemma is to focus on becoming an ethical influencer. This means you adopt clear personal rules of engagement which act as your moral compass. The five rules to influence can help you to play hard and give people around you a fair change or being cared for.
The other main reason why it is difficult to answer the “which is the right?” question is that it depends on the situation the organisation is facing at a given point in time.
A little while ago, I wrote a chapter for Marshall Goldsmith’s AMA Handbook of Leadership which covered the idea of Political Temperature — the level and intensity of competition and rivalry between team members. Sometimes it is necessary to have strong competition because the organisation is facing tough times and nobody knows for sure what the right answers are. In these situations, it is a little like survival of the fittest. If everyone was agreeing, you would probably end up with groupthink and corporate death.
When the crisis hits, some people are going to get hurt, at least at an emotional level. It would be wrong to pander to everyone’s whims; although, I hasten to add, there is no need to be disrespectful, unkind or cruel. It’s just a tough time. Leadership duty of care needs to be robust.
At other times, high levels of collaboration are necessary. To have intense competition between senior people would be disastrous. These times are usually when the strategy is clear, agreed and needs to be executed fast.
The answer to this dilemma is to study the context and make clear decisions about the level of competition that is appropriate, and then decide how to manage it. Unless you make it conscious, the political temperature is likely to be determined by the preferences of the top people.
And yes, when it comes to political activity, some people like it hot, and others don’t. Whatever their preference, they are likely to do what they can to promote the sort of environment they enjoy and thrive in. And that may not be right for the organisation’s agenda.
A final point to note is that stifling the politics and competition could make it a boring place for talented people to work in. Talent needs to be stretched and challenged, otherwise it will walk. Tolerating (or even encouraging) a higher level of political activity can inject energy, challenge and fun into the old place. Just be careful to manage the excesses!
Points to reflect on…
- How does high political activity help your organisation?
- How does high collaboration help your organisation?
- To what extent are people being harmed?
- Do the people you need to retain in the organisation like it as it is?
- How ethical is the influence around you? Could it be better?
- What implications does this have for you? And/or your team?
Colin Gautrey is becoming the most sought-after expert in power and influence by ambitious and talented professionals who are serious about accelerating their careers and their results. But, Colin is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
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Other articles by Colin:
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Power, Strategy and Organisational Structure
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