Clean Politics

Tom Robertson: Posted on Thursday, December 13, 2012 11:30 AM

For a long time I thought business politics was a dirty word. I guess I wasn’t alone – this is from Wikipedia: “…. organizational politics are by definition: The pursuit of individual agendas and self-interest without regard to their effect on the organization’s efforts to achieve its goals…. See also Coworker backstabbing, Cronyism, Gaming the system, Nepotism, One-upmanship, Psychological manipulation, Workplace bullying …”. What a bunch of dirty deeds!  

But the thing that really bugged me was people crying “politics” as a cop-out. They used it when they felt victimized by other people’s behavior – behavior they didn’t understand, so must be motivated by at least one of the seven deadly sins. Sure, it can feel like you’ve been stabbed in the back, but I think it’s more useful to look for communication disconnects than evil intent. Though revenge can taste sweet, it’s more productive to work on shared understanding than to pick up a sword.  

So, politics can mean dirty deeds, and it can mean miscommunication. But there’s another definition of politics that recognizes a critical role in business: politics is “… the realistic process of making decisions and allocating resources in the context of scarcity and divergent interests.”*   

This version of politics is always needed because reality always outpaces our ability to fully understand it, and each of our understandings is somewhat (or very) unique. Effective teams reason and analyze, pool their understandings, and listen to each other. However, there can be a point when there is no clear “right answer”, and someone has to use their best judgment to make a call. This gives rise to the stuff of politics, the stuff than makes an organization like an arena: 

–Authority – who makes the final judgment, and how do I influence them

–Conflict – how are conflicts resolved, and how do I win?

–Coalition – who are my friends, and how can we help each other? 

So, depending on which lens you look through, an organization can look like a factory, a family, or an arena. In our next post we will explore a fourth perspective: organization as a theater. 

*Bolman, Lee G. and Deal, Terrance E.  Reframing Organizations – Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint, 2003.
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