Balancing the pros and cons of organisational politics

Four metaphorical domains, each with different rules, to skilfully navigate the most common issues

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 2:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 10:18pm

Whether we choose to engage actively in it or not, office and organisational politics are all around.

In fact, a recent “Working in Asia” report by Roffey Park, a leadership institute, cites organisational politics as one of the biggest problems affecting the working lives of employees in Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China.

Surveying close to 2,000 managers across various industries, organisational politics emerged as one of the top barriers to productivity in all three regions.

In Singapore, particularly, it is seen as the top barrier to greater productivity in organisations by almost half of those surveyed (44 per cent).

In mainland China, it is the second top barrier with 39 per cent of respondents listing it as a key challenge, and in Hong Kong it is ranked third (38 per cent).

While executives may view political moves as dirty play and try to distance themselves from such activities, it is a pervasive occurrence that can’t easily be swept under the carpet.

What people find hard to acknowledge is that political activities can actually be good for an organisation.

While it is true that internal politics can destroy, when deployed effectively, it can help a company meet its strategic goals and live up to its values, especially during organisational change and in times of uncertainty.

The first step to tackling organisational politics requires a reliable map of the political landscape and an understanding of the sources of political capital.

To start off mapping the terrain, I have used four metaphoric domains: the weeds, the rocks, the high ground and the woods. Each has different rules for skilful navigation.

Navigating these four domains requires awareness of two important dimensions. First is the level that political activity takes place. Political dynamics can involve an individual player and their political skills and may evolve into group-level behaviours. At the other end of this dimension is the wider context where politics operates at the organisational level.

The second dimension of the political landscape is the extent to which the source of power is informal (soft) or formal (hard).

Informal power is implicit, making use of influence, relationships and underlying norms. Political activity based on “hard”, formal, or explicit, power draws upon role authority, expertise, directives and reward/control mechanisms.

These two dimensions of power can provide the necessary tools to navigate the four domains.

The Weeds

Personal influence and informal networks rule this domain. It is a dynamic that grows naturally without any maintenance and can be a good thing. For example, at one organisation, a key personnel was underperforming and sometimes acting unethically, leading staff to worry that they would lose the support of key stakeholders.

As a result, an informal group was formed to manage and mitigate his “situations”. Eventually, the problem became unsustainable and the same group, within a year, eased him out from his position to protect the organisation’s reputation. In this instance, the informal coalition saved the organisation and political activities, in this case, were a force for good.

But “the weeds”, if left unchecked, can also form a dense and impenetrable mat through which nothing else can grow. To deal with the weeds, get engaged in the organisation, find out more information and understand the informal networks at play.

Identify the key brokers, as well as the gaps – to see if you can fill the gaps – or form coalitions and ally with the brokers to increase your own influence.

The Rocks

Power in the rocks rests on individual interactions and formal (hard) sources of authority such as title, expertise or access to resources.

It might also include political capital that arises from membership of or strong ties to a high-power group such as the senior management team.

The rocks” can symbolise a stabilising foundation that keeps an organisation steady in times of crisis. But conversely, its hard, sharp edges of authoritarianism can destroy organisational plans.

Navigating this terrain relies on drawing on formal sources of power rather than fighting against them. An excellent strategy would be to redirect the energy of a dysfunctional leader either through reasoned argument or by appealing to their interests.

For instance, the chairman of one mid-sized advertising company might try using his formal power to stop a new growth strategy and satisfy self-interest over the firm’s longer-term value.

Senior executives could strategically use the argument of “leaving a legacy” to get the chairman to see how he was undermining his own and the company’s long-term interests.

The High Ground

This combines formal authority with organisational systems. It describes the rules, structures, policy guidelines and procedures that form the basis of political activities.

The benefits of these rules and procedures are that they provide a check against the whims of individual-level, charismatic or autocratic individuals. It is a functional political process that uses structures of control systems, incentives and sanctions that keep the organisation in compliance.

However, such rules and procedures can also lead to the company becoming overly bureaucratic and preventing innovation and change.

If stranded on the high ground, take a lesson from one public agency.

It was facing challenges collecting revenues as its structures were slow, and formalised steps had to be followed to stop potential fraud. It meant that millions of tax revenues were not collected at the end of the year.

Senior leaders decided to set up a dedicated task force outside the formal organisational structure to solve the problem. After the first year, they had reduced the problem and reached a 95 per cent recovery rate by the second year.

The organisation then changed its official processes to match these improved methods. It is a good example of how an organisation can use feedback from clients, customers and end-users to highlight difficulties and make the case that the current structure was constraining the organisation.

The Woods

In addition to the formal processes and guidelines, organisations also have implicit norms, hidden assumptions and unspoken routines – and that is in the domain of “the woods”.

This terrain can provide cover and safety for people in your organisation, or it can be a confusing place where good ideas and necessary changes get lost.

Organisations get lost in their woods when they focus on the presenting issues rather than the underlying ecosystem of habits and practices. The challenge here is to make the implicit explicit.

Ask the questions that everyone is afraid to ask and bring unseen organisational routines and behaviours out to the surface.

Ask clients, new hires, contractors or partners about their observations and experience of how the company works. A fresh pair of eyes will often identify things that the incumbents are blind to seeing.

Once the implicit assumptions are made transparent and out in the open, ask your team to reflect on whether they are helping your company or hindering it.

Managers and leaders need to recognise that politics in the office is a natural occurrence and can be a positive function of organisational life. But understanding the political terrain is the first step to fighting dysfunctional politics.

By recognising the positive dynamics in each of the four domains and understanding the right path to take, one can avoid the hidden traps of politics, defend themselves against toxic politics and manage and interact effectively with one another to achieve greater organisational goals.

Michael Jarrett is senior affiliate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD