Is your organization too political? First, let me clarify one thing about office politics: if you are working with other people then you work in a political environment. Simple as that. But true highly political cultures are things to behold. They move with a slowness, irrationality and self-destructiveness that probably closest resembles a sinking Titanic. And the costs of being part of a highly political culture are high. Costs range from overall low performance to low-trust or both. Here are some signs of highly political cultures. Do any of these ring a bell for you?
• Do you use the word “silos” to describe your culture? – We often chalk up silos to a poor organizational structure. False. Silos are a product of people, not structure. More often than not, silos result from leaders not wanting to collaborate with each other for fear that one will gain an advantage over the other. I worked with one organization recently where one individual described it this way: “None of the leadership team will talk with each other. As a result, there are silos everywhere. If we want to collaborate with or even talk to a person in a different silo, we need to do it in secret.” Ridiculous.
• Does image matter more than performance? – Let me give you two stories to illustrate this. Story #1 – Paul had worked for several highly political companies his whole career. Paul had joined a small business unit as their VP of Marketing. After working with Paul for nearly three weeks, I realized Paul actually never did any work or made any real decisions. He spent all his time hiring people and vendors, bullying them and then claiming their work as his own. Story #2 – Beth was getting ready to start a newly created position with a traditional institution that was looking to innovate. Originally, Beth started with a temporary office until her bosses (yes, more than one) were trying to determine where she was going to sit. Beth began to receive fabulous office offers from various groups in the organization. Turns out, in Beth’s organization where you sit matters. It indicates your allegiances as well as whom you oppose. Choose wisely Beth.
• Does “red tape” describe what you have to go through to get stuff done? Highly political organizations often have a ton of policies, procedures and general reasons to say “no” before “yes.” Process trumps urgency every time. When Mike graduated with his MBA, he joined a large consumer packaged goods company as a Brand Manager. Originally excited about the prospect of creative work, Mike was stunned to learn that not only was he put on laundry detergent, but his job was to get approval for the written instructions on the box – a process that took over three months. Think of it as a board game from hell – if anyone told Mike “no,” he had to start all over again at the beginning. He quit after six months.
• Is it difficult to get an honest answer? It’s tough enough to get truly honest answers anyway, but in highly political organizations, this is even worse. And the best politicians leave you feeling comforted, but don’t actually answer any of your questions. So, if you are hearing a lot of “it depends… I need to look into that… Let me get back to you” in response to your questions, you may be dealing with a skilled politician – not a manager or leader.
Any organization is going to have some of the above, but if you found yourself checking off most of those, you may have found yourself in the midst of a highly political organization. In these kinds of organizations, it is more akin to finding yourself in the middle of a civil war. Not fun. Here are some strategies that can help you survive:
1. Pick a side – If you fancy yourself as a skilled negotiator and strategist, you may choose to pick a side and align yourself with a leader and constituency – one that you see as the emerging victor from the political fray. Upside: If you pick correctly, you could become the chief lieutenant of the conquering army – enhancing your own political position. Downside: If you pick incorrectly you could be thrust into a life of servitude by the conquering regime or expelled with the leader you sided with.
2. Be Switzerland – You may just choose to stay out of it. In that case, you take a “Switzerland stance” and refuse to align with any constituency, treating all of them equally and refusing to spread gossip or participate in their reindeer games. Upside: When this strategy works, you are generally left alone, you are rarely brought into skirmishes and generally enjoy a sense of stability amongst all the chaos. Downside: You will not likely gain any ground. You may be at the same position for a very, very, very long time.
3. Be a good soldier – You may not want to go to the extreme of becoming Switzerland, but you may also not feel comfortable in picking a side. In this case, you take the “good soldier” position and manage your image tightly. Act the part, dress the part and overall play good politics by seeming to align with multiple groups, but never actually claiming any position. Upside: You are destined for a solid middle management position – a good company “soldier.” Downside: Your peers and direct reports will never trust you because of your reluctance to take a stance and be genuine. Oh, and you may just lose yourself in the process.
4. Flee the country – Then there is always the option to leave. Upside: I promise you will feel immediately better. Downside: Just like leaving a cut-throat culture, without a clear plan, you may be adrift for a long time. Bring supplies.
In highly political organizations, you can’t “not play” and stay. You need to have a position, even if that position is Switzerland. The only losing strategy is to ignore the reality you find yourself in. In addition, highly political organizations can exact a high toll on the individuals who stay. Characterized by low trust, low performance and game playing, if you stay in a highly political organization too long, you may not only lose your ability to perform effectively in a healthy culture, but you may also lose yourself. Some of the saddest clients I work with are the ones that are so political 24/7, that they lack the ability to form trusting relationships with the people around them in both their personal and professional lives. They lose who they really are. Don’t let that happen to you.