Why L&D need to understand organisational politics pt1

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Written by Steve Macaulay and David Buchanan on 21 October 2020 in Features
Features

In part 1 of a two-part article on organisational politics, David Buchanan and Steve Macaulay look at why politics is important and provide information on tactics.

Ask a group of managers if they would like to see politics removed from their organisations.  Almost all will raise their hands in agreement.  Office politics is associated with devious, manipulative, underhand behaviour, back-stabbing, and ‘dirty tricks’. 

Many managers think that playing politics is a waste of time and energy, damaging to the organisation and its members, and threatening to integrity and reputation.  Who is going to vote for that?

Now ask those managers whether they have ever worked at putting the best spin on their proposals and sought allies to make something happen.  Most will offer examples which they will justify in terms of bringing about changes that benefited the organisation, maybe in the face of apathy or resistance. 

The political skill they demonstrated in delivering those results probably strengthened their personal reputations.

A short definition

We define politics as the ability to understand others at work, and to use that knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance our personal and/or organisational objectives.  Here are six key things L&D and HR professionals need to know about politics.

Competition of ideas is healthy; as the old saying goes, when two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary.

Political skill gets things done

Why do you need political skill? Organisations are political systems, where decisions are shaped by values, preferences, and interests as well as by rational business considerations. Different departments and units compete for resources. 

Good ideas do not sell themselves, but have to be promoted – in competition with other good ideas – in order to gain support. This competition of ideas is healthy; as the old saying goes, when two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary.

Today’s challenges put political skill at a premium. Organisations have become less hierarchical and more fluid, based on teams and networks. For most managers, this means getting cooperation from people over whom they have no ‘command and control’ authority. 

If you can’t tell someone to do something, you need to use other tactics to get them on your side. There is more scope for political manoeuvring in a less well-ordered organisational world. Those with the sharpest political skills thus attract more resources and support.

Political skill benefits the organisation

Research has also shown that political skill is linked to work performance, perceived promotability, leadership effectiveness, and career success. You can use political tactics to promote what you believe is the right thing to do, and to reconcile conflicting views and competing interests. 

 

Political tactics can be used to force issues into the open, to stimulate debate, and to sharpen the quality of decision-making. Far from being a waste of time, politics generate the energy for change and development – because we are ambitious, and we want to drive our own ideas. 

Politics can therefore be positive and constructive, when used to make things happen, and to get things done, quickly.

Reputation building is necessary and political

We tend to think that pursuing self-interest is bad. But your reputation and credibility mean that you have influence, when others ask you for advice. This allows you to steer events. You sometimes have to protect your self-interest, to maintain your value to the organisation, as well as protecting your career.

The main kinds of political tactics are shown in Table 1 – from image building and information games, to issue-selling and ‘dirty tricks’. Surely these tactics contradict the idea of authentic, transparent, ethical leadership? Not necessarily.

Research shows that most managers don’t see politics as an ethical issue, but as a practical one. We can be ‘economical with the truth’ to protect someone else’s feelings, or to avoid damaging a relationship. 

There is nothing unethical about working ‘behind the scenes’ to build support for an issue that you feel strongly about. Political tactics are often used constructively, to promote organisational goals.

Table 1: Political tactics

Image building

look the part, appear credible, highlight your achievements

Information games

withhold information, bend the truth, white lies, timed release

Structure games

create and abolish roles to promote friends and side-line enemies

Scapegoating

when things go wrong, blame others, external factors

Alliances

make deals with influential others to win support for your ideas

Networking

boost visibility, get information, influence agendas in social events

Intermediation

use someone else to approach others on your behalf

Compromise

let someone else win, so they will back you next time around

Rule games

use rules and procedures to block or to progress initiatives

Positioning

choose assignments where you will be successful and visible

Issue-selling

present ideas in ways that appeal to your target audience

Dirty tricks

dirt files, discredit and undermine, false rumours, corridor whispers

Part 2 of this look at politics in organisations will explore how L&D can support managers in understanding its power to get things done.

 

About the authors

David Buchanan is emeritus professor of organisational behaviour at Cranfield University. He can be contacted at david.buchanan@cranfield.ac.uk. Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield University’s centre for executive development; he can be contacted by email on: s.macaulay@cranfield.ac.uk

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