Office politics is an inescapable part of the work place. It is the ‘upside down’ alternative reality of the formal policies, procedures, governance and organisational constructs that are supposed to guide decision making from promotions to investments.
Opaque and informal, it presents a parallel decision-making structure driven by relationships and power. It rewards those who understand the rules and players and invest time in playing the game. Like any game it can be played fairly and with integrity, making it an effective way of resolving competing priorities.
Unfortunately, office politics is often hijacked both in terms of means – think Game of Thrones with email (backstabbing, shifting alliances, manipulation, threats) – and the ends – pursuit of individual gain at all costs (Game of Thrones is again very relevant). This type of office politics is corrosive to organisational well-being and effective decision making.
So, what can be done?
Politics is here to stay. In the office and elsewhere. Politicians, whether in Government or in business perform an essential role representing competing interests. They are agents of compromise and governance. The process of politicised decision making is undoubtedly messy: ‘Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.’(Bismarck or perhaps John Godfrey Saxe).
But we are probably willing to accept the process if the outcome is considered, fair and doesn’t compromise the interests of the collective for the benefit of the politician.
This requires effective and inclusive decision making across the organisation which is transparent and able to constantly speak truth to the power (the formal power hierarchy and the informal one). Governance forums, including meetings and workshops can play the role of a free press; providing an independent and varied view of the challenges faced and the options available. This requires every voice to be free to speak stridently and openly without censorship or fear of punishment.
A worked example
Imagine a business facing sustained margin compression. Digital transformation is the prescribed response. The COO and CIO are tasked with driving the change. Both are credible successors to the current CEO who is expected to retire in two to three years.They are highly capable individuals. For both this is their best shot at the top job. They are unlikely to get another chance.
Ideally both the COO and CIO would be joined at the hip, working together to deliver the transformation by blending the capabilities of their respective organisations. But… this doesn’t happen. The desire to sit on the 'Iron Throne' with its status, stock options and fancy office is too strong. Instead of collaborating, internecine warfare begins.
Both sides mobilise their banner men and women, through networks of sponsorship (the business equivalent of granting knighthoods for loyalty and hard work) to fight a guerrilla war. In every investment board, strategy away day and project review pitched battles are fought. Suddenly the organisation is spending the bulk of its time, energy and collective intelligence on something destructive, at a time when the need for collaboration is greatest.
Unfortunately, people will be people. Something needs to be put in place to stop the abuse and untrammelled pursuit of power. A set of norms that enable everyone to speak truth to power is required to curb the worst excesses of office politics. And everyone can contribute to fostering this kind of environment.
In the case of the CIO and COO fighting it out for the iron throne, their war of self-interest could be dissipated by a host of conscientious objectors empowered by culture, technology and shared purpose. With peace comes the focus, collaboration and freedom to take risks that underpin successful transformation.