HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsOrganisational politics: Good or bad?

Organisational politics: Good or bad?


Ever read the book The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli? If you haven’t, a brief background would do.

Machiavelli was born on May 3 1469 in Florence, Italy. A philosopher, writer and scheming political spin-doctor of his time, he is regarded as one of the founders of modern political science.

The main theme of his book, The Prince, published in 1932, five years after his death, is the occasional need for the methodical use of violence and deceit as a means of acquiring and keeping political power — “the end justifies the means”.

One of the principles espoused by Machiavelli in the book was that “it is better to be feared than to be loved”. “Machiavellian” has come to mean anything deceitful, unscrupulous and manipulative.

Condemned by Pope Clement VIII, The Prince is a landmark in the history of political power. Stalin is said to have kept the book by his bedside while Napoleon reportedly made extensive annotations to the book!

From my observations, experiences, studies and reflections, the principles from this book translate easily into the modern world of business. But how can one tell that politics are at play in the organisation?

There are several pointers. The wrong people are singled out for blame. Scapegoating is considered a legitimate part of the game.

There is defensiveness about errors and mistakes. Those who are considered to be “politically incorrect” are marginalised, ignored or dismissed. Those who are not liked are “sent to Coventry”.

It could be in the form of personality clashes, we all think, feel, look or act differently. Some people simply rub us the wrong way. If they belong to the “wrong camp”, we eliminate them. Resources are not efficiently deployed.

Rewards accrue to people for reasons other than competence or performance. Rules are enforced selectively.

There is a short-term and transactional focus, the “big picture” is ignored. To improve one’s own ranking, one sabotages the work performance of a colleague.

An ambitious subordinate finds himself on the “hit list” of his paranoid boss. Information is withheld from those who have little or no access to it. Ingratiating conduct and elbowing tactics are employed to boost one’s own position.

It may also depend on where you come from. How many people are where they are today because they married from the same family, went to the same school or come from the same region with someone now in an influential position in their organisation?

This is a fact of organisational life.
It reminds me of a satirical but true story about the late Vice-President, Simon Muzenda, who came from Gutu in Masvingo.

He is said to have been unequivocal in reminding senior company officials and politicians from Masvingo “usakangamwa kuzhira!” (always remember the folk from Masvingo).

Who are the political players in organisations? Naturally, employees at senior management levels in organisations engage more in politics than employees of lower positions because they wield more power, allowing them to obtain resources and manipulate political behaviours to gain personal advantage.

However, one can have political savvy regardless of one’s position in an organisation. Have you ever noticed how powerful a messenger who picks up the boss’s son from school can be in your organisation?

To win the boss’s heart, he methodically courts the favour of the boss’s wife and children by the manner in which he executes his tasks.

Every one of us has played politics at one time or another. There are instances where we have gone outside the formally-sanctioned channels to achieve what we wanted. We either succeeded or dismally failed.

We have outwitted others in some cases, but in other cases we were thoroughly outsmarted. The game of politics is subtle. It is not for the faint-hearted.

The real political moves are the ones not written anywhere. In war terminology, organisational politics is likened to minefields and stealth bombers as opposed to hand-to-hand combat. Unlike other games, politics has no rules, no referees or judges, no rest, no spectators, everyone is affected.

Some people are so devious and politically cunning that if Machiavelli himself were alive today, he would be green with envy!

Politics can be dysfunctional to the organisation. Politics interfere with the normal organisation process.

An organisation is a social arrangement to pursue a collective intent. Yet, due to individual silos and turf wars, many organisations grapple with the challenges of connecting the different organisational sub-systems they have devised to enhance specific contributing functions.

In a politically-charged work environment, staff get demoralised, productivity is compromised and staff turnover increases. For some, workplace politics can be the Waterloo of their career.

Personal interests become incongruent with those of the organisation, what economists have termed the “principal-agent problem”.

According to this phenomenon, managers can devote emphasis, time and resources to matters that are at variance with the interests of shareholders and investors.

Due to the separation of ownership and control, individuals can often derive personal advantage from actions that are contrary to the common interest. Recall the Enron and HP cases?

Management guru Henry Mintzberg, writing close to thirty years ago, defined organisational politics as “individual or group behaviour that is informal, ostensibly parochial, typically divisive, and above all, in the technical sense, illegitimate, sanctioned neither by formal authority, accepted ideology or certified expertise”. But is organisational politics always bad?

For many of us, organisational politics conjures up self-serving, manipulative ploys, back-stabbing, destructive opportunism, dysfunctional game-playing and other Machiavellian antics.

Indeed there is a dark side of workplace politics.
However, politics can be positive as well, for organisations and for individuals.

A system of politics in organisations is necessary to provide checks and balances by promoting full debate of issues. Individuals who become proficient at politics may realise greater job and career satisfaction than their politically-inept counterparts.

In typical Darwinian parlance, organisational politics leads to “survival of the fittest”. This can enhance leadership competence, rejuvenation and rich decision-making processes.

In its positive form, politics can be necessary to get things done and to achieve success for both the individual and the organisation.

Why is the topic of organisational politics still surrounded by secrecy and denial? It is scarcely taught in high school, university or business school curricula.

Most management texts continue to portray organisations as rational sites when in reality they are not.

Those who believe that workplace behaviour must always be rational and ethical are definitely suffering from an acute political blind spot!

For those who hate the word “politics”, the bad news is that organisational politics is not about to go away.

It may be unwise, naïve and even suicidal to ignore it. The secret lies in identifying politically dangerous situations and effectively avoid committing political blunders; otherwise you learn the hard way, with dire consequences.

Technical skills are a necessary but not sufficient condition for career success; one requires well-honed political skills as well. In organisational politics it is about who you know rather than what you know.

Talented people often exit the organisation prematurely due to lack of political savvy, as they fail to protect themselves from others’ devious political antics.

Since politics is a fait accompli of organisational life, we cannot wish it away. Inasmuch as there are those who will make good use of organisational politics, there will surely be those who will make evil or harmful use of it.

The panacea may lie in striking a balance between the positive and negative dimensions of organisational politics.

Perhaps Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer of the Stanford Graduate School of Business was right when he suggested that although nuclear, medical, biological or genetic knowledge may be put to harmful use, the advancement of such knowledge for productive uses cannot be held back.

Whether workplace politics is a good idea or a bad idea depends on who you ask!

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