Debilitating Office Politics and What to do About Them

We all recognize and live with office politics of one kind or another.  We mostly shrug and resign ourselves. “Oh it’s the usual politics.” “I hate politics. I don’t get involved.”  But what’s behind such “politics and what is their effect on an organization?    Charles Spinosa, Christopher Davis and Billy Glennon, authors of an intriguing article “Transforming crippling company politics” point to the crippling effect of negative politics: they kill critical change programs, put managers into empty competition, and open enormous fields of reputation-covering busyness, the authors say.

So now the issue is what one can do about them. It is not necessary or even effective to make radical moves—for example, re-structuring, firing or hiring-- the article argues. And this is where it gets interesting and echoes some of my findings in my forthcoming books, Leading Associations from the Outside-In. Instead of looking at structural and surface realignments, get to the source. Politics are, after all, only manifestations of a deeply embedded, pervasive culture---systems of beliefs, assumptions, values and practices.  Increasingly this is the realm where leadership has to be exercised to create the flexible, open and innovative organizations that can compete in the knowledge age.

Look for clues in the way things are done. How does one get ahead in your organization? How do you report up? How do you reach agreement and make decisions? How do most initiatives go? Honest answers to such questions will uncover what really matters, as opposed to what your organization claims it matters, and hence the source of your office politics.

Where do you start from and how can you manage intangibles? The article offers the framework of a theory of moods, based on philosopher Martin Heidegger’s theories. To clarify what a mood is, it conjures up the experience of entering a cathedral. Regardless of individual beliefs, such visit conjures up a sense of reverence and awe. “Politics’” are similarly expressions of a company’s pervasive mood; a mood that permeates every aspect of one’s experience of the company.  The point is that, unless you uncover the “mood” of your organization and address its source, you cannot effectively eliminate crippling politics or, for that matter, lead and affect change.  

The article identifies four negative structural moods and their positive counterparts that they believe most companies fall into.  There are definite parallels to associations. Which of these four most closely resembles your association?

1.    Resentment and the Politics of Blame (Republicans vs. Democrats)

In this environment groups blame each other for corporate failures. “They spin each other's statements to turn priority differences into blameworthy malfeasance. Key moments in the company's history consist of out-groups replacing in-groups. Managers spend time plotting to oust or convert other managers. Cross-faction initiatives stall.”

2.    Fear and the Politics of Betrayal (Communist East Germany)

“Unlike the fierce, articulate partisanship of resentment, fear drives vague speech and isolation. Insurance, retail banking, and media tend toward fear,” the authors say.  Fear-driven management and culture is a characteristic I frequently encountered in my research into associations that were inward-oriented, focused on their own products, governance and policies rather than people and the ability to construct innovative customer solutions. Such associations, for example, were threatened by member-driven innovations, such as online communities, and responded by thwarting them rather than collaborating on such innovations. They were defensive when criticized and rushed to justify their products and policies rather than learn from criticism; they had hierarchical, controlling systems and limited innovation only within existing categories, allowing little or no employee authority. In fear-driven environments, the authors conclude, “junior managers weave cocoons around upper managers, who see their own hands-off management as the mark of their senior positions. Managers take little ownership. They float trial balloons.” Fearful companies have many initiatives that start with clear purposes, yield vague reports that lose senior management interest, and then go dormant.

3.    Resignation and the Politics of Appeasement (Trapped in a small town with the same people forever)

“Resignation is the classic structural mood of bureaucracies,” the authors claim. It was certainly a prevalent attitude among executives in my research.  I was surprised to find, for example, that even the most innovative and visionary among the CEOs I interviewed were stymied when I asked them what success would look like to them. They astutely analyzed the flaws of their models and offered eloquent descriptions of their future vision, yet they had never thought of how their daily work experience, relationships, ways of doing business and even results would differ from what was currently in place. It suddenly occurred to me. They didn’t really believe anything could and would change. They were so resigned to the status quo they were literally unable to visualize a different day-to-day scenario and, hence, convert vision into practice. When it comes to relationships with members and other stakeholders, resignation translated into appeasement and, hence, shallow, commodity-level relationships rather than building strategic, sustainable relationships, differentiating among customer groups or providing customer value that made a different to customer success. Associations’ consensus-driven governance is the source of multi-layered approval processes that are out of sync with the market, slow decision-making and paralysis. An example of the paralysis of appeasement the article brings up is that of “Innovative Nokia, with 50 percent mobile market share in 2007, sold its mobile business to Microsoft in 2013 because marketing, software, and hardware managers were paralyzed in appeasing each other. Resignation disposes managers to assume that people in other departments will never change. Appeasing them achieves consent.”

4.    Arrogance and the Politics of Deceit (North Korea)

In arrogant cultures, according to this article, managers do not spin-doctor, feed on airy vagueness, or appease. They make bold, deceitful promises to garner resources, share resources with friends, deny them to enemies, and then finesse away promise fulfillment. Managers are master game players with style and flair. Recall the London Whale. High-tech, automotive, and telecommunications companies, venture capitalists, securities traders and investment bankers fall into this mood. Enron and GM before the government bailout were arrogant. Arrogant deceitfulness usually extends to suppliers and customers. Arrogant venture capitalists (VCs) promise entrepreneurs flatteringly large sums on cunning terms that quickly give VCs majority ownership.  In academic institutions, associations, iconic cultural and knowledge organizations arrogance is manifested in putting the institution’s interests and reputation above those of customers and employees; over-reliance on institutional resources such as prestige, history, content often blindsiding them and destroying them or putting them on the brink of obsolescence.  

If you identify these invisible, determining factors of your office politics, do not despair. There are remedies that are far more effective than the draconian measures of termination or radical restructuring. The authors found that it was easier to move to a mood that played a subordinate role in the dominant moods of resentment, fear, resignation and arrogance. They call such moods counterpart moods.

For example, under resentment there is also a hope of overcoming the enemy. “The politics of hope is trust-building.” The article quotes cases and exercises in which managers were guided to openly disagree with each other directly, master each other’s arguments and strive to persuade each other as part of a trust-building process.

Fear hides an attitude of admiration for what threatens. Drawing employees out to recognize and build on what is admiration-worthy about their work and organization can be transformative.

 Don’t settle for destructive negative politics. Identify the underlying structural moods and values that engender them and give your team the opportunity to perceive their behavior from the experience of a counterpart mood. The final building block is to create actual practices in the counterpart mood, such as practices for decision-making, communicating, determining what matters and assessing performance.



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