Overcoming Organisation Politics: Is it Possible?

Mac the Knife

Mac the Knife

Lets start with a caveat. It’s not possible to have a ‘politics free zone’ in any organization. When 2 people are married and live under the same roof, there’s an element of politics. Similarly, when 2 or more people are working together, there is always some element of politics/conflict in the relationship. So, the idea that you could develop an organization with zero politics – is unrealistic. The realistic goal then is to reduce politics to a manageable level. It’s like germ eradication in your kitchen. In theory it’s possible to have ‘operating room conditions’ with zero infection risk. In practice, you need to ensure that the level of bacteria is low enough not to do damage. That’s the goal when we talk about politics in organizations, making sure that potential ‘damage’ is minimized. But why try to reduce it at all? Why not simply ‘let it reign’? As a manager, you could just sit back and ‘see what happens’? Well, you could, but…

3 Problems: There are 3 problems with Organizational Politics …

Problem # 1: Internal Focus: Organizations are designed to serve a customer need – selling airline seats, manufacturing praline chocolates, whatever. All businesses address an external customer. It provides the raison d’être, the ‘why’ the organization exists. Politics obscures this focus. Politics elevates the internal game over this external goal. Energy spent in internal politicking is energy stripped away from serving customers needs. Political cultures – where people are continually jockeying for power or status, where in-fighting is the norm, where the daily menu special is intrigue – are like a cancer. They destroy the organization from the inside out. No work gets done. Staff become consumed by the ‘game’.

Example: This year, on holidays in Portugal, we went out to what could be described as a ‘posh restaurant’ (1 Michelin star). There was someone designated to take your coat, someone to lead you to your seat. Someone to bring the bread. Someone to help with the wine. Someone to take the food order. Someone to clear the table and so on. It was rigidly hierarchical and very confusing. I happened to ask the ‘wrong’ waiter for something and got told off. Another night we were out, in an equally good restaurant. In this case, everyone on the staff seemed to ‘pitch in’. The manager of the hotel actually brought over the coffees and chatted to us at the table. In the first restaurant, the structure was rigid and unbending. In the second, serving the customer ‘trumped’ everything else. Organizations that put the customer second, end up coming last. A heavy emphasis on politics is a ticket to a loser’s convention.

Problem # 2: Lose: Lose: When you play a win: lose game with someone else it normally degenerates into lose: lose where there are no winners. In some organizations, it’s not enough to win the argument; there is a sense that you have to crush your opponent. In my coaching role, executives tell me what causes them stress. The number 1 answer, head and shoulders above everything else, is dealing with internal ‘politics’. Internal games slow down decision-making and make it almost impossible to ‘move the needle forward’. Winning and losing become more important than making progress (because ‘progress’ is too often defined as a ‘win’ for the internal opposition). Meanwhile, your competitors (assuming that they have learned how to by-pass the worst aspects of this) are moving past you in the outside lane. If this seems ridiculous and counter-productive, that’s because it is.

Example: I facilitated a meeting in a large financial services company where 2 of the managers were sniping heavily at each other. After the meeting I asked one of the managers whom I know of old: “What was going on there?” The Answer: “I will never forget it,” he said. “Our boss from Europe was in town and I was making a presentation to him. Mid way through the presentation that guy said: ‘those numbers don’t stack up’. He was right, I’d made a simple calculation error and he pointed this out in front of my boss’s boss”. I said: “I can understand you being annoyed at that. When did it happen?” The Answer: “February 20th, 1992”. So, there he was, 20+ years later, still playing out this stupid game. Perhaps they never heard the teenage saying: ‘build a bridge and get over it’. But some people never ‘get over it’. Like a Chicken eating food which can’t be digested, these incidents ‘stick in your craw’ – and provide an ongoing irritant. The game gets continually replayed on an endless loop.

Problem # 3: Mental Illness: On one level, politics can seem almost like harmless fun, a bit of ‘badger baiting’ to pass the time. Yet the corrosive effect of this, which can be debilitating over time, is poorly understood. Stress is cumulative and this game can lead to mental illness. Some people don’t have the ability to ‘read’ the game and continually get caught up in someone else’s play. They become confused. Or they can be crushed and completely lose their confidence. Most people just want to do a good job. They want a straightforward life. They don’t want all the drama and intrigue that runs alongside organization politics. The vast majority of people don’t want to work in a ‘House of Cards’ – like Frank and Mrs. Underwood.

Example: The New HR Manager of a company went to the USA for his induction. He was expecting that he’d learn all about their performance management system, how rewards were structured, how the internal communications machine worked and so on. They told him that all of the internal systems were ‘important’ but that he would learn those ‘on the job’ back in Ireland. They then spent 2 days talking with him about the ‘culture’ of the company, how they wanted this to be managed, how politics could be reduced and so on. Some companies recognize the importance of politics and don’t leave it to chance.

Moving Forward: So, what can you do here? We know that you can’t completely eliminate ‘politics’ in organizations, but is there anything that you can do to lessen the toxic effects? There are 3 specific interventions that can work…

#1: Make the Groundrules Explicit: You know that old saying that a fish ‘rots from the head down’. Well, the same idea can be applied to organizations. You have to make sure that the senior team behaves in a way that sends a positive signal to the rest of the organization. In addition to the senior team, you can also make the ‘values’ around this explicit for everyone in the organization. Make it memorable. Tell all staff that there is a ‘Good P’ (performance) and a ‘Bad P’ (politics). Then make sure that no one gets rewarded for politicking.

#2: Confront it: When someone is ‘game playing’ you call him or her on this. You try to understand why they are behaving in this way. You take the opportunity to tell them to behave in a more positive way. And if they still don’t comply you ask them to leave the organization. This should happen regardless of their level of performance. If you are serious about the ‘no politicking rule’, then you have to demonstrate that seriousness.

 #3: Stop Gossiping: Most people who become leaders do so ‘accidentally’ i.e. very few people decide as a teenager that they wanted to become a leader in the same way that they decide to become a train driver or a physiotherapist. Some leaders don’t know the ‘rules’ and have to be told. Part of learning how to lead, is learning to stop gossiping. As Eleanor Roosevelt reminded us: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people”. I admit that it can be good fun. When you gossip, you very often command the complete attention of the people you’re talking to. In the long run though, you’re perpetuating possible false information about someone which can have very real consequences. If the person you’re gossiping about is a friend and has granted you their trust, you are betraying them. As friendship is built on loyalty and understanding, without trust what’s left? I don’t want to come across here as ‘St. Paul’.  We all do a bit of this. Like eating chips, you don’t have to completely cut it out of your conversational diet, just reduce the amount.

Again, you need to make the groundrules explicit. It might be something simple along the following lines: ‘Got a problem? Then discuss it with the source’. Ensure that the ‘rules’ are clear on this and then role model what you expect from others through your own behaviour.

Bottom Line: While you can’t completely eliminate politics in organizations, that’s not the same as accepting there’s nothing you can do about this. There’s plenty that you can do. And, as a leader, that’s what’s you’re paid to do. Blood on the Paraquet floor costs jobs and can ruin peoples lives. Don’t be a party to it.


 PS Lighter Note:  To My Darling Husband… (from Sean O’Rourke) 

Before you return from your overseas trip I just want to let you know about the 

small accident I had with the 4 by 4 when I turned into the driveway…..  
fortunately not too bad and I really didn’t get hurt, so please don’t worry too 
much about me.  
 Coming home from the supermarket, when I turned into the driveway, 

I accidentally pushed down on the accelerator instead of the brake.  
The garage door is slightly bent but the 4 by 4 fortunately came to a halt when 

it bumped into your car. 

I am really sorry, but I know with your kind-hearted personality you will 

forgive me. You know how much I love you and care for you my sweetheart. I cannot wait to hold you in my arms again.    

Your loving wife,


P.S. Your girlfriend phoned.

 From Kevin Griffin: Shortest Prostate Exam Ever

During my prostate exam I asked the doctor: “Where should I put my trousers?”

“Over there by mine” was not the answer I was looking for…

Time for another one? When You’re Gone, You’re gone: (From Andrew O’Connell).

This is supposedly a true event from Singapore.  Perhaps the people who closed down Clerys department store in Dublin (hamfisted) studied at this particular school of management.

A fire alarm, in a large office building, rang at 4 p.m. when almost all of the company’s 500 employees were at work. The entire office was evacuated within a couple of minutes and employees gathered outside. Nothing happened for ten minutes or so and there was no evidence of a fire.

Then the firms Security Officer made an announcement …

“Dear employees, with melting heart I am making this announcement that for many of you will be your last fire evacuation drill. Due to the recession the company are laying off almost fifty percent of staff. When you move back into the building some of you will discover that your swipe passcard will no longer give you access to the office. If you are among those laid off, go home and all your belongings will be couriered to you tomorrow”.

 “The management took this approach to save on overloading the email system with layoff notifications and goodbye messages and also to avoid any violent outbursts inside the office. Hope you have a nice career ahead … please move forward and try your swipe card.”

You couldn’t make it up….

 Check our website http://www.tandemconsulting.ie or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
This entry was posted in Effective Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s