Political intelligence… and sometimes the lack thereof
I see them everywhere, across all industries and organisations, and like lambs to the slaughter they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge organisational politics, all whilst being shafted by those who abuse their political awareness. They say, in righteous tones:
“But it shouldn’t work that like that!”
“I should be rewarded on the basis of what I do, not how I promote myself.”
“I don’t want to be like that; to be political!”
And yet it is like that, and whilst they stick their heads in the sand they deny reality. The biggest problem that I see most people have, is not about political skills, but is in their complete resistance to acknowledging and dealing with politics.
The world should be another way, they say. It should not be about politics and self-promotion. However, anyone who has read about or studied history, or anthropology, or psychology, or sociology, or politics, will know that when you get a group of human beings together, politics arrives.
It’s simple really, we as human beings we are driven to compete as much as we collaborate. Since the earliest days of nomadic tribes wandering in the wilderness we wanted to know who to follow – who will provide safety, shelter and food – as being out of the tribe meant almost certain death. We see similar patterns among other mammals, such as horses, which can have complicated social hierarchies, and clear leaders.
And yet many of us persist in the belief that organisations shouldn’t work like that. Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons, in the Dilbert Principle (Adams S, ‘The Dilbert Principle – A cubicle’s eye view of bosses, meetings, management fads and other workplace afflictions’. London, 1996: Boxtree) develops the argument that the problem with human beings is that we are all idiots, but not all of the time. We have moments of idiocy, but in business and organisations we seem to believe that this shouldn’t happen. This sets us up to be disappointed!
It is essentially the same problem that we have with politics. We know that human beings are rivalrous and competitive, yet when we move into the workplace we believe that it shouldn’t happen, and we deny our own competitiveness: “I’m not like that and I don’t want to be like that.”
In part this comes from a way of seeing organisations (For more information on the ways in which we see organisations, reference: Morgan G, ‘Images of Organization’. London, 1986: Sage). We see them as machines, which should operate as finely tuned instruments of efficiency. This began in the days of Ford and assembly line production, and whilst most people acknowledge that this isn’t how organisations work, we still hold on emotionally to a view that they should!
It also comes from a reluctance in our politically correct society for many of us to admit to ourselves, our rivalry and competitiveness. We deny that so that we don’t have to be “one of them”; “political”. This saves us ultimately from taking leadership, and taking responsibility for our future careers – it’ is their fault when we are not recognised for the brilliance of our work.
We can sit around in the coffee rooms, and around the water coolers gossiping with others who aren’t political, about how political it all is ‘up there’, and how they who run the organisation should really recognise that it’s us who do all the work!
So if this is you, if you recognise yourself in the comments above, what should you do?
Well firstly you need to accept that politics is just a part of organisational life – denying it is a sure way to be a victim of it!
Secondly you need to take responsibility for yourself and your career. Those who are ‘upstairs’, in the organisational sense, cannot know about everything that goes on – there’s just too much to keep a track off. It’s up to you to let them know.
Thirdly, network. Yeah, I know it doesn’t always feel comfortable, but you need to get to know the people who work around you, in different departments, and in other parts of the organisational hierarchy. You’ll find this invaluable for getting your job done, as well as for your political ability.
Fourthly, stay true to your values. Now some of you are saying that by even engaging with politics you are abandoning your values, but I would argue that it is possible to have a sense of integrity in what you do with your political awareness and network. Are you acting solely for your own personal benefit, in which case your behaviour is that of the political people you decry; or are you acting for the benefit of the organisation and it’s customers / clients / service users?
Always be able to answer that question for yourself and you’ll stay on the right side of your values.