Organisational politics, a critical strategic leadership imperative

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Leaders often allocate a large proportion of their time to strategic planning and spend little time worrying about organisational politics.

Many a leader perceive politics as the “dark side” of Organisational life, constructed by the selfishness and dishonesty of others. They do not want to play politics, and become handicapped by their unwillingness to understand the role of politics in organisations. However, most Organisational crises have a political aspect — politics can cause crises and be the means of resolving them. It goes without saying that dysfunctional politics can sink an organisation, and yet most of the executives I teach react with distaste to the idea of being a savvy organisational politician.

Defining organisational politics

While we would be naive if we did not acknowledge politics as a potentially destructive force, however when deployed effectively it can help the company meet its strategic goals and live up to its values, especially during organisational change. So what is it? Organisational politics refers to a variety of activities associated with the use of influence tactics to improve personal or organisational interests. Studies show that individuals with political skills tend to do better in gaining more personal power as well as manage stress and job demands better, than their politically naive counterparts.

Organisational crisis and politics

Thinking about Organisational crises from a political frame is a necessary management skill. When leaders think about crises through a political frame, they acknowledge that organisational behaviour is not always deliberately constructed to achieve strategic goals. Instead, it can be dictated by conflicts among individuals, power structures, and competing interests. Framing crises from a political perspective requires in-depth knowledge of the organisation’s political terrain. Leaders must be able to identify the strengths of key power brokers, determine channels of communication, and understand networks of relationships. Moreover, when an organisation’s political system dominates business practices, leadership must comprehend how it creates crisis management barriers and then craft a plan to work around these obstacles. Not taking into account the political system can prolong the crisis and damage the organisation.

The Aurthur Andersen case

Consider what happened to Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm that had been number one in its industry and known for its excellent human resource management and client service practices. In 2002, this image became severely damaged when Arthur Andersen was accused of failing to detect fraud and report the improper accounting practices of firms such as Enron, WorldCom, Waste Management, and Sunbeam. The collapse of Arthur Andersen represents a crisis rooted in a political system that leadership ignored.

Lessons from the Aurthur Andersen case

The Arthur Andersen crisis emphasises not only the importance of leadership’s role in understanding the organisation’s political terrain, but also the significance of leaders’ ability to navigate organisational politics.

Joseph Bernardino, worldwide CEO of Arthur Andersen at the time of the scandal, had inherited a crisis-prone political system, but he was unable to comprehend the complexity of the problem. Preventing and managing crises through a political system requires an ability to build healthy networks, negotiate with power brokers, and refocus the values of the dominant coalition when it jeopardises the organisation’s well-being.

How politics plays out in organisations

In most instances, political behaviour is likely to be present, but not explicit, until it is too late. For example, it may be the case that a manager needs to exert a large amount of pressure on a team to get something done by using the power of their position over others. It is also occasionally necessary for employees to work behind the scenes to build coalitions of believers in a new vision to convince others. Whatever the situation, it is important to understand that the root causes of political activities are often scarce resources (including time pressures), social and structural inequalities, and individual personal motivations.

Executives can view political moves as dirty and will try to distance themselves from those activities. However, what they find hard to acknowledge is that such activities can be for the welfare of the organisation and its members. Thus, the first step to feeling comfortable with politics requires that executives are equipped with a reliable map of the political landscape and an understanding of the sources of political capital.

Mapping the political terrain

To address these challenges, we need to chart the political terrain, which includes four metaphoric domains: the weeds, the rocks, the high ground, and the woods. Each has different rules for skillful navigation.

Navigating these domains requires awareness of two important dimensions. First is the level that political activity takes place. Political dynamics start with the individual player and their political skills.

These can evolve into group-level behaviours. At the other end of this dimension is the broader context, where politics operates at the organisational level.

The second dimension of the political landscape is the extent to which the source of power is soft (informal) or hard (formal). Soft power is implicit, making use of influence, relationships, and norms. Political activity based on “hard,” formal, or explicit power draws upon role authority, expertise, directives, and reward or control mechanisms.

These two dimensions of power can provide us with the tools to navigate the four metaphoric domains.

Robert Mandeya is an executive leadership coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Institute of Leadership, Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw/www.lird.co.zw.

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