The first 100 days are usually the honeymoon period for any new CEO to make their mark and get others on board. However, for Airbus CEO Christian Streiff, it was just a brief window before his abrupt departure from the European aircraft company that’s part of the EADS consortium, along with DiamlerChrysler and Aerospatiale-Matra.
Streiff’s drive to speed up decision-making, overcome bureaucracy, and deliver rapid execution, exposed historic and deep divisions between executives at the consortium. There were reports of internecine feuding at Airbus: The internal atmosphere was tense; jobs were allocated by preferences other than commercial criteria; and mistakes such as insufficient cabling were a result of internal conflicts and mistrust. Even Streiff ended up concluding that it was the political nature of Airbus that prevented it from becoming an integrated company. In short, he became the unintended victim trapped by what the Financial Times called “byzantine organizational politics.”
Dysfunctional politics can sink an organization, and yet most of the executives I teach react with distaste to the idea of being a savvy organizational politician. Yes, it can be self-serving. However, the reality is that politics is normal. According to McGill’s Henry Mintzberg, it’s just another influencing process along with norms, formal authority and expertise. Thus it’s important for leaders to understand the forms it can take and how to use it for the well-being of the organization.
While we would be naive if we didn’t acknowledge politics as a potentially destructive force, when deployed effectively it can help the company meet its strategic goals and live up to its values, especially during organizational change.
So what is it? Organizational politics refers to a variety of activities associated with the use of influence tactics to improve personal or organizational interests. Studies show that individuals with political skills tend to do better in gaining more personal power as well as managing stress and job demands, than their politically naive counterparts. They also have a greater impact on organizational outcomes.
However, political behavior is also 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 cause 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 organization 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 behaviors. At the other end of this dimension is the broader context, where politics operates at the organizational 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/control mechanisms.
These two dimensions of power can provide us with the tools to navigate the four metaphoric domains.
In this quadrant, personal influence and informal networks rule. I call it “the weeds” because it’s a dynamic that grows naturally, without any maintenance. It can be a good thing. For example, at one not-for-profit organization, the Secretary General was seriously underperforming, and sometimes acting unethically, leading staff to worry that they’d lose the support of key donors and government officials. As a result, an informal group regularly met to cover up his mishandling of situations. However, the problem became unsustainable and the same group, within the year, helped to ease him out to protect the organization’s reputation. Thus, the development of an informal coalition saved the organization and political activities, in this case, were a force for good.
But “the weeds,” if left unchecked, can also form a dense mat through which nothing else can grow. In these circumstances, informal networks can be a countervailing force to legitimate power and the long-term interests of the organization. For instance, they can thwart legitimate change efforts that are needed to put the organization on a sounder long-term financial footing.
To deal with the weeds, get involved enough to understand the informal networks at play. Identify the key brokers, as well as the gaps — if you can fill the gaps — or ally with the brokers, so that you can increase your own influence. Conversely, if the brokers are doing more harm than good, you can try to isolate them by developing a counter-narrative and strengthening connections with other networks.
Power in “the rocks” rests on individual interactions and formal (or “hard”) sources of authority such as title, role, expertise, or access to resources. It might also include political capital that arises from membership of or strong ties to a high status group such as the finance committee, a special task force, or the senior management team. I call this the “the rocks” because rocks can symbolize a stabilizing foundation that keeps an organization steady in times of crisis. But conversely, the sharp edges of hard power can wreck a plan.
Consider a mid-sized advertising agency that was implementing a new growth strategy. The Chairman used his formal power to stop the changes. He would constantly question decisions agreed with the management team, change his mind from one meeting to the next, stop agreed allocation of resources to new structures, and take people off the special task forces, without notification. Here we see the formal use of hard power to satisfy self-interest over the firm’s longer-term value.
Navigating the terrain here relies on drawing on formal sources of power, rather than fighting against them. Your best bet is to redirect the energy of a dysfunctional leader, either through reasoned argument or by appealing to their interests. For example, in the case of the advertising company, senior executives used the argument of “leaving a legacy” to get the Chairman to see how he was undermining his own and company’s long term interests. In fact, it was this sort of political behavior and misuse of power that inspired Max Weber, a sociologist an early organizational scholar, to write the classic book Bureaucracy, where he argued that bureaucracy was the most rational and best way to organize and co-ordinate modern corporations. This leads us to take the high ground.
The High Ground
The high ground combines formal authority with organizational systems; I use the term to describe the rules, structures, policy guidelines, and procedures that form the basis of political activities. The benefits of these rules and procedures are they provide a check against the whims of individual level, charismatic or autocratic individuals. Thus, the ‘high ground’ provides guide rails for the rocks. It’s a functional political. process that uses structures of control systems, incentives, and sanctions that keep the organization in compliance. However, as many executive know, rules and procedures can also lead to the company becoming overly bureaucratic, where rules are used as a political device to challenge interests not aligned with the bureaucrats, or to prevent innovation and change.
If you find yourself stranded on the high ground, take a lesson from one company that used feedback from clients, customers, and end-users to highlight difficulties and make the case that the current structure was constraining the organization. Since organizations where the high ground is a problem tend to be risk-averse, you can also try emphasizing that not changing can be even riskier than trying something new.
You can also argue that a separate group or task force needs to be set up to examine an issue or bridge silos. It creates a working space outside of the mainstream structures, norms, and habitual routines of the organization, providing an alternate source of power. Such groups can also revitalize innovation and change.
For instance, a public agency was having problems collecting revenues because the structures were slow and had to follow formalized steps to stop potential fraud. It meant that millions of tax revenues were not collected at the end of the year. Senior leaders decided to set up a dedicated task force outside of the formal organizational structure to solve the problem. After the first year, they had reduced the problem by over 50% and reached an 95% recovery rate by the second year. The organization then changed its official processes to match these improved methods. Other well-known examples of similar methods include the changes at Nissan, pilot projects at Asda, and companies opening up Innovation Labs in Palo Alto to remove the barriers of bureaucracy.
In addition to their formal processes and guidelines, organizations also have implicit norms, hidden assumptions, and unspoken routines — and that’s where we get into “the woods.” The woods can provide cover and safety for people in your organization; or they can be a bewildering place where good ideas and necessary changes get lost. Thus, here it is important to understand the woods from the trees as you can miss the former if you focus on the symptoms rather than the hidden barriers to strategy execution.
Strong implicit norms can define what is even discussable. In some organizations, for example, displays of emotion may be seen as socially undesirable, and so the organization finds ways to marginalize, ignore, or reframe any emotions that are shown. In other organizations, the display of certain emotions are essentially mandatory — think of the smiling flight attendant.
Some organizations get lost in their woods. They focus on the presenting issue rather than the unspoken ecosystem of habits and practices that remain unseen. The challenge here is to make the implicit explicit. Ask the stupid question, bringing implicit organizational routines and behaviors to the surface. Ask clients, recent hires, or temporary contractors about their observations and experience of how the company works; a fresh pair eyes will often identify things that incumbents are blind to seeing. Get benchmark information from surveys and specialist experts. Once the implicit assumptions are out in the open, ask your team to reflect on whether they’re helping your company or hindering it.
For example, consulting to a newly merged, international telecoms company, we conducted a simple exercise using the culture web framework to help each of the newly merged entities to describe their own cultural norms and those of the other parties. It quickly generated truths and myths that could be discussed and used to iron out blockages in them rolling out their distribution and cable network — the key to capturing subscribers and business operational success.
Understanding the political terrain can help executives fight dysfunctional politics. But it’s also important to recognize that each landscape also contains positive dynamics. In either case, try to understand the drivers rather than just judge the behaviors. Project leaders who do can avoid the hidden traps of political dynamics, defend themselves against the dark side of politics, and use what they know to support wider organizational goals will find it easier and get more skilled engaging in positive political behaviors at all levels of the organization.
Michael Jarrett is a Senior Affiliate Professor in organizational behavior at INSEAD. Previously, Michael was a full-time faculty member at Cranfield School of Management, taught at London Business School, and consulted to companies on change management.
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