‘There are no longer winners and losers; only people that are in and people that are out’ claims Francis Underwood, the fictional US President of the House of Cards drama.
Is this true? Does trying to be part of the inner circle make you power-obsessed? Or is refraining from the fight for influencing a risky naiveté? What are the options therein?
The topic of organizational politics will come up in leadership coaching one way or another. Leaders have joked too often during coaching, that they actually live in ‘House of Cards’. They may recognize that to some extend they have to exercise informal influencing and to deal with politics, in order to be effective in their roles. But the challenges they bring up are way too often emotionally charged. Distress and intense organizational dynamics around them blur them from exploring strategic options and instead provoke more instinctive reactions.
Here are three illustrations*:
*all vignettes cited are fictional characters for illustration purposes, inspired however from working with various individuals in real life business situations. It is done so, to respect confidentiality of clients and colleagues.
Jane, the marketing director of a multinational has a natural allergy towards office politics. Driven by a high value for meritocracy, she feels it’s unjust for the political savvy to win resources and power by informal influencing, over the ones who do so by presenting the business case and consistent results. “I’m so fed up with these guys fighting over who will get the larger piece of the pie. My results should speak for themselves. I’m simply not gonna bother.”
Greg, a strategist in the management team of a rapidly growing business, discovered he was excluded from key discussions and decisions in a series of informal meetings that a subset of his peers attended with his boss. He was so furious that he refused to attend the regular management team meetings, until his absence would become noticed. “Let them come and ask me why I’m not attending the meetings anymore.”
Victor, one of the sales executives of a large Business Unit, has gained the trust of his General Manager and the Financial Controller. The three of them tend to ‘pre-cook’ decisions on how resources are allocated outside the Management Team which affect the rest of the Business Unit. Victor’s sales team is often the target of envy of other functions, which are not willing to collaborate.
It’s not easy to assess what the right options for Jane, Greg and Victor are. The work during coaching starts by understanding what their role requires and whether they are able to secure from the organization the conditions for success e.g. resources, investments, collaboration, recognition. But what we can distinguish in the three stories is that our characters have had an instinctive (emotional) response to the dynamics around them which is possibly bringing them unintended consequences.
Jane and Greg almost “shut down” and were not even willing to map the organizational territory and explore different strategies. To them it felt as if their personal values had been compromised. Victor was convinced that the only way to his success was to be part of the inner circle.
So what hinders us from testing our assumptions?
1. Certain organizational dynamics are more “seductive” than others creating a fertile ground for politics.
Individuals may be more inclined to act out of self-protection, as a means to “survive” or might be assuming, that everyone else is operating out of self-interest. Here are a few situations:
· Business performance is not as expected or there are some substantial external threats. Such situations often trigger our survival instinct which make our interactions less transparent or collaborative.
· Highly changing context, such as a restructuring with new roles (not well defined yet), a change of the top leader, the merger of teams. The temporary ambiguity that comes along, not only triggers insecurity about the impacts of the new situation; it often creates hopes that individuals can now influence the conditions they didn’t like in the old situation.
· When decision-making roles, criteria and processes are less explicit and less tangible. In such cases there is a lot of room for misunderstandings as well as for individuals to exercise non-direct forms of decision-making.
· Politics may be necessary and even helpful: Decisions need to be made over conflicting interests or tensions arise from a matrix structure, in order to benefit the overall organizational and not just one axis or function.
These contexts spark politics more than one individual can influence. On the other hand, we may have an instinctive survival reaction, disproportionate to the dynamics around us. Strong feelings come up such us exclusion, power-envy, injustice, irrelevant competition, narcissism. Why is that?
2. How we respond to certain dynamics differs due to our values, personality traits and preferences.
We have formed those throughout our life experiences, starting from the first organization our family, then our school and later on our career etc. Several key events and experiences have armed us with our strengths and some are triggering an instinctive reaction, which is not allowing us to think more broadly and to consider all our options.
We might be viewing the very extrovert peer, who steers towards his agenda as unethical, because it brings up painful emotions from the time our younger brother was getting all the attention at home. Similar dynamics from the past, like school group assignments or early career memories, often hijack the present and they influence our ability to think strategically and to assess options, because the emotions of the past take over the present. And the instinctive reaction might be so intense that it might lead to self-sabotage.
The combination of the organizational dynamics’ intensity and our instinctive emotional response from past experiences, can not only cost us from leadership effectiveness, but also cause distress to the extent of wanting to leave our jobs.
3. Here’s how we can navigate through:
1. What does our leadership role require? Are we getting what is needed for our success and is our instinctive reaction to get “in” or to stay “out” serving our role, department and organization? Further, are we trying to cover some of our personal needs like recognition and safety and what is the most appropriate way to do so?
2. De-coding the dynamics around us. Certainly, a cognitive stakeholder mapping helps distinguish emotions from facts. But further, reflecting with an independent person helps us becoming more receptive of the dynamics and test our assumptions. Are we really under threat or should we be more alert?
3. Increase our self-awareness. Can we track a consistent emotion and reaction we’ve had throughout our lives when we feel excluded, outplaced, competitive? Knowing our patterns helps us first to recognize them when they are triggered. Then we will able to tolerate and manage instinctive emotions that may come along, so that we can increase our ability to think strategically.
4. How can you use your power effectively? You definitely have power in your role, and often times in ways that you don’t expect, such as how others value you or depend on you. There are always creative ways to use your power to influence your position without being manipulative or in-transparent.
5. Be congruent to our values. No matter what the result of the above reflections are, there is always an option and a strategy that feels authentic to us. It has been the intensity of the emotions that hinder us from finding one. And when finding ourselves locked in an impossible dynamic, humor can become a magical de-fusion of tension helping ourselves and the people around us.
This exploration will help a leader develop a variety of strategies, so that he or she is no longer seduced by the overall organizational dynamics prompted to react and at the same time, becomes relieved from the “spells” of past experiences. Making the question of whether ‘you are in or out’, relevant only to the extent that the role demands.