When Organizations Become Political

Posted on January 28, 2011 by admin No Comments

Often as I meet individuals, especially those involved with larger companies or in community- or faith-based organizations, I hear the comment “things have become too political”; or “I do not want to be involved [or to participate] because of the politics”. Even worse, these individuals become unwilling to do what is right for the organization for fear of repercussion.
Interestingly, there are two basic reasons why organizations become ‘political’:

• Selectively sharing information within the organization. The people who have the information share different portions of this information with different people, all in turn using it as a basis of power and control.
• A lack of courage to make difficult choices or to resolve key issues, particularly at the risk of hurting someone’s feelings. Instead, individuals camouflage and sugar-coat information in the name of political correctness, leading to misinterpretation and assumptions that end up creating confusion and helping no one.
Over time, I have found that “political” organizations end up essentially dysfunctional as their people spend more time speculating on and sharing “privileged” information (or rumours) while their leaders spend more time finding ways to manage and control the information.
With cheap enabling technology, it has become far easier for information to travel and be easily accessible. This adds significant complexity to those organizations attempting to tightly control the information, who they share it with and how it is used as a basis for managing their organizations.
The solution to this is simple – develop an organization that includes “candor” as one of its key management principles. In his book Winning, Jack Welch discusses candor in the chapter titled ‘The Biggest Dirty Little Secret in Business’. He suggests that “lack of candor blocks smart ideas, fast action, and good people contributing all the stuff they’ve got. It’s a killer”. In his analysis, Jack Welch found that less than 20% of his audience received honest, straight-between-the-eyes feedback that tells them exactly what they have to do to improve and where they stand in the organization.
If candor enables smart ideas and fast action, why don’t organizations promote it and make it part of their culture? One of the definitions of politics – ‘to deal with people in an opportunistic, manipulative, or devious way, as for job advancement’ – provides a powerful explanation as to why individuals in leadership lack the desire or foresight to include candor in their culture.
A related challenge that plagues most organizations is the reluctance of individual members to speak their mind. It goes back to their upbringing, when their parents protected them by censoring them from information that was deemed as inappropriate for a child and regularly reminded them “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”.
With this reluctance to speak one’s mind, it is often easier to let things slide, ignore or work around hard issues without truly addressing them and make decisions only when forced. This unwillingness to face hard issues often manifests itself in organizations as various phases of reorganization, going from one model to another and back again…all the while losing opportunities and not making the meaningful cultural changes necessary to truly move forward.
In community-based organizations where leaders are either appointed or elected, the lack of candor can result in declining commitment and increasing apathy, especially in younger members. The cynicism generated from selective sharing of information does little to promote community building. Unfortunately, many leaders see it as a means to retain their power and control, which further exasperates the situation.
The solution to all this is simple and it has to start at the top. Organizations have to:

• Share all information broadly, fairly and honestly. Straight up with no camouflage or additives. If senior leadership engage in candor, it will flow right down the organization.
• Engage the organization. Whether as an employee or a member of a specific community organization, people deserve to be engaged, to be able to contribute and make a difference.
• Base individual relationships on candor; between an employee and their supervisor or peers, and within individual groups.
• Get rid of the task force approach to defining the vision or strategy. Leaders need to have the courage to define the vision and enable the task force to work collectively on the execution.
• Simplify the decision making process. Eliminate unnecessary processes that are aimed at retaining control.
• Reward based on results, not process or control. Individual behaviours are determined by the incentive process, and designing an incentive package that rewards candor and penalizes control will go a long way.
It takes courage to speak your mind and deal with hard issues with candor and openness. But when an issue is handled with honest, straight-forward and candid dialog, it is amazing how easy it becomes, how quickly and effectively you can move the strategy forward and achieve the desired result.
The question in your mind I am sure is, ‘how does an individual who has been promoted (or appointed) to their highest level of incompetence survive at that position?’ Well, someone needs to candidly deal with them.

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