Political Intelligence

by Don Morley and David Bancroft-Turner

The causes of organisational politics

Politicking in organisations occurs for a variety of reasons, only one of which is the human tendency to be mischievous on occasions. Here are just some of the causes of political behaviour that is commonplace in businesses and organisations of all types and size and at all levels. With this in mind, we must accept that organisational politics may well be inevitable. If this is so, developing political intelligence becomes essential to managing your performance and your future.

Never-ending change

The modern manager is faced with a constant barrage of initiatives, such as the pursuit of quality, continuous improvement and business process re-engineering. When combined with rapid technological advances, the result is a climate of constant change.

Change is unsettling and often results in winners and losers. When this is the case, it is hardly surprising that more extreme – subtle, underhand, covert or just downright devious – behaviours surface. Individuals start to position themselves in advance of the change. Simply preserving the status quo can often generate such behaviour or even sabotage. It is little wonder that so many change initiatives fail.

Rationing of resources

Whatever your business, in today’s ‘global economy’ you are likely to face competition from many competitors, not just locally but from thousands of miles away.

Not surprisingly, when businesses set budgets to drive down costs and end prices to the customer, there is enormous pressure to hold down expenditure and investment. Consequently, department heads have to compete with colleagues for a share of a pot that is rarely large enough. Finance Directors who make these allocations will find themselves on the receiving end of bribes, threats, propositions, sales pitches, gifts, violence and affection – except, of course, we don’t call it that, we call it politics. Relationships may become strained, perhaps even permanently damaged, within a group of people who are supposed to collaborate with each other to best effect on a daily basis.

Promotions are less plentiful

Cuts in the cost base often reduce opportunities for promotion. The result is more aggressive behaviour on the part of ambitious individuals, who are driven to get ahead of colleagues if they are to obtain the scarce senior roles they aspire to. Aggressive does not mean using fists, but it does entail competing against other members of staff who just happen to be in the same team.

There is nothing underhand in this. Everyone ‘knows the score’, which only serves to perpetuate a climate of suspicion, rumour and gossip to the detriment of getting the job done. Unfortunately, staying out of the fray simply isn’t an option if you want to succeed.

A lack of clarity

The very speed at which businesses move these days requires that roles are frequently amended and job descriptions often lag behind the new way of doing things. Matrix structures and an orientation to project teams often result in ambiguity over who is responsible for what. Objectives set at the start of the year quickly become overtaken by events, which leads to confusion and vagueness between colleagues.

The outcome is often marked by a lack of trust, accusations of exceeding authority and territorial infighting. The rumour mill cranks up and soon individuals are swayed by all manner of perceptions and assumptions that have no basis in fact, but everything to do with the way we choose to interpret others’ behaviour.

Imperfect reward systems

Consider the remuneration system that operates in the sales function in your organisation. Do salespeople willingly share information on how products and services can best be sold? Or, given that they are effectively competing against each other to win the trip abroad or the bonus for highest numbers in the period, do they keep to themselves any technique that they believe gives them an advantage?

Similarly, ‘performance-related rewards’ overlook the simple fact that most jobs entail teamwork. Why should colleagues allow themselves to be distracted from their own objectives in order to collaborate in helping others to achieve theirs?

Changes higher up

One of the major catalysts of perceived political behaviour in organisations occurs when there has been a new appointment at a senior level. Individuals get busy brushing up their credentials to benefit from any promotions, appointments or restructures.

Where the activity is open and above board it is probably healthy and acceptable. However, when the activities include bad-mouthing colleagues, questioning abilities or reputations, starting rumours and generally creating unrest, it is usually on account of certain individuals who see an opportunity to get ahead of others by foul means.

Key point

Whatever the cause of extreme behaviour, you need advanced political intelligence skills to counter it and extract the best from the situation – best for the organisation and best for you and your colleagues.