The Biggest Power Player...

Originally published 9/17/10

As a follow up to yesterday's blog, I wanted to try something new. I want you to think of the biggest power player in your current organization. Make a list of the political plays he/she uses, and what one's are used particularly well.

For myself, since I don't have an organization, I will use one of my more recent employers.

My Power Player is a man.

He is very good at the following tactics:

  • Scapegoating.
  • Proving to everyone he's the smartest guy in the room.
  • Watching his own back.
  • Managing his boss.
  • Guarding and actively managing his own reputation, especially with his boss.
  • Associating himself with successes.Try this game out yourself, and see if you can distill the tactics of a power player.

I wonder if anyone can guess who my man is!

I wonder if anyone is brave enough to guess with a posted comment.

Try this game out yourself, and see if you can distill the tactics of a power player.


Do Power Players Beget more Power Players?

originally published 9/16/10

Here is another observation about politics in Corporations -- the more people playing politics in the organization, the more politicized it becomes. That is particularly true if the people playing are at a high level in the company.

Why would that be the case?

High level political players raise the ante for everyone in the organization. And Power Players (a term I'll better define in a later post), those people who manipulate the perceptions of others in the organization using politics, raise the ante a lot.

They do this by taking aim at other people either overtly or covertly, and causing them problems -- like damaging their credibility, maneuvering them onto bad projects, or getting them fired. The higher the power player is up the ladder, and the more skilled, the more likely it is that person will be able to successfully accomplish these manipulations. That's how they raise the stakes.

So what are the possible responses to the power player? People can either avoid them, or take them on. When employees develop their political skills in order to take on a power player, it raises the political intensity for everyone.

Kind of a "one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel" situation.

How does Company History Impact Politics?

Originally published 9/8/10

Old habits die hard. At least in corporations they do.

If you've ever worked in a large corporation, you've probably experienced the inertia that exists there. Yes, the chief executive (and to a lesser degree, other high level executives) does influence the company -- he/she sets strategy, maybe refines the mission and values, and over enough time, may even change the direction of that inertia.

Sometimes that inertia is called Culture. I personally hate the Culture name, because it is overused and fuzzy in meaning.

Suppose the last Chief Executive (who was in place for 25 years, for argument sake), was a detached high flying strategist who allowed freewheeling politics to rule the organization. Now suppose the Chief Executive retires and is replaced by a hands-on CEO who hates politics. How long does it take to change the underlying environment?

The answer is -- a long time. And it will be a very painful period. Why? Because old habits die hard! The existing organization is filled with people who grew up in and flourished in a highly politicized environment. In their world, certain tactics and political maneuvering became a part of their management style and part of their survival tools. That is hard for people to let go of, particularly since it continues to work, despite what the new CEO is demanding.

Unfortunately, for the current team, the quickest way to change the highly politicized environment would be to change out the people. Since it isn't practical to fire everybody, what actually happens is a few people are sacrificed in the transition, and change plods along very slowly.

So is company history important to understanding the politics of the organization? Absolutely!

How do Formal and Informal (Political) Power Structures Relate?

Originally published 9/6/10

Just reading that title is a mouthful! And it sounds so intellectual too... But I don't mean it to be. Here's the basic thesis --

There are written formal rules, policies and structure in corporations that are pretty straight forward and pretty clear to everybody involved, and then there is a second informal set of expectations for behavior that take over where the formal stuff leaves off.
For example -- you don't fake your expense reports. Everybody know this. In most companies its written down, along with consequences for violating the policy. The policy usually says who is responsible for reviewing and approving the expenses also. In other words it delegates or confers power to those individuals for the purpose of reviewing expenses. If it wasn't written down, there would still be a prohibition against faking your expense report, it would just be part of the informal power structure.
I consider this entire collection of visible behavior regulating rules & policies as the formal power structure of the corporation. They tend to focus on things like -- spending authorization and approval, personal behaviors (like vacations, tardiness, allowable travel behaviors), organizational structure (who reports to whom), and performance measurement (that damned appraisal process).
Extensive though this collection might be, it falls far short of the informal behavior regulating rules, which I consider the political structure of the corporation. Some people also refer to this or some subset of this structure as the culture of the organization (although culture is one of those overused business-speak terms that, like an overused knife, has lost its edge).
My thesis is that the informal (political) structure, like a gas, fills the gap between the formal power structure and way things actually get done. And it's usually a big gap.
Unlike the formal power structure, the political structure is not necessarily obvious. For example, if there's no formal dress code, you learn that jeans are only acceptable on Friday by observation or asking. Another example -- Naming names during a high pressure meeting (i.e., who screwed up), might be just the right thing to do at Company A, but a political error at Company B. It can get very subtle and confusing, and often needs to be interpreted on the fly.
Politics, is about figuring out what lies within the informal rules or is outside, and managing the perception of your behavior in the context of those rules. Perception is more important than reality because your compliance with the political norms are only important in the eyes of other people. Their perception (correct or incorrect) is their reality, and they will treat you as such.
Playing politics, is about the manipulation of perceptions -- either perceptions about yourself or someone else. This is the part of the political world that most people find objectionable.
All other things being equal, organizations with less formal power structure, tend to have more politics, and often more playing of politics going on. When you hear someone say, we don't want too many rules, as it hinders creativity, what they are really saying is -- we let the political structure take care of that stuff, despite its messiness.

Other viewpoints or opinions?

Politics and Position on the Ladder

Originally published 9/4/10

Here is a second concept surrounding politics -- The higher up the corporate ladder you climb, the more important understanding and playing politics is to your success and survival.

Why, you might ask, would that be true? I think there are three primary reasons --

  1. Defining whether an employee is performing gets harder the further up the ladder you go. For an individual contributor, you look at what was their personal output, and how did it stack up against expectations. For a senior manager though, factors like: changes in the market, performance of subordinates, validity of assumptions, and trade-offs between choices, all tend to muddy the waters (I could probably make a much longer list). When you can't easily gage the persons output, there is a tendency to rely on watching what they do -- except you can't take the time to watch it all, so perceptions that are established by what others say. Of course, the little one actually sees become extremely important. That is the stuff of politics. Politics is all about developing and protecting perceptions of how you are doing, and potentially manipulating perceptions about others.
  2. There are more politicians at higher levels in the company, and they tend to have more skill. I'm not sure why that is -- a Darwinian survival characteristic, perhaps? Since a part of politics surrounds manipulation of perceptions about others, you need political skills at higher levels, if for no other reason to protect yourself. An individual contributor who has few enemies can probably get by at most companies by ignoring politics. Senior managers won't survive being a-political, no matter how nice they are. There are just too many sharks in the water up there.
  3. At higher levels you are a bigger target for the political machinations of others. This tends to happen for a couple of reasons -- senior managers are a more useful target of manipulation because they hold formal organizational power, and they have less time available to intimately know others in the organization thus making them more vulnerable to manipulation. For some senior managers, they end up surrounded by yes-men (or yes-women) who give the manager the sense that their perceptions are always correct, while at the same time subtly manipulating those perceptions. This seems to happen to the chief executive fairly frequently.

So kind readers -- what do you think? Do politics get thicker and more ruthless as you climb the corporate ladder? Or do the stakes just get higher? Or, do you totally disagree and think political games are played uniformly across the company?