Simon Terry

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Choose Your Politics

Embrace politics. It is human behaviour. Change the way politics operates to reinforce purpose.

CEOs are often tempted to announce that they want a ‘politics free’ organisation. The only consequence of this announcement is that politics becomes undiscussable in the organisation.  It never goes away.

Politics is the way that 3 or more people coordinate themselves to make decisions.  Politics is a critical part of human group behaviour.  Politics is not bad.  It is essential, efficient and effective.  In fact the right political behaviours, like understanding, influence, compromise and coalition building are essential to get anything done.

The CEO who wants to ban politics usually wants to address the type of politics that is played in the organisation.  We all can play a role ensuring that the politics that is played is the most beneficial to everyone in the organisation and its goals.

Which Politics Would You Choose?

The Politics of Power:  In extremely hierarchical organisations, the politics is often feudal with people jockeying to be closest to the powerful players at the top of the hierarchy. A CEO who wants to ban something human usually is under the belief that they have this kind of power. Absolute power reigns and politics is played to swing its impact. The critical element in this politics is loyalty and in reward scraps fall from the table to those most loyal.  Fights between coalitions are brutal.  These organisations are very conservative – ultimately driven by inside considerations, maintaining power and loyalty.

The Politics of Faith: At times you will meet an organisation with a strong set of core beliefs. The faith might be a set of values, practices or even a view of the world.  What matters is that belief in these things is a required part of organisational interactions and unbelievers are excluded from influence. Like most religions, these organisations are quite hierarchical with power lying with those who better understand, define or interpret the beliefs.  What matters in the politics of these organisations is doctrine and demonstrations of faith to the organisation’s view.  Whether the faith is justified or delivering outcomes is a secondary consideration.  Again the orientation of the organisation is internal and they can be quite disconnected from reality and their community.

The Politics of Interest:  With less hierarchy, the politics in an organisation might swing to that of self-interest or interest of a group. Like our modern democracies, interest groups lobby to further their agendas. The critical element of politics is self-interest and canny manipulation of overlaps of interest. Decisions are shaped by the shifting movement of these coalitions. This is the usual kind of politics that the CEO is trying to ban.  It is assumed that self-interest is inherently evil and will manipulate outcomes. Self-interest may not always be bad. Coalitions build cases for their own interests that may involve external stakeholders but the politics is very much about their own benefits and future.

The Politics of Purpose: Great political movements form around a purpose.  Great organisations are no different. Great leaders use political behaviours to connect coalitions more strongly to a common purpose.  That purpose must have an external orientation.  Great and inspiring purpose is about the impact organisations have on the world.

Don’t ban politics from your organisation.  You will only push it underground where it will continue but be less manageable.  Instead understand and discuss the politics at play, challenge the approach and use politics to strengthen purpose.


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