As I See It: The Workplace Politician
November 13, 2006 Victor Rozek
Politics is a great tree burdened with rotting fruit, and there’s nothing like a recent election to remind us of why it can be so distasteful. If political ads are any measure of gravitas, politics is full of brash sound and feigned fury signifying rudeness. Although politics is associated primarily with governance, the term is also used in the workplace, where it describes the backroom and boardroom decisions that impact employees–often adversely–but have little or nothing to do with the actual running of the business.
To be sure, the term “politics” is also used more loosely to describe a range of policies that delimit employee behavior and are a condition of employment. Sexual harassment and racial discrimination claims, for example, are often labeled as politics, usually by the losing party. Politics also encompasses the resentments of competing factions, which can develop as a result of favoritism, mergers, or migrations to new technology when one group is assigned to build the future while the other is relegated to supporting the past.
But most employees experience politics through the behavior of their manager. And even though office politics is usually thought of contemptuously, a manager who is a skilled practitioner can both inspire and protect his employees. He can rally people behind his vision and, when necessary, he can disarm detractors and draw the fire of discontent, provided he is more interested in getting the job done than servicing his personal ambition. Of course, a skilled political operative without ambition is about as rare as a kid who doesn’t like candy.
For most practitioners, politics is about position and power.
Most likely, if you work for a politically inclined manager, his or her priorities will only marginally align with the department’s. First and foremost, your manager will seek to protect and expand territory. A politician is sensitive to power vacuums and will rush to fill them. Like Napoleon, such a manager would march to Moscow in the winter if there was a chunk of territory to be had. I once worked for a DP manager who began plotting how to acquire control of the telecommunications department a scant two weeks after coming on board. His belief was that the two departments belonged under a single umbrella, which made some sense. What was debatable was who, exactly, should be holding the umbrella. This guy had accomplished exactly nothing before starting his campaign to displace his colleague. But for reasons I’ve never understood, the “new guy” always seems to have more credibility than the people who are already laboring in the vineyard, so in the end he won. Not much changed except the org chart but, two years later, he left for greener pastures with a higher base salary and the appearance that he had been promoted from merit rather than political acumen.
Not surprisingly, politicians are primarily out-focused. What goes on within the department is not as important as how it is perceived within the company. The politician keeps his nose pointed directly into the political winds, sniffing for rumors, user discontent, or shifting alliances, which are his calls to action. In any situation, such a politician wants to know who is in charge, who really makes the decisions, who can serve as an ally, who is weak and can therefore be co-opted or ignored, and who is a competitor that must be neutralized. His or her focus turns inward only when the problems are large enough to spill outside the department and are likely to be perceived as his or her fault.
When problems arise, you can always tell politicians by the quality of the questions they ask. I witnessed a telling example of political inquiry many years ago when I was first beginning my IT career. A grave-shift operator had made a critical error while performing a backup. In those days, individual disk packs were copied at the end of each work day, but the operator somehow mixed up the packs and overwrote the current pack with old data. As a consequence, all of the work done by the accounting department that day was lost. Understandably, a big stink ensued and a meeting was held to discuss what had happened. Two IT managers were present. The non-political manager asked questions about the process; she wanted to understand the sequence of events. Were procedures followed? If so, were they clear? How might they be improved? Were the packs clearly labeled? Could the process be automated to minimize operator involvement? In short, she was looking for information that would lead to a permanent solution. The other manager was primarily interested in assigning blame. He wanted to identify the guilty party. He kept asking who was at fault? He wanted to make sure the managers from accounting had a target for their discontent.
He was practicing a time-honored political trait: deflecting blame. Ambitious politicians are never at fault. At the first sign of disapproval, they will reshuffle their organizations, demoting one or more people who will take the fall for their failures of leadership. The reshuffle will buy them six months. If the demoted employees publicly express discontent, then politicians may have to let them go in the interest of morale. New people will need to be brought in and trained until they can actually be useful. That buys the politicians another six months.
The companion strategy to deflecting blame, of course, is taking unearned credit. Credit is the currency with which promotions are purchased. Thus, astute politicians sprinkle themselves with credit whenever it is within reach. Ideas proposed in staff meetings emerge as their own; projects completed through the individual heroics of the staff become reflections of their leadership; management reports list department accomplishments, but do not include the names of individuals responsible for them.
Loyalty, for ambitious politicians, is given to those who can help them. Typically, it runs up the ladder and does not necessarily extend to members of their own departments–unless their skills are key to keeping them in power. A politician will shmooze members of his or her staff who are critical to his success, and will ignore the rest. There is no such thing as side-ways loyalty because peers are also potential competitors.
To stay ahead of his competitors, shrewd politicos seldom remains in their offices. They are usually off auditioning for the next job, patting the right backs, lining up allies, listening intently to their issues, identifying problems they promise to fix as soon as they get promoted. Often, they will keep their own budget artificially low to endear themselves to management. That puts more pressure on the staff, which may be working shorthanded or with inadequate equipment, but it makes it less likely that the politically astute managers will be “delayered” (the latest disdainful corporate euphemism for jettisoning middle management).
Avoiding being delayered is, I suppose, a worthy goal. It sounds messy and painful. Then again, messy and painful frequently describes the outcome of political infighting.
For better or worse, politicians, like ambition itself, will always be with us. Perhaps the main difference between the politics of governance and the politics of the office is that in the office you don’t get a vote. On the other hand, Pharos’ managers had whips, and the pyramid builders didn’t have a vote either. So at least we’re making progress: our managers are disarmed.
We can take comfort from the fact that political disdain did not originate with us. Complaints about politicians are as ancient as recorded history. The philosopher Plato observed: “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.” That works for the nation as well as the office.
Makes you wonder how politics could have turned one of history’s great idealists into a cynic. Who knows, maybe they had political advertising in Plato’s day, too.