Project Management

Is Office Politics Downstream From Organizational Culture?

From the Game Theory in Management Blog
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Modelling Business Decisions and their Consequences

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My interpretation of the famous Don Eberly quote, that politics is downstream from culture[i], is that those things which become acceptable in a nation’s or society’s culture will make their way into public policy, sooner or later. It follows, then, that if the things that said culture embraces lead to a more productive, wholesome zeitgeist, it will become more successful; and, if this culture accepts and ultimately embraces the darker aspects of human behavior, it will eventually collapse, absent some form of a great awakening and subsequent reversal. If this axiom is reliable in the socio-economic sense, I was wondering if it was also relevant in the…

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

For the purpose of this analysis, I want to define a couple of terms that get used a lot, but have such broad connotations associated with them that they’ve become almost meaningless:

  1. A person is engaged in office politics when they behave in such a way as to enrich or benefit themselves while detracting from their organization’s or team members’ interests or goals.
  2. Organizational Culture is that set of beliefs commonly held by the members of the organization that determine each members’ place in the hierarchy. Note that these beliefs can be (a) openly articulated (e.g., mission statements or policy documents) or (b) not acknowledged formally, but should still be considered operative (e.g., not getting drunk at the company’s Christmas Party).

Did any member of GTIM Nation snicker at that last example? I actually worked for a large and (for a short time) successful, but ultimately dysfunctional company that would celebrate large project proposal wins with an open bar caterer for the Friday afternoon following the announcement. No other event would warrant this kind of celebration. This was a heavily project-centric organization, and the message that this particular aspect of its corporate culture was sending was clear: winning more project work is the ultimate good, far better than actually performing well on existing work, or mentoring younger workers, or anything else. So, at the only Christmas Party that I attended for this company, there was a disc jockey (a person who plays records in lieu of a band), some meatballs on toothpicks, cubes of cheese, crackers … and an open bar for the entirety of the party. I’ve never seen so many people unfit to drive in one place at the same time. And yet, since this type of behavior had all but received a green light from the organizational culture, it carried with it no political repercussions.

This particular company was out of business within a decade of this party.

Of course, one of the most (if not the most) common and effective tactics that those who engage in office politics employ is calumny against their perceived rivals. Here is where this all gets interesting, because the person who is actively engaged in office politics cannot do so safely if they are perceived as doing it. Nobody likes a (Maccoby archetype) Jungle Fighter, so they must do the office politics stuff in a way so as to not appear to be doing office politics. This is where we circle back to the concept of office politics being downstream from organizational culture: if the target of the office politician’s defamation or slander is actually at variance with the openly articulated (2a above) organizational culture, it’s easy to make such a variance known. It can be openly pointed out at a project review, or other meeting-type venue. But if the target hasn’t done anything “officially” wrong, what’s a Jungle Fighter to do? They must attempt to create a narrative that the target has done something that’s inconsistent with the informal set of rules employed by the organizational culture (2b above). Make no mistake – a sufficiently politically-savvy Jungle Fighter can still make really bad things happen, even within this relatively restricted arena. Look how much death and misery just one Iago did in Othello.

So, what can be done in organizational culture to dissuade such negative outcomes from this type of office politics? Two tactics can be very effective:

  • Introduce (or maintain), either formally or informally, a strong resistance to ex parte conversations. I once worked with a manager who would insist on bringing in to the conversation any third-party being discussed. This brought the then-routine practice of engaging in calumny to a screeching halt, at least within his organization.
  • Conduct yourself in accordance with your organization’s stated rules, of course, but moreover behave in ways superior to the unspoken code, as you learn what those standards are.

These modifications to the corporate culture won’t guarantee you safety from the office politics swirling around you. They will, however, make you a less tempting target for the Jungle Fighters, as they will be losing both their favorite weapon and likely targets.

And you just might end up making the corporate culture better for everybody.

 


[i] Eberle, Don, Building a Healthy Culture: Strategies for an American Renaissance, ed. Eerdmans, 2001; pp. 75-100

Posted on: November 22, 2021 10:52 PM | Permalink

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