Monday, June 28, 2010

The Ends of Office Politics

@cecildijoux blogs about enterprise 2.0 and the end of office politics

"One has to be extremely pedagogic to explain me how on earth this (i.e. office politics) may help the company in being more profitable, increasing customers satisfaction and being a better place for employees, the three goals of any company according to Eliyahu Goldratt."
When I looked at the Wikipedia article on Office Politics, I found a link to an interview with John Eldred in Fast Company magazine (The New Face of Office Politics) which goes some way to answering his question as to how office politics may help the company achieve these three goals.

Clearly there are some unpleasant manifestations of office politics, but it's bad logic to conclude that all politicians are evil b******s.

If we accept the Wikipedia definition of politics as what people do when they don't have legitimate authority, and we recognize that most organizations fail to give people sufficient authority to innovate and use their initiative, then office politics may sometimes be a necessary and even healthy way of dealing with the legitimate demands of the customers and the workforce.

So the solution to bad politics is not crossing your fingers and hope that politics will go away (it won't) but replacing bad politics with good politics - which means open and honest negotiation around conflicting stakeholder needs.

Wikipedia repeats a definition of Office Politics from a website called BigBadBoss.

"Office politics is the use of one's individual or assigned power within an employing organization for the purpose of obtaining advantages beyond one's legitimate authority."

Having debated this topic further with Cecil, I think this definition is ambiguous and should be improved, because Cecil and I are reading it differently. When I see the words "legitimate authority" I think this refers to what a person is mandated to do according to the official management hierarchy and job descriptions - what Wilfred (later Lord) Brown called the Formal Organization. But I have never encountered an organization where the Formal Organization was completely aligned and consistent with the Real Organization. A lot of what occupies the gap between the Formal Organization and the Real Organization can be understood in terms of office politics.

But is that cause or effect? Is politics a destructive force that pushes the Real Organization away from the Formal Organization? Or is politics a potentially healing force that helps to manage the perceived inadequacy and inflexibility of the Formal Organization?

I tend to think that in most complex environments, the Formal Organization just wouldn't be viable. So I do not assume that the distribution of "legitimate authority" is completely satisfactory, or that activity that goes beyond one's legitimate authority is necessarily bad.

Meanwhile, Cecil focuses not on the "legitimate authority" aspect of the definition but on "obtaining advantages". But surely all purposeful action is aimed at obtaining advantages - a project manager strives to make his project successful, a department manager strives to preserve the autonomy and resources of his department and so on. Unless we assume an organization that is so bland and boring that there are no conflicts whatsoever, then this is just normal management activity.

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