The Devilish Side of Effective Management Practices
(Leveraging Organizational Politics for Career Success, Progression and Longevity)
Organisational politics (OP) has long been one of the key movers of behavioral dynamics within organizations. At one stage or another, majority of the professionals have to come to terms with the dilemma of leveraging organizational politics in order to achieve desired objectives. This article discusses some of the ways in which organizational politics becomes an imperative for ambitious managers and provides viable solutions for assuring and ensuring robust career preservation and steady career progression. The following examples of a National Airlines and a FMCG Multinational are provided from the author’s own experiences to elucidate the respective perspective:
The National Airlines
The National Airlines was cluttered with a plethora of informal groups that attributed their existence to a number of reasons, e.g., members of the key political parties in the country, belonging to the same union, coming from the same province, former Air Force officers cementing second careers, etc. All of the respective groups courted new employees, who were placed in a difficult position as they soon realized that, without such a support, their chances of survival within the professional ranks were non- existent and any hopes of career longevity were inextricably linked to being identified as a member of some group. This was further emphasized due to the peculiar way of resolving disputes, especially, between individuals from different informal groups, since the leaders of the respective informal groups were the ones that decided resolution of conflicts and individuals were expected to abide by the respective decisions. Consequently, only those individuals were able to shine and have progressive career paths who were ‘loyal soldiers for the cause’.
Senior Management at the respective airlines felt helpless in front the well entrenched informal groups that often seemed to dictate terms. This was often accomplished by keeping records of individual managers in terms of professional decisions and personal actions that were not considered within the realm of ethics. Business and moral ethics were both considered legitimate territory for exploitation. Interestingly, moral fallibility issues, e.g., having extra-marital affairs, were often more powerful tools for gaining leverage over transgressing parties than a case involving embezzlement of funds. This enabled the groups to mold decision making at the highest echelons of power and any ‘Reformists’ were gradually shown the exit door through a series of mishandled management decisions that usually resulted from their inability to cope with the complicated mix of political intrigue that often resulted in tarnishing stellar reputations since most of them ended up asking the government for financial bailouts with a major failure chalked up against their past successes in other organizations. The respective process was sped up for those who were unlucky to antagonize more than one of the key informal groups and faced a ‘united front’ as a consequence. This ensured that very few corporate leaders were even willing to take over the reins of the National Airlines, although, on paper, it seemed a fertile ground for proving professional prowess. Interestingly, there was also a balance of coercive power between rival groups through the practice of maintaining files on each other which prospered on the premise of the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) principle that was eerily similar to the one practiced by the USA and the former Soviet Union. The key difference being the type of weapons being used by the opposing sides for the respective purpose.
The FMCG Multinational
The FMCG multinational did not have any unions as it had successfully nullified their existence by offering individual contracts that were higher than the market average. However, it was still a hotbed of politics with the main players being the middle managers who aligned their loyalties to the key decision makers within their respective functions and ensured that their career paths followed an upward trend by becoming members of sports clubs and cigarette smoking groups which also served as the grapevine conduits for emerging opportunities. These included foreign training and invitations to functions that allowed social interactions with senior management. This also allowed savvy professionals to use their influence outside the company in providing favors for senior expatriates in terms of helping them settle down in the country with bargain prices on household items, accommodation and schooling with the expectation that they would be their allies at the time of performance appraisals or in the ‘hour of need’. The respective strategies were often successful and the ‘star’ performers were not necessarily the ‘best’ performers, giving credence to the adage that it is better to be a ‘smart’ worker than a ‘hard’ worker.
The aforementioned examples reflect the necessity of having political skills for managers both in the public and private sectors to assure and ensure career success in their professional journeys, which can be further analyzed with the help of the following matrix:
The 1st quadrant highlights ‘The Miserable’ manager. This person has low political skills and is lingering around the back alleys of the organization with slim hopes of making it into the limelight. Typically, this reflects a conflicted person who is imprisoned by a regressive demeanor and is unable to muster the political acumen for survival, resulting in the display of withdrawal behaviors, e.g., absenteeism, shirking, etc. The respective situation is further exacerbated by the absence of allies who can cover the deficiencies through their influence in ensuring steady career progress.
Such a situation is a signal for either a deep self-reflection in terms of radically changing one’s approach to career management through a personality makeover or reconciling with the circumstances and waiting for the logical end to a career that perishes within the corridors of anonymity, while wistfully seeing others zoom past into prominence and achieve their desired goals. The inevitable failure can be avoided through a learning process focused on attaining the required political skills by aligning with the ‘true’ power brokers, in addition to the job competencies and building professional networks on a war footing. The overall strategy should be initially targeted towards a move to the 3rd quadrant before attempting to proceed towards the 4th quadrant.
The 2nd quadrant highlights ‘The Bad Apple’ manager. This person has high political skills, but, uses them too often and carelessly which has exposed the true nature of his/her Machiavellian disposition and earned the label of a ‘trouble maker’. Peers normally avoid such a person and higher-ups are hesitant to establish a trustworthy professional relationship with him/her. His/her political skills are enough to survive within the organization, however, the career progression has been intentionally put on a slower track by the appraisers who have an inherent desire to see such a person eventually leave the organization on his/her own accord to ensure minimum disturbance to the working environment.
Such a situation requires the respective manager to re-examine the applicability prowess of their political skills in ‘impression management’ within the organization and using them more effectively and at the appropriate times. This is easier said than done due to pre-existing notions of their nefarious past within the organization and the internal struggle that needs to be waged with their own nature. Nevertheless, the respective process can be initiated, once the desire is in place to ensure such a reformation, in a gradual manner to correct previous missteps, especially, using flattery as a weapon of choice since it is never wasted on those in power and aligning allegiances accordingly. The overall strategy should be targeted directly to the 4th quadrant which should not be hard once the high political skills are utilized effectively.
The 3rd quadrant highlights ‘The Pet’ manager. This person has low political skills; however, that deficiency is covered up by an influential backer within the organization for a variety of reasons, including, nepotism, obliging a powerful government official, member of the same informal group or union, etc. Such an affiliation ensures not only job security for the manager, but also, higher points on performance appraisals and more opportunities for training and development in areas that matter for promotion. Normally, such professionals are the hallmark of public sector organizations and ‘The Miserable’ managers are the most vulnerable in terms of having such peers.
‘The Pet’ managers normally do not see the need for moving to the 4th quadrant since their desire for a progressive rise up the career ladder is being assured by the backing of influential people within the respective organization. However, this may change if the respective backers leave the organization, e.g., retire, resign, pass away, lose influence, etc. Additionally, there is also a chance of cracks/misunderstandings appearing within the respective relationship that can ultimately lead to ‘The Pet’ becoming ‘The Miserable’. On the other hand, such managers may decide to switch organizations, for which, a timely move to 4th quadrant might be a pre-requisite in terms of surviving in a new work culture without a reliable ‘protector’ in the management hierarchy.
The 4th quadrant highlights ‘The Player’ manager. This person has high political skills and uses them at just the right time and place to ensure desired outcomes in terms of career progression. Such a person has mastered the ability to garner attention with an air of confidence that borders on arrogance and is able to woo superiors and subordinates alike with a professional charisma that attracts people like a magnet. Performance appraisals routinely claim the uniqueness of contributions made by the respective person who is also the envy of peers in terms of emulating career success. Additional skills embedded in the persona of such a manager include being able to manage/maintain a healthy relationship with the ones in the other three quadrants, especially, in terms of facilitating the completion of difficult assignments. Such managers often carry the impregnable image of ‘someone who can do no wrong’.
‘The Player’ managers have the ideal position in terms of optimum utilization of political acumen with career success, however, this also means keeping a delicate balance between the two since others in the organization will be looking forward to the opportunity exploiting a misstep on their part. Such a mishap could result in their falling back into the dreaded 2nd quadrant and being viewed as a pariah languishing in the wilderness of career uncertainty. Nevertheless, this scenario is an extremely unlikely occurrence since these professionals are actually artists in terms of carving out an enviable image of personal success bolstered by an impressive history of achievements, most important of all being the ability to influence the politics of decision-making at critical junctures of career progression.
Consequently, one can appreciate how political skills play a significant part in ensuring that the managers are able to enjoy a successful career by positioning themselves in the right context. Such a necessity cannot be overstated since, as Henry Mintzberg has stated, ‘organizational politics may irritate us, but it also serves us’, in a competitive environment that thrives on the idiom of ‘survival of the fittest’, especially, in the context of the Digital Age. Exploiting the various sources of power for fulfilling one’s own goals may seem Machiavellian, but, gains justification when compared against the price of silence and inaction. Just have a ‘private chat’ with the professionals at the pantheon of corporate success. Political savviness does matter!