Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Combating Office Politics

In overly political companies, individuals who are usually seen as problem-solvers are often marginalized if their initiatives negatively reflect on the "corporate order." It's a high-risk proposition, but it's up to HR leaders to take the lead in combating corporate politics.

In companies that are obsessed with politics and intrigue, individuals seen as problem solvers can rarely fix issues. In fact, problem-solvers are more likely to spawn new problems that weigh heavily on the organization's ability to serve customers and respond to market trends.

This is because most problem-solvers in such organizations avoid thinking about the political dimension of problems. For them, problem solving is apolitical and necessitates issues to be understood and analyzed, root causes identified and validated, and initiatives developed and implemented so that workable solutions eventually result.

Those solutions -- by and large -- are delivered in the form of processes and governance models, roles and responsibilities, training, automation, etc. Problem solving in this manner always conforms to the politics of the company or what I like to call the "corporate order."

No matter how hard problem-solvers try to fix problems, the corporate order always ensures that facets of the solution that they deem threatening to their interests are either lobbied away or sufficiently diluted before the green light is given for implementation.

Even the implementation of the solution is not secure from the prying eyes and ears of the corporate order. If they discover red flags that can expose their incompetence or heap embarrassment upon them, project and operational reports are skillfully manipulated to steer initiatives into paralysis or the initiative is given a death blow.

In such environments problem-fixers -- executives, program directors, project managers, line managers, etc. -- quickly learn to mold their thinking to accommodate the interests of the corporate order, even if it is detrimental to the corporate interests.

Subsequently, problem-fixers spend huge amounts of intellectual capital, invest considerable budgets and exert much effort in producing and delivering solutions that are fundamentally flawed both in scope and application.

From the outset, the purpose of such solutions is to maintain the status quo, i.e., to keep the executives that preside over the corporate order in power. Problem-fixers are only permitted to solve those problems that enable the custodians of the corporate order to meet their performance targets and maintain good relations with the board.

Problem-solvers who adhere to the purity of their thinking and are sincere to the corporate interests find it extremely difficult to conceal their frustrations in such working environments. They often clash with the interests of the corporate order -- many do so with a poor understanding of the political situation.

In the end -- depending upon the level of seniority and political influence -- they are either browbeaten into submission, contained but isolated, or their employment is terminated. This usually happens after a lengthy war of attrition -- often disguised in business jargon, so that unaware employees do not become suspicious and can be used as pawns in the ensuing power play -- and the company's resources, money and time are wasted in such pursuits.

Those problem-fixers who survive the onslaught are intellectually scarred and find it difficult to even attempt to solve future problems. They procrastinate, fearful that their solutions will be rejected by other employees who work under the shadow of the corporate order.

Such problem-fixers very quickly lose credibility and relegate themselves to problems they cannot solve.

If problem-solvers truly want to solve problems in politically charged companies, then they must seek the assistance of HR executives to take the lead in countering the corporate order. However, HR executives must go beyond the traditional techniques and models available to them before they engage in such an endeavor. To do so, they must excel in three areas.

First, develop a firm understanding of the corporate order and its political influence on the entire company.

Second, learn to think politically and not intellectually.

Unlike intellectual thinking, political thinking has no rules. Its source is the statements and deeds of those who engage in politics as work. Techniques such as generalization, modeling and analogies rarely work to uncover or counter the motives and plans of the corporate order.

Conversely, the corporate order is apt at exploiting such techniques to imprison those who challenge them in their thinking, thereby rendering them impotent.

Hence, it is incumbent upon HR executives to build a profound understanding of all the major players at work, their domains of influence and how they maneuver politically to safeguard their interests. In sum, HR executives, in close collaboration with problem-solvers, need to possess a crystal-clear picture about the political plans and actions of those who maintain the corporate order.

Third, for HR executives to be successful, they must have the courage to challenge the existing corporate order on behalf of the problem-solvers.

Challenge here should not be confused with mere confrontation with the guardians of the corporate order that ultimately yields a compromise -- this will never lead to proper change.

At best, the problem-solver's concerns will be accommodated by the corporate order, but at the mercy of their terms and conditions. Moreover, the problem-solver will be regarded by other employees as a lapdog of those executives under whose control the corporate order thrives.

To produce effective change, HR executives, together with problem-solvers, must expand the support base to include other executives willing to spearhead the cause, and then challenge the corporate order until it is reformed or reconstructed.

This is a high-risk strategy -- failure will certainly be a career-ending move for the problem-solver or even the HR executive championing the cause, but success will usher in an era of genuine problem-solving, propel the company to new heights and cement the position of the HR executive as an indispensable leader.

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