Office Politics and Organizational Learning
By Shawn P. Quigley
Office Politics is defined as:
“(business) (functioning as singular or plural) the ways that power is shared in an organization or workplace, and the ways that it is affected by the personal relationships between the people who work there” (Collins English Dictionary, 2014)
Let us first state that Office politics is not personal interaction in the aspect of how we talk or act toward others not related to the struggle for power or position. This can be ascertained from the definition above. Many people think that office politics are a required part of every business. Are they really? Why do office politics exist? Can the fact that your company has office politics be an indicator of your organizational health? To answer if these are a part of every business we must first examine why these exist. To do that let us look at Organizational Politics Perceptions (OPP). OPP is a way of looking at the aspects and/or perceptions of people that cause them to see their office or business as a political one. Surprisingly enough with all the studies over the last 20+ years done on this topic very few have found any relationship between OPP and demographics such as age, race, sex, or tenure. The major drivers to perceiving an environment as political can be divided into three groups:
- Personal Control and Certainty
- Relationships and Opportunity
Politics – Personal Control and Certainty
We will discuss Personal Control and Certainty first because it actually plays a role in all the drivers we will discuss. An individual who feels that they have some control in the (their) work situation is less likely to view the office as political, because they do not perceive a struggle for power in their work. This also provides a feeling of certainty in their position and further reduces the perception of office politics. There is however an additional need to fully satisfy the certainty requirement and that is communication. Without good communication between parties about personal control, a perception of mistrust could foster the further perception of office politics. If we refer back to our discussions on the Leadership Equation pertaining to experiences, we can see how providing positive experiences will foster both a sense of personal control and certainty and thus reduce the sense of office politics. Also if we refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can see how these two feelings would aid people to satisfy the higher order needs and thus be more satisfied in their position. We can also see how this sense of personal control could drive an individual to strive for personal mastery because they are in control of their own destiny. Personal Mastery is one of the five disciplines of a learning organization and key to individual motivation. (Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, & Smith, 1994)
Politics – Relationships and Opportunity
Now let us discuss Relationships and Opportunity as they pertain to OPP. In the introductory paragraph I stated, “Personal interaction in the aspect of how we talk or act toward others not related to the struggle for power or position.” So you might be asking, “What is meant by the term Relationships if it does not mean personal interaction?” In this context the term relationships means perceived positional relationships. If an individual perceives their relationship to the structure of an organization or group (team) as non-contributive or inferior then they will be more likely to perceive their environment as political due to a lack of control and/or contribution. And as we discussed in the previous paragraph personal control is an important aspect in the perception of whether on environment is political or not. So, you might be asking now how opportunity and relationships are grouped together. That is a good question. Opportunity can be seen as the ability for growth and development both on a personal and professional level. If someone sees that they have the opportunity for growth and development within a team or organization, they perceive that they have some control; if even in a small way, of the situation and better yet their own personal growth. Again we see how personal control comes into play with the perception of office politics.Conflict
Politics and Conflict
Conflict is the third aspect that contributes to the perception of a political environment. Conflict is defined by Webster as:
“A difference that prevents agreement: “disagreement between ideas, feelings, etc..” (Merriam-Webster “Conflict”, 2014)
There will always be some level of conflict within any team or organization. Conflict appropriately employed can produce new creative solutions and ideas. This does not always mean that the environment is seen as political. It is the nature in which these conflict are resolved that creates the perception of a political environment. If we approach conflicts using the five disciplines of a learning organization, we can minimize the potential for creating a political situation or environment. It is when the conflict turns away from a team solution; you’re wrong and I’m right, that power comes into play. As every leader can attest there are times when this answer is required. However, when time permits a discussion as to why it was done this way should follow to show all parties involved that their contributions are important, but the situation was such that this discussion could not be done. During this discussion input as to how to best handle the situation next time could be discussed to minimize or even prevent repeating it. The irony of this is that unless the situation is some form of causality; not something that arises from a typical business project, there is more often than not time for a discussion and this discussion would lead to a more through answer to the situation.
During our discussion of these three drivers, we have touched on some of the basic principles of a learning organization. Therefore we can use this information we discussed to discover that having a perceived political environment could diminish the productivity of our people and thus our organization. Something we should note about our discussion is that we consistently use the term “perceived”. The reason for this is that every individual will perceive a situation differently, at least initially. It requires constant effort (Communication) and attention (Involvement) to maintain and/or develop a team perspective. We all know there will always be some form of politics within every organization, but to foster an effective learning organization we should strive to minimize this situation.
Collins English Dictionary. (2014, July 31). Retrieved from Office Politics: http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/office-politics
Merriam-Webster “Conflict”. (2014, August 1). Retrieved from Merriam-Webster: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conflict
Senge, P. M., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R. B., & Smith, B. j. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. In P. M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook.New York: Doubleday.