How to Better Understand (and Prosper Better) in Office Politics

Office politics are a reality – yet so many folk do not understand how it works and complain about them  These folk do not understand what they need to do to both improve their own position and to improve office politics where they work.

Is there any way of giving people insights into the width and breadth of their mental map and the mental map of others to help them understand why people do things the way they do?

Two fundamental drives can be identified, which lead to the formation of mental maps – people’s perceptions and their actions.

Perceptions

We have two extreme ends of a perceptual continuum –  inner-directedness and outer-directedness.

People who are inner-directed develop their perceptions and views with little reference to the outside world.  Those who are outer-directed feel a need to comply with the perceived attitudes and behaviour that others seem to exhibit in that situation.

Complying with the perceived norms of the situation is termed shared meaning.  People who need to operate under conditions of shared meaning adhere to the values of the organisation, the structure in the organisation, the power dependencies in the system and the monetary and status rewards the organisation offers.

People who generate their own values of life and norms of behaviour are self-dependent.  They live with unshared meaning.  They appreciate that a number of the people with whom they will interact feel differently from themselves, but see no need to adapt their particular views to suit others.

Actions

There are two alternative types of action strategies: simple and complex.

Those who practise strategies classed as simple aim for consistency.  Irrespective of whether the people in the situation work on shared or unshared meaning, the behaviours they feel they should adopt are predictable, commonly recognised and probably previously practised.  In this way, individuals and groups are seen to be consistent and previous experience of those behaviours reduces the degree of felt threat.  For example, simple action strategies could involve being open, trusting and sharing with others in one’s group.  Sharing comradeship and only adopting those behaviours that would be acceptable to the other members of the department, team or unit does not involve any original thought, for one draws on previous experience of positive interactions.  The key point is to behave in a manner acceptable to all others in the situation.

Complex action strategies involve people behaving in ways that they consider suitable to meet only their needs in the situation.  To an outsider, the individual may exhibit no consistent pattern of behaviour.  Only by possessing knowledge of the individual’s objectives or by observing his behaviour for some time, will some sort of picture emerge.  The pattern of behaviour may be inconsistent but coherent, i.e. it makes sense once one knows the individual and/or his desired objectives.  For example, complex action strategies would involve planning a campaign to have a particular policy adopted in the organisation, identifying key people who would support the policy, influencing others who are less committed and isolating those who are against one’s own ideas.  Complex action strategies do involve new and original ideas and actions and possibly taking risks.

The combination of the inner/outer-directed axis and the simple/ complex action strategies forms the individual’s mental map.  It is inevitable that people will interact with others who hold a different map from their own, even if the difference is slight.  It is equally inevitable that people will experience elation or threat by interacting with other people.  It all depends on the state of your map and the other party’s map on meeting each other.

On this basis, politics in organisations is inevitable.  As a result of having observed managers at work, four particular behavioural patterns emerged: traditionalist, team coach, company baron, and visionary.

The four types of politician

Traditionalist

Traditionalists wish to fit in with the rest of the organisation.  They accept the fact that they are dependent on the objectives provided by others.  They accept the way resources are allocated, even if it is detrimental to their interests.  If resources were allocated in the past in a particular way, then that is the way it ought to continue.

By sticking so much to the past, traditionalist-oriented people are concerned that others do likewise.  Hence, they emphasise control of group membership, especially new people entering the group.  Considerable time will be spent discussing other people’s suitability to enter the group.  Are they the right sort of person?  Will they rock the boat?  Do they dress appropriately?  Most of all, do they look right?  Once in the group, how do they behave?  Traditionalist people will ensure that their group’s identity and prevailing attitudes are not threatened with change or extinction for they pay particular attention to the way new members interact with the more established group members.  If someone is seen to misbehave or try to act above his station, then some form of retribution will follow, usually a reprimand.  In extreme cases, the erring individual would be threatened with expulsion from the group.

Despite their group orientation, traditionalists do not like warm, friendly relations.  Their dominant concern is their role and status in their group.  They strive to be ‘top dog’ over others.  They would prefer to maintain superior/subordinate distance especially with subordinates.

Becoming too close to people might mean losing status.

As far as work is concerned, traditionalists prefer to work on details and be closely supervised by someone they trust and respect.  That someone should have been a member of the organisation for some time and not be too young.  Young people coming up the organisation are considered a threat and disliked.

Not only does the traditionalist want his group/unit/department to stay the same, but also wants it to stay the same in its status and position to the rest of the organisation.  Any reorganisation that takes place could be seen as threatening, even if it does not directly affect the traditionalist’s group.  His concern is – when will it be us?

Although traditionalists are conservative, inflexible and fearful of change (especially changes of group leadership), they do play a vital role in organisations.  Their preference to work on detailed tasks is of great advantage for they will complete all the tiresome jobs others would not wish to do.

Further, their link with the past provides for stability in the organisation.  They tend to be loyal to each other and to the organisation.  It is ironic that when changes occur, their loyalty and hard work are not rewarded.  The very people previously in demand are now no longer needed.  No wonder they are fearful of changes of situation and leadership.

Traditionalists can tolerate each other.  As stated, what they cannot tolerate is dramatic or unexpected change or people who are very different from themselves (i.e. company barons and visionaries).  When confronted with one or either, traditionalists show a high concern that the organisation could deteriorate.  They hold a pathological attitude:  ‘why is it that things were always better in the past?’

 

Not only does the traditionalist want his group/unit/department to stay the same, but also wants it to stay the same in its status and position to the rest of the organisation.  Any reorganisation that takes place could be seen as threatening, even if it does not directly affect the traditionalist’s group.  His concern is – when will it be us?

 

Although traditionalists are conservative, inflexible and fearful of change (especially changes of group leadership), they do play a vital role in organisations.  Their preference to work on detailed tasks is of great advantage for they will complete all the tiresome jobs others would not wish to do.

 

Further, their link with the past provides for stability in the organisation.  They tend to be loyal to each other and to the organisation.  It is ironic that when changes occur, their loyalty and hard work are not rewarded.  The very people previously in demand are now no longer needed.  No wonder they are fearful of changes of situation and leadership.

Traditionalists can tolerate each other.  As stated, what they cannot tolerate is dramatic or unexpected change or people who are very different from themselves (i.e. company barons and visionaries).  When confronted with one or either, traditionalists show a high concern that the organisation could deteriorate.  They hold a pathological attitude:  ‘why is it that things were always better in the past?’

Team coach

The team coach develops his own ideas and beliefs as to how he would wish to conduct his life and affairs.  However, independence of thought is not matched by independence of action.  The team coach does need to belong to a group of like-minded people and may spend some time searching for a group with which he wishes to associate.  On becoming members of a group, team coaches may see themselves as missionaries, whose calling is to shift the predominant values of the organisation nearer to the values of the group.  The team coach would be sincere in his attempts to help others in the organisation experience the same degree of work satisfaction as he does with his team/group or unit.

In contrast to the traditionalist, the team coach pays substantial attention to nurturing warm, informal, personal relationships, especially to newcomers in the group.  They would be made to feel welcome and their induction to the group would be a comfortable experience.  Relationships in the group are likely to be conducted on a first-name basis.

The team coach would try to ensure that his group is satisfied and content.  Anyone who indicated dissatisfaction would be given plenty of attention in an attempt to improve their situation.  Anyone who was constantly disruptive within the group would probably be asked, politely, to leave.  If the person did not leave, then the others in the group would be urged to ignore them.

A group of bright, energetic team coaches can together make for an innovative team.  They do have the capacity for independent thinking and generating new ideas.  Team coaches do seek a task orientation to their work.  Rather than being concerned with their personal role or status, team coaches would aim to provide goods, products or services of high quality.  Their role position in the organisation would be considered a relatively unimportant concern.  They would find it acceptable to see their role altered if it led to product or service improvement.  Team coaches take pleasure in applying their skills to certain new and exciting areas of work.

Hence, the team coach is far more flexible than the traditionalist.  He can accept changes of role or status, job content and even changes of resource allocation as long as there are no significant upsets in his group/unit as a result.  As long as the group remains intact, change can be seen as a challenge.  Once changes upset the structure of the group or its position in the organisation, team coaches would act together to prevent any further changes taking place.  Team coaches are flexible to the extent that they are stimulated by interacting with people who think and feel differently from them.  However, their need for consistency of behaviour prevents any real change of group opinion and hence any substantial innovation in tasks.  Task accomplishment amounts to doing what you were good at before but always a little better.

Similar to the traditionalists, team coaches can become over concerned about changes that take place in the organisation.  Unlike traditionalists, team coaches are unlikely to display the same loyalty to the organisation.  They are likely to display far greater loyalty to their group.  If sufficiently threatened, they may leave the organisation en masse or shortly after one another, to seek another job.

The team coach got his name from interviews conducted with soccer coaches.  It was recognised that certain people can cope with unshared meaning but insist on consistency of behaviour.

Company baron

The company baron   needs others on his side before action is taken.  His working towards gathering support from others could be misinterpreted as sitting on the fence.

The company baron plays an important role in the organisation.  He has the ability to gather together various individuals and groups of differing vested interests and help them work towards particular objectives.  Some may dislike his self-centred role and status orientation but that is outweighed by his capacity to work at the pace of others who are not united in their objectives, without leaving any stones unturned.  In achieving medium and long term strategy plans, the company baron is a vital link.

Despite his administrative skills, the company baron will only seek to introduce evolutionary change.  Typically, he has probably been part of the organisation for some time.  He may even have ‘grown up’ in the system.  He will have identified with the old values of the organisation.  He would have known many of the people who have stayed there for any length of time.  Hence, his commitment to the established values of the organisation and his personal knowledge of the people in it makes it psychologically impossible for him to introduce dramatic change.  He is unable to distance himself from the past.

As indicated, the company baron shares the values of maintaining traditions, patronage, honesty and hard work.  He could easily dislike people who would ‘rock the boat’ with too many bright ideas or too many demands for change.  He may be in favour of conducting more intellectual discussions as long as they do not become intense and they do not result in active demands for change and reorganisation.

The company baron is a difficult individual to handle.  On the one side, his need for power and self-gain makes it difficult to control him or even to predict his next move.  On the other, his capacity for loyalty to the organisation makes him a valuable asset.  He provides a fatherly stability, coupled with a good appreciation of present and future problems.

In a sense, a number of company barons together cancel each other out.  One is unlikely to let any other become king.  In addition, with their sense of oneness with the organisation, they are unlikely to destroy the kingdom if they do not get what they want.

Visionary

As stated, the visionary, similar to the company baron, possesses an ability to see the organisation in total.  Although he can think and conceptualise in whole organisational terms, the visionary does not feel the same need for loyalty to the organisation.

Hence, not only can the visionary question and examine the way resources are allocated in the organisation and explore what are suitable structures for the organisation, but he can also stand back from the values, views and stereotypes held by the majority in the organisation.  Such independence of mind is invaluable if faced with reorganisation and restructuring.

Visionary-oriented people tend to operate from their visions of the future concerning the organisation and the world outside.  They have particular, personal values as to how things ought to be done and beliefs about what will happen in the future.  Coupled with their ability to conceptualise organisations in whole terms, they are able to predict which parts of the organisation require alteration and adjustment in order to achieve certain long term objectives.

Sir Geoffrey Vickers described such people as possessing ‘systemic wisdom’ – having a clear insight into how long term trends in the world outside will affect the organisation.

As visionary people develop their own personalised visions and beliefs about the future, and their own philosophies about work and strategies for action, they tend to operate in relative isolation from others.  Such philosophies tend to be a personal expression of self; their identity, what they stand for, all which have been generated in isolation from others and hence are difficult to share with others.  Sharing personal values is difficult.  It is hard to cooperate with someone who has the ability to develop equally well formed ideas that are different (or even similar) but stem from separate personal values.  In-fighting between board members of companies can be the result of such fundamental differences of opinion.  Usually, there is little room for compromise unless one party surrenders.  Often, battles amongst visionaries are conducted in an undercover, cloak and dagger way with little animosity shown on the surface.  If such battles go on for too long, it is possible that the organisation may suffer in terms of forward planning.  Usually one of the warring parties has to leave.  It is the visionary’s ability to interpret current events, predict future trends and generate an alternative identity that makes his view of the world unique.  It is a matter of ‘two into one won’t go’.

However, it is to the advantage of the visionary to share with others how fundamental strategies, once decided, should be implemented.  The involvement of others not only ensures that strategies are put into practice but allows them to identify with the new values, attitudes and norms of behaviour in the restructured organisation.

Whether others approve of the new changes or not, the visionary would seek to introduce more dramatic change.  He would not value planned, step-by-step change as he is not committed to the previous values and structure of the organisation.  In his day-to-day style, the visionary would be far less cautious than the company baron in playing politics and introducing changes.  He will ‘test the water’ before making his move but will not be too dependent on the support of others.

Rather, he would use his influencing skills to state his case.  He would use his interpersonal skills to influence individuals before and after meetings.  During meetings, he would probably be more assertive than the company baron and be prepared to handle any conflict that is directed towards him.  On the whole, the visionary is more prepared to risk.

Visionaries are a valuable asset in any organisation.  Their drive, energy and flamboyance makes them attractive to others.  Their new ideas, if properly harnessed, make an invaluable contribution to the development and growth of the organisation.  However, visionaries are not easy to manage.  If they are not doing something challenging, they could become bored, critical of management and the organisation and possibly leave.  They may also feel constrained by the systems in the organisation and again be over-critical of management.

There tend to be few visionaries.  Not unexpectedly, their skills are much in demand.  Their capacity to rationalise in whole organisational terms and create fundamental, realistic and at times adventurous strategies for change and then work towards developing a series of interrelated tasks to match the original strategy, is unlikely to be developed through management training.  They train themselves on the job.

Visionaries have been used as action men brought in at the top to revitalise an ailing organisation.

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