Monday, September 9, 2013

Organization Politics - This post is the first chapter in my new book, "Leadership Basics for Frontline Managers". This book was published by CRC Press (Taylor & Francis) in March, 2014.  To see the book, click here  then click on the Google Preview button to browse the first 25% 
Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog 


Imagine what your work would be like if the fear bred by organizational politics did not exist.  Imagine workplaces in which employees were encouraged to tell the truth, no matter how unpalatable this truth might be for their executives.  Imagine what coming to work every day would be like if integrity was the primary operating principle.

Any organization that is dominated by extreme levels of organizational politics can become toxic and fail.  When I worked for a company in the financial industry, I was hyper-concerned about conforming and getting ahead.  I wore the right clothes, worked the right amount of hours, contributed during meetings in appropriate ways and in general did my best to fit in, to be highly valued and to get promoted. Or so I thought. 

When my firm began to take imprudent business risks, the rumor mill ran wild.  I remember being told by a colleague that someone in accounting had said, “You just wouldn’t believe what the executive team is telling us to do with the books!”  The numbers were being manipulated to hide the true picture from shareholders, yet very few of us were willing to become whistle blowers.  Very few of us dared to challenge the directions that were coming down from the executive suite. The company’s share price gradually slid from over $20 to below 50 cents.  Terminations became the order of the day.  Eventually the company was sold.
The corrosive fear that undermines organizational success has a long history.  Writing shortly after the end of World War II, Admiral John Godfrey, the former Director of Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division, in analyzing ‘Operation Mincemeat’, a highly successful wartime deception conducted by British agents, identified two major weaknesses of the Nazi’s espionage establishment: ‘wishfulness’ and ‘yesmanship’.  These words are strictly the good admiral’s concoctions.  Yet wishfulness and yesmanship have changed the course of history.  And they are still with us today, every day of the week, at work and at home.

As definitions for wishfulness and yesmanship do not appear in any dictionary, I’ll use my own.  Wishfulness is that tendency among individuals and organizations to believe information that supports their own view of reality while simultaneously rejecting all contradictory information. Godfrey believed that the Nazi high command, when presented with two pieces of contradictory information, was “inclined to believe the one that fit in best with their own previously formed conceptions”.

Yesmanship is the tendency of those with less positional power to agree with those who have greater power, mainly out of fear. Yesmanship feeds on fear of authority; the greater the fear, the stronger the tendency toward blind yesmanship.  Yesmanship is an enabling behavior for wishfulness.  Wishfulness, particularly in organizations in which there are dire consequences for insubordination, can give rise to deadly levels of yesmanship.
Milder forms of yesmanship occasionally take a seat at almost every corporate or government boardroom.  Fearful employees learn instinctively to deliver the news they believe their harried bosses want to hear.  Wishing to avoid an argument, employees will spin information for each other by hiding in yesmanship.  “Don’t make waves”.  “Tell her what she wants to hear and you’ll be fine”.

In the Nazi military command hierarchy that Godfrey analyzed, lower ranked personnel would deliberately distort information in order to crawl higher in Hitler’s estimation.  Yesmanship became integrated into strategic decision making at the highest levels of the Third Reich. In this rigidly hierarchical military structure, no one dared say “no” to the powers above.  Wishfulness and yesmanship ultimately destroyed the Nazi war machine.
What power does wishfulness and yesmanship have in your organization today?  Who could give you an honest answer?

We all know what organizational politics can feel like.  We all know the almost imperceptible sense of caution, of carefulness, of not wanting to communicate the wrong message.  We all know the importance of maintaining a professional image, or being seen to be a worthwhile contributor, of being perceived as someone who is ‘onside’ with current directions and plans.  All of which is not to say that by being careful, considerate, conscious of one’s image and messages we are somehow sabotaging our careers.  Far from it.  But it is a question of degree.  How careful do we need to be?  We all know the cost of not being careful enough.  But do we understand the cost of being too careful?

The costs of allowing these forms of organizational cowardice to become the norm could be immense.  What can we do to ensure that wishfulness and yesmanship do not distort our business planning and operational decision- making?   How can we encourage people to speak their truth?  How can we build an organizational culture of high integrity?

·                     Everyone, from the CEO on down must, to paraphrase Ghandi, be the change they want to see in their colleagues.  If you want the truth, you must speak the truth and be the truth
·                     Encourage debate and dialogue.  Welcome challenges, welcome questions, welcome demands for explanations and above all, welcome alternative ideas that conflict with your own assumptions
·                     If you are a leader, make a point of hiring people who are likely to disagree with you on business issues.  Conflict can yield creative resolutions that would never see the light of day had passive politeness been the name of the game
·                     Instead of arguing with dissenters, ask for explanations of their thinking.  “How did you come to that conclusion?  Please walk me through your thinking process.”  Listen first before fighting back
·                     Treat everyone according to a set of explicit and worthwhile values.  This is not about posting flowery vision statements everywhere.  This about your behavior, or more accurately, how you treat people, all people, every day
·                     Build a culture of trust by demonstrating trust.  You must believe in the people you work with.  You believe that they have the best of intentions and that they fully deserve your trust
·                     Show your commitment by demonstrating everything you believe in through your own behavior
·                     Developing a culture free of wishfulness and yesmanship does not depend on the oratorical skills of a Barack Obama.  Developing such a culture depends on being conscious at every moment of the messages you are sending through your every action.  People learn much more about you as a leader by watching your actions as opposed to listening to you or reading your words
·                     Beware of ‘Groupthink’, that creeping sycophantism wherein people to try too hard to fit in.  Cherish your dissenters and critiques.  At times they may be frustrating to deal with, but you can always count on them to speak their truth

Remember that conflict can, up to a point, be a sign of organizational vitality.  If people really care about their work, conflicts will sometimes happen.  By all means do your best to resolve these conflicts, but don’t prevent them from springing to life.  They could be a healthy sign.

  • AS A LEADER, MODEL THE CHANGE you want to see in others
  • ENCOURAGE DEBATE and disagreement; cherish dissenters
  • EMBRACE CONFLICT; ask dissenters why they disagree with you
  • TREAT EVERYONE with an explicit and worthwhile set of values everyday
  • BUILD TRUST by demonstrating trust
  • BE SURE to practice what you are preaching
  • BE CONSCIOUS of the messages you are sending through your actions

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