Organizational Politics: Toxic Inefficiency? Distasteful Behavior? Or Something Else Entirely?

4 minute read

We’ve worked with quite a few clients who, when the topic of dealing with organizational politics comes up, react in one of two ways: they either find it horribly distasteful, or incredibly inefficient. We can only assume that some people find it uncomfortable to have non-black and white conversations as it relates to getting things done within a hierarchical organization, and some would rather run others over in the interest of “just get it done” efficiency.

The first type of client automatically attaches a negative connotation to the word politics, and insists that they’re simply not going to “play the game.” They tend to categorize dealing with political matters as an unethical, even subhuman, activity and they view their more politically savvy colleagues as being of suspect character.

The second type are clients that generally—and admittedly correctly—recognize that it takes longer to get things done if we have to acknowledge, much less seek out, differing opinions and shared authority among multiple, often conflicting agendas. It’s true that this aspect of the hierarchical organizational process is not as expedient as the shortest distance between two points typically is. Given the way most corporations and mid-sized businesses are structured—most organizations in the American business world today have at least a partially cross-functional or “matrixed” structure—this is an unavoidable reality.

For example, let’s say the Accounting department wants to change a particular policy. They may work the request all the way up to the CFO and have the CFO’s approval, but that approval doesn’t take into account the impact the proposed change will have on Operations, Sales, Marketing, or other areas of the company. It is vital to the literal functionality of the organization that all impacted departments are on board with the proposed changes. Thus, it’s best practice to run proposals through the multiple approval processes in place throughout all the relevant departments within the organization, even if it significantly delays implementation.

So what’s the take away?

Whether it’s in Washington, DC these days, or any particular state or local government, or in the typical corporate workplace, politics can and will have certain aspects that some people find distasteful, and they may choose not to get involved with it because of their negative perceptions. However, we encourage our clients to be mindful that, strictly speaking, politics is only the distribution of authority, responsibility, and resources within a hierarchical organization. And even though in the short term it may not seem so, political action is often the most efficient way to get things done—including dealing with pushback, disagreement, and other natural byproducts of navigating conflict. In fact, choosing to navigate the politics of any particular issue is frequently not only the most efficient way to do things, but it usually also better serves one’s own personal effectiveness and career.

After all, hierarchy is no more than the alignment of work process to create levels of responsibility, authority, and specialty, such that work can be distributed across many people and can thereby get done faster, more accurately, and more effectively. Political savvy is therefore merely the comprehension of the competing human and corporate needs and perspectives within a hierarchy. It’s understanding what others want, what they are worried about, what they need to accomplish their piece of the work, and the impact proposed changes would have on their world. It’s the acknowledgement that, for most of us dealing with challenging issues in hierarchical organizations, there’s a real and natural underlying fear of things getting even harder than they already are, and a concern about having the time, competency, and resources necessary to deal with increasing levels of complexity.

What we’re saying is that ignoring the political realities of others may create the mirage of ease in the short term, but if we alienate others with differing perspectives in the interest of efficiency, the long term the costs may be far greater. Failure to appreciate the politics of a critical situation can even prove to be politically fatal, and less than skillful navigation of the political landscape in any organization can and has resulted in the infamous CLM: Career-Limiting Move.

The most effective leaders we’ve worked with understand the trade-offs between short-term efficiency and long-term political effectiveness. Our best mentors and bosses over the years were masterful at understanding and patiently tending to hierarchical politics, and would never push us to deal with an issue in the interest of saving time, if it meant we might piss off someone in a leadership role in the process. In fact, my first corporate boss had a saying: “Always work it through the system.”

In short, everyone has a responsibility to work together in good faith for the well-being of the organization as a whole. Proper operation inside a political climate is NOT using politics as a club to beat others down for our own self-serving advantage. We don’t use political maneuvers purely out of fear that a change is going to make our job more difficult. We develop political consciousness in the name of the betterment of the whole, and in pursuit of continuing to grow a unified, functional organization.