I used to think emotions and office politics were the biggest barriers to organizational effectiveness and needed to be completely expunged from business environments in favor of rational analysis and respectful cooperation.
This was, of course, extremely naive.
We've learned to accept emotion's inevitable role in the workplace environment, to appreciate it's evolutionary purposes as a precognitive relevance filter, to approach our and others' emotions intelligently, and to leverage emotional energy to motivate employees in positive ways.
Can we take the same approach with workplace--and even national--politics? Can we rediscover a mechanism of social evolution meant to help us effectively choose and cooperate, rather than simply compete and dominate?
Shawn Callahan spotted a new research report from English consultancy Roffey Park. "The Power of Constructive Politics" examines the positive side of political behavior in the workplace.
According to Linda Holbeche, Roffey Park Director of Research and Strategy, the research was developed through interviews and focus groups, Roffey Park's annual survey of 735 managers, and a separate specific survey of 121 managers.
An Oct. 11 Roffey Park press release describes the study and its implications:
When 'playing politics', senior managers should think of the organisation as well as themselves, according to a new research report which examines the positive side of political behaviour in the workplace. Called 'The Power of Constructive Politics', by Roffey Park, the report tackles a subject which is often portrayed as negative or damaging to an organisation. Indeed previous research from Roffey Park, published in 2002, found that office politics can reduce organisational productivity, create a lack of trust, increase internal conflict and lead to greater resistance to change.
This latest study, developed through focus groups and surveys of 856 managers and HR professionals, describes how politics can be used constructively and why - and how - organisations should encourage this. It also examines whether your gender makes you more or less prone to use constructive politics.
Author Linda Holbeche claims that the distinction between constructive and destructive politics is not so much the games played or the strategies deployed, but the intention behind them.
'Politics is a fact of life in organisations,' she said. 'People will deploy political skills and use their power and influence to enhance or protect their interests. However, constructive protagonists use politics to achieve a beneficial outcome for others as well as themselves. These people certainly exist in organisations but we're more likely to know them as effective strategists, skilful influencers or even powerful leaders.'
Peppered with examples of good practice, the report highlights that political behaviour can be used to 'make things happen', unblock barriers to change, create greater buy-in to key projects, produce greater organisational cohesion and speed up decision making. It also avoids the drain on creativity that stems from internally-competitive behaviour.
Constructive political behaviour is described as establishing effective relationships, understanding individual agendas, creating win-win situations, acting in a principled way, building strong support for constructive ideas, building a personal reputation, treating everyone fairly and influencing others rather than directly using power.
To be effective, political actors need to build their own credibility. They should 'learn the system' and work round it when they can, cultivate relationships with 'appropriate' colleagues, develop a range of internal information sources and not make enemies. They also need self-awareness, strategic awareness, political awareness, honesty, integrity, judgement, relationship-building skills, mental and emotional dexterity, analytical skills, a willingness to act and an ability to read the power structures. The research report highlights the practical application of the necessary skills for steering meetings, negotiating in tough situations, managing conflict and improving a team's effectiveness.
According to the research, 32% of managers believe it simply isn't possible to use office politics constructively because human nature is so appallingly selfish that people will always guard their turf and abuse their role power. On the other hand, 58% claim they have experienced the constructive use of office politics. 61% say they have personally engaged in political behaviour which resulted in a positive outcome for their organisation.
'Whether or not politics is used constructively in an organisation is largely dependent on the example set by senior managers,' said Linda Holbeche. 'They set the political tone since they have the ability to reward or sanction behaviour in others lower down the hierarchy. If they are to be effective role models, they must take this responsibility seriously.'
The report argues that constructive politics does not happen by chance. As well as principled leadership, the research details several cultural factors which must be in place if constructive politics is to thrive. These include a congruence between corporate values and management practice, an acknowledged sense of corporate purpose, open communications and an environment in which individuals feel trusted and listened to, where ethical and honest behaviour is rewarded and self-serving political behaviour is penalised.
'The organisational challenge is to create a culture which encourages the use of constructive political behaviour rather than the more negative, self-serving type,' said Linda Holbeche. 'For this to work, each individual's agenda must be aligned to the organisational goals.'
Interestingly, the report highlights that the culture in the public sector is less conducive to the use of constructive politics. The author claims this is because processes tend to be bureaucratic and procedural in the public sector; the goals are less clear; employees are penalised for failure, rather than rewarded for success and the organisation is more likely to be subject to public scrutiny and criticism, rather than praise.
'The Power of Constructive Politics' is available from Roffey Park, priced £35 and it can also be purchased online and downloaded from Roffey Park's website: www.roffeypark.com.