Here is an excerpt from an article written by Michael Jarrett for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
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The first 100 days are usually the honeymoon period for any new CEO to make their mark and get others on board.
However, for Airbus CEO Christian Streiff, it was just a brief window before his abrupt departure from the European aircraft company that’s part of the EADS consortium, along with DiamlerChrysler and Aerospatiale-Matra.
Streiff’s drive to speed up decision-making, overcome bureaucracy, and deliver rapid execution, exposed historic and deep divisions between executives at the consortium. There were reports of internecine feuding at Airbus: The internal atmosphere was tense; jobs were allocated by preferences other than commercial criteria; and mistakes such as insufficient cabling were a result of internal conflicts and mistrust. Even Streiff ended up concluding that it was the political nature of Airbus that prevented it from becoming an integrated company. In short, he became the unintended victim trapped by what the Financial Times called “byzantine organizational politics.”
Dysfunctional politics can sink an organization, and yet most of the executives I teach react with distaste to the idea of being a savvy organizational politician. Yes, it can be self-serving. However, the reality is that politics is normal. According to McGill’s Henry Mintzberg, it’s just another influencing process along with norms, formal authority and expertise. Thus it’s important for leaders to understand the forms it can take and how to use it for the well-being of the organization.
While we would be naive if we didn’t acknowledge politics as a potentially destructive force, when deployed effectively it can help the company meet its strategic goals and live up to its values, especially during organizational change.
So what is it? Organizational politics refers to a variety of activities associated with the use of influence tactics to improve personal or organizational interests. Studies show that individuals with political skills tend to do better in gaining more personal power as well as managing stress and job demands, than their politically naive counterparts. They also have a greater impact on organizational outcomes.
However, political behavior is also likely to be present, but not explicit, until it is too late. For example, it may be the case that a manager needs to exert a large amount of pressure on a team to get something done by using the power of their position over others. It is also occasionally necessary for employees to work behind the scenes to build coalitions of believers in a new vision to convince others. Whatever the situation, it is important to understand that the root cause of political activities are often scarce resources (including time pressures), social and structural inequalities, and individual personal motivations.
Executives can view political moves as dirty and will try to distance themselves from those activities. However, what they find hard to acknowledge is that such activities can be for the welfare of the organization and its members. Thus, the first step to feeling comfortable with politics requires that executives are equipped with a reliable map of the political landscape and an understanding of the sources of political capital.
Mapping the political terrain
To address these challenges, we need to chart the political terrain, which includes four metaphoric domains: the weeds, the rocks, the high ground, and the woods. Each has different rules for skillful navigation.
Navigating these domains requires awareness of two important dimensions. First is the level that political activity takes place. Political dynamics start with the individual player and their political skills. These can evolve into group-level behaviors. At the other end of this dimension is the broader context, where politics operates at the organizational level.
The second dimension of the political landscape is the extent to which the source of power is soft (informal) or hard (formal). Soft power is implicit, making use of influence, relationships, and norms. Political activity based on “hard,” formal, or explicit power draws upon role authority, expertise, directives, and reward/control mechanisms.
These two dimensions of power can provide us with the tools to navigate the four metaphoric domains: The Weeds, The Rocks, The High Ground, and The Woods.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Michael Jarrett is a Senior Affiliate Professor in organizational behavior at INSEAD. Previously, Michael was a full-time faculty member at Cranfield School of Management.