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May - 2001 - issue > Sam Pitroda Column
Making Office Politics Work For You
Monday, November 17, 2008

Politics is very much a part of every human organization, whether it be in the family, nonprofit organizations, government agencies or, especially, in the corporate world. In fact, when there are more than three people working together, politics is inevitable. Corporate politics affects people and performance, and, as a result, profits. It eventually becomes a serious issue when it hurts employee morale.
Corporate politics springs essentially from conflicts between the corporate agenda, the group agenda and an individual’s agenda. Whenever people try to advance their own agenda into the mainstream, politics looms.

In the corporate world, the highest is the board of directors. Each director brings to the table a different background and different experiences, and thus a different perspective. When they feel strongly about a particular agenda, they begin to lobby other directors. That is the seed of corporate politics.

From the board, the politicking moves down to the executive team — CEO, COO, CFO, CTO, etc. Ultimately, it reaches managers and individual workers. In addition, pockets of politics exist in different sectors of the organization. Politics also relates to the egos of strong personalities who lobby for a personal agenda and create an environment that hurts others. Gossip starts, tension is created, people become fearful, not sure whose side to take or what to say. They worry about their jobs, their security, and their pay. “Who will win? Will I survive?” they ask. OPEN COMMUNICATION
What does it take to deal with, manage it and minimize corporate politics? How do you really create good politics so that together you move the corporate agenda, rather than the individual agenda, forward? The starting point in dealing with corporate politics is to grasp and accept that politics is part of corporate culture. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s there, and you can’t get rid of it, so you have to really make the best of it.

Secondly, it is important to deal with it. The best way to deal with it is to create open communication channels at all levels. The company vision needs to be articulated from the top, time and time again. It needs to be taught in public, open forums so people get a sense of direction, an objective toward which everyone is supposed to work.

To some extent, leadership is all about creating and communicating a vision, breaking it down into work that people can perform, then putting it all back together. In today’s environment, where technology is critical and knowledge is so important, open communication among knowledge workers is critical. Traditional factory jobs are defined clearly. The knowledge element is tiny for people stamping something at a workstation or handling a machine. So, corporate politics diminishes in those situations. In the knowledge industry, however, many workers apply brainpower. As a result, there is much more room for politics. That makes it imperative to capitalize on openness and good communication. By articulating the company vision periodically, management gives people the feeling that they know their objectives. IDENTIFYING POWER CENTERS
Another consideration in dealing with corporate politics is recognizing organizational power centers. Who — or what — really wields power in or over the firm? Is it within the management structure, or outside — perhaps someone on the board or in a vendor company, or a customer? When the company’s not doing well, the power center may even shift to a financial institution. Then the banker, and his political agenda, become very critical. Once you recognize where the power centers are, and what their agenda is, you can begin to understand their politics. ALIGNMENT OF AGENDAS
Third, it is necessary to align the power center’s agenda with the corporate agenda, as much as possible. If that can’t be done, you have to confront it. Some employees use corporate politics in the wrong way. There must be open communication with them. Confront them if it’s consistently negative. Say, “Look, this behavior is not helping our company. Before you go up against each other, let’s talk about it. What are you trying to achieve? How does it help you?”

You have to try to manage it before it becomes too big of a problem in the company. Hiding it, avoiding it, or ignoring it is not the answer.

If you, as CEO or manager, ignore politics in your group or in your company, you’ll be seen as a weak member of the team. As a result, power centers sprout away from where the power really belongs. Pockets of power emerge in an organization, based on what is important at that point in time. If, for example, technology is important while you’re developing a product, power centers will emerge among technology people. And once the product is built, they may shift toward marketing, customer service and quality, among other areas. And power centers move as a company grows. In a mature company, power centers are found in operations. But they can shift depending on whether a company is prospering or not. And, as noted above, they can migrate outside of the company.

For example, a company not doing well is being sold or merged or is filing for Chapter 11. All kinds of politics spring up as rumors start and people panic. And that lowering of morale lowers the value of the company. When you’re not doing well, the downslide must be managed properly, or it will move very fast. That’s why it’s important for a CEO to be on top of corporate politics all the time and know who the political people are. MANAGING CONFLICT
Some employees, after all, are more in tune with politicking than with performance. They may have important jobs within the organization, yet politics is in their character. The job of leadership is to identify these people and work with them. For others, however, corporate politics is frustrating. “Why should we have corporate politics?” they ask. “Why can’t we just do our work?”

Unfortunately, that’s not possible. In group dynamics, where a large number of people are involved, people inevitably clash, because of personalities or egos or agendas. Handling conflict resolution becomes very critical. If conflict resolution is not properly handled, politics emerge.

To me, there’s nothing wrong with corporate politics, as long as you make the best of it by directing the energy toward building a positive force within the company and achieving the larger corporate agenda. It’s a tough task for management, but it can be done. In fact, it has to be done.

Sam Pitroda is chairman and CEO of WorldTel. He has been a founder of several companies in Europe and North America and the first chairman of India’s Telecom Commission. To exchange ideas with Pitroda, write to pitroda@corp.siliconindia.com. This article is based on a telephone conversation with Mr. Pitroda.

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