I wnet to a speech from a new CEO today. One of the things he said, when asked his goals for the new role was that he was determined to root out politics. “If anyone starts playing politics, they are out the door, no matter how senior they are”.
It made me reflect on what exactly “politics” is in a corporate context. I’ve come across many people who are described as “political”. And yet I think few of them would think of themselves that way. One person’s “working to get control over all of the issues that affect the profitability of my business line” is described as “empire building”. Someone else’s “trying to ensure the company treats its people appropriately with centrally imposed standards” is described as “beauracracy gone mad”.
I remember asking someone at a large company whether there were politics. He was very careful with his definitions. He said that compared with smaller companies, you had to do more work at getting people on side before you put a proposition together. But that he hadn’t seen any really destructive politics, which he defined as undermining others by badmouthing them or their ideas behind their backs. One person’s “getting people on side” is another person’s “playing politics by compromise” but it seemed a fairly constructive definition to me.
I’ve seen other leaders encourage politics without really meaning to. Playing favourites can start innocently enough. A leader has extra faith in one of his or her team. So that team member’s advice or thoughts are listened to and acted upon, without much thought for whether others’ ideas have merit too. So other people in the organisation start going to that team as providing favoured access to the leader, and the culture becomes one of seeking approval and favours.
“Politics” used as a perjorative in an organisation suggests a few problems to me:
- an overly beauracratic culture
- a culture of letting people get away with destructive behaviours because they are “good performers” (often good sales people or cost cutting types)
- sacred cows that can’t be debated healthily so people have to try and get around them some other way (for example that we should always sell a particular product, whether or not it is profitable)
I’m not sure how much these will change because of a few well publicised sackings at the top. But cultural change is hard, and signalling that a CEO is serious with a few well chosen scalps may make the difference. I’ll watch from the outside with interest.