Monday, February 21, 2011

About Organizational Politics

Usually, politics is a negative word these days. Gone are those times when politics was a liberating force, a way of thinking and doing things for ascendant middle classes (and later still, for working classes), something that led to freedom and progress. Now, this means manipulative behaviour, something that one should not do. This negativity is nowhere more pronounced than in business literature.

The reason for this is the rational roots of business thinking. We must remember that management as a discipline was created out of the great industrial organizations of United States and Europe in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century. The roots of business education lie in the economics and organizational science departments in North America, with great rationalist thinkers like Herbert Simon etc. The founding assumption of management as a discipline is that everyone, at least most people, would act in a rational way, with an enlightened self interest. There is little room to have political strategies discussed within a body of literature that was so heavily influenced by Economics.

However, the truth is, human relationships are about power and politics is the technology of power. And, businesses are no less a human organization than the state or the local council. Politics is, therefore, an inalienable part of a business organization, almost its defining feature. I shall argue that to understand an organization, which is the first step of changing it, is to understand its politics.

But before I go any further, I must clarify that I don't use the term politics in the usual negative sense. I must not say that to change an organization, and make it more effective, one must get rid of its politics. Because, simply, one can't: The only thing effective managers can do is to align the politics of an organization with its goals.

Politics, as the technology of power, becomes disruptive when the internal mechanics of power falls out of alignment with the demands of survival. An organization, much like a living organism, can only survive by flexibly responding to the world outside. Sometimes, politics will stop an organization from being nimble and responding to the outside world. At such times, only two outcomes remain possible: One, the organization will disappear; or, a change agent will step in and create a new politics, in alignment with the outside world.

Precisely at this point of discussion, one can start to see why politics is seen negatively. Power is all about taking it and keeping it; so, politics of change can soon become the politics of status quo once the initial tasks of change has been accomplished. But, this will lead to the organization soon falling foul with the outside world, which will keep changing, as technologies of production keeps changing. The change agents of today will invariably become mandarins of tomorrow, and what will make the organization triumph now will make it stumble tomorrow.

This is indeed the great rationalist critique of politics. They preach that the organization can only become resilient by being completely rational about its choices. As I said, this is indeed correct, just improbable. An organization made of people does not reflect collective rationality, but decisions made of individual choices and the mechanics of power. The decisions made may sometimes look rational, but mostly this is about hindsight. In any case, there is very little one can do with 'what if' conjectures.

So, is there a way out from politics that must degenerate when rationality is not possible? I shall argue that organizational life has three, not two, dimensions. The overarching reality of business is indeed outside, the technologies of production and consumer preferences, factors outside control of business decision making that an organization must serve all the time. The organization, as I said, must operate with its technologies in power to keep itself aligned with these outside realities. The third factor in the mix is what Foucault called the technologies of self, the learning of individual players, executives, which, if used in alignment with the external factors and the politics of an organization, can keep an organization from degenerating into a failure.

This is familiar territory from most organizational scholars: A learning organization, where individuals keep learning in the quest of an alignment with the rapidly changing outside world and the politics of an organization makes change possible and desirable. One can argue this is a progressive utopia, but not any longer: This recession is hammering the last nails in the coffin of the great rational industrial organization, before which a semblance of rationality was possible only because the power was so overwhelmingly one-sided (this was BEFORE the age of talent and global mobility) and rationality was accepted as a plausible way of life. As we prepare for life after the recession, the interplay of politics and learning, to keep in tune with the uncertainties emerging, appear more important than ever.

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