The Problem with Politics

I abhor politics. That’s rather uncomfortable for me to admit. The consequences are substantial. An immediate impact for me is my recurring and persistent resistance to writing. There seems to be a kind of internal power struggle when I try to put pen to paper. Whether real or imagined, I would rather ignore or even deny the forces of power and control that stifle my creative self-expression than risk – what? What is the risk? I fear disruptive if not destructive conflict that threatens to re-align or maybe even redefine me. Politics messes with peoples’ commitments and loyalty. I know I am not alone.
Organizational Politics can be like an inter-personal game of chess

Politics has been banned from my book club. I have been a member of a local men’s book group for more than 15 years. We read diverse fiction and non-fiction. Along with discussing the characters, themes, and worldview in what we read, we inevitably share something of ourselves. One member, in reviewing his concerns of the previous month, shared his disgust with Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s run for the U.S. Presidency. At least one other book club member was offended. After that evening, we agreed via email not to discuss “politics” at book club. I gave my passive consent. But I felt something had been lost. What? Our willingness to respectfully disclose and perhaps debate our respective values and beliefs without self-censoring.

Organizational politics has many faces. From years of leadership consulting, I have repeatedly witnessed the consequences of avoiding discussion and debate. The very act of avoidance is political. The scrubbing and sanitizing of corporate messaging to avoid difficult realities (e.g. yet another round of lay-offs) and inadvertent implications (this is not the end of the down-sizing) recurs on a regular basis. The intent is clear communication. The impact is often further disillusionment and skepticism. The political games are played upward as well as downward in the hierarchy. As one project leader in a Fortune 100 R&D organization stated, “It’s a fine line between telling the truth and keeping a project alive.” He was not being dishonest. He was telling it like it is. Organizational politics prevail just beneath surface in every company.

“Politics is not a dirty word! Politics is the inevitable and necessary consequence of people seeking to establish order and exercise influence.”

Families are also political. We seldom talk about them in terms of power and influence but the political dynamics are prevalent, whether we think of it that way or not. When a child learns to go to her father to request an extended curfew after her mother has already said “no,” (but before her father can confer with her mother), that child is learning how to manipulate the system to her advantage. She is political. In my family of origin, as I and my siblings matured and became more independent, the simple act of a parent asking one of us to say a prayer became political, though no one would name it as such. The request to pray was perhaps an unintended but nevertheless powerful expression of wanting continuing influence and expressed loyalty.

I hate politics. Yet I write about it. And I am thinking more and more about organizational politics. Why? Because I want to identify and name power and influence for what it is wherever people gather. As I write I am becoming more familiar with myself and the power at play in my life, past and present.

Politics is not a dirty word! Politics is an inevitable and necessary consequence of people seeking to establish order and exercise control, hopefully for a greater common good. Leadership that fails to acknowledge political realities casts a shadow that diminishes trust and destroys loyalty. Face it, we’re all political!