Sunday, May 26, 2013

What ‘Political’ Games Are Played In Your Organisation?

Are you concerned by the thought that the success you achieve in your career might not only be dependent on how good you are; how well you perform; and the results you generate but also by how well you are able to ‘play the corporate game’?

Dorie Clark in an article in the HBR, November 2012, suggests that as part of your career plan you should draw a power map, using circles that show who has the most influence over your career and, in turn, the people who have the most influence over them. Then figure out what you can offer the influential people - expertise, assistance on a project, help with networking; and ways to cultivate unique knowledge or skills they’d find valuable.

Places where your career progression is as much to do with who you know; as it is to do with what you know, include the consulting industry, the accounting and legal profession and sadly the armed forces.

To give an example one global consulting firm, considered one of the ‘top players’ in the industry, recently had a change of leadership at the very top and what followed was like a ‘coup’ in some despot country. All those people left in senior positions who had been part of the ‘old regime’, presumably allies of the outgoing CEO, were replaced by cronies of the incoming CEO – and a new ‘power’ base was formed. Where those that had sided with and placed their ‘bets’ on the right ‘horse’ were rubbing their hands with glee – while the vanquished started to look elsewhere for their future careers – and of course it’s in this ‘misty fog’ of the new order – that ‘the old guard’ run off and start break-away organisations, intent on competing with and ‘destroying’ the new usurper to ‘their throne’.

Now I won’t discuss here how these types of organisations are meant to set the example for other mere mortal organisations to follow and hence should have a ‘mature’ view of organisational development and talent management. But what is scary is that these organisations are rife with internal political squabbling, to the extent that internal ‘tribes’ are formed within these organisations, where employees place their future development, advancement and financial reward behind those they perceive as the ‘potential’ future leaders. And if you spend long enough in these organisations you can see the tribes – where they look like a troop of monkeys, where the leader strides ahead with his ‘family’ following closely behind.

Of course as with all tribes you will encounter, over time, traitors and defectors; and even within the ‘tribes’ you can have ‘challenges’ for positional power.

For those joining these politically driven organisations – the new incumbent isn’t aware of the ‘political’ machinations taking place at first – often because they are simply caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of the business, and find themselves learning so fast that they often only realised they have been groomed and taken under the wing of a ‘pretender’ to the ultimate throne one or two years after joining – when the pace of their development starts to slow down and they have a chance to look around them at what is happening. Up to then it’s just been an exhilarating, if somewhat tiring, journey of self-discovery and access to material wealth that they only dreamed of – where they are often exposed to managers who live in a ‘colonial type’ bubble and who, for example, ask to have their hire cars replaced when the ashtrays become full.

Not all organisations are political and tribal; and few are as bad as the industries and professions mentioned above, but ‘company politics’ exists to some extent in most organisations.

Clark mentions that “it’s still a slam to be labelled ‘political’ in the business world. But it shouldn’t be. Thinking like a campaign strategist will help you set clear goals, develop new skills, and build relationships with the people who matter to your professional life. Creating a career campaign plan ensures that, every day, you’re taking small but important steps to better position yourself for a winning future.”

I think the thing that Clark misses is that ‘political’ has a wide range of meaning from the manipulative narcissistic games of a dictatorial leader, like Mark Taylor, the Dean at Warwick Business School, who leaves a path of unhappy personnel and operational destruction in their wake; to the planned ‘management’ coups that takeover and place their ‘people’ in positions of power; to the genuine organisations that are focused on sustainable growth and continuous improvement and are very dynamic when it comes to organisational development and talent management, having a culture that never loses sight of putting the company and its people first.


Clark, D. (2012). A Campaign Strategy for Your Career. Harvard Business Review.

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