Time to grasp political nettle

Management development programmes should stop shying away from the issue of
corporate politics, says David Butcher

It is high time that politics took its rightful place as the centrepiece of
management work. Yet the "P" word, as some managers coyly refer to
it, is more likely to be seen as a dysfunctional aberration than an
indispensable means of getting results.

The closest management comes to acknowledging the part politics play in
organisations is worldly-wise recognition of the inevitable. Some profess to be
indifferent, but usually there is more than a hint of disapproval when the
subject comes up. Those who preach the value of trust and openness won’t even
discuss it, clambering on to the moral high ground, leaving everyone else to
sully themselves in organisational mire or worse, stir some bubbling cauldron
of back-stabbing intrigue and treachery.

Few see politics as legitimate activity, let alone official managerial
competence.

This is a strange state of affairs when one considers the sheer range of
competing agendas in organisations.

These were probably always there, but they have been made all the more
likely by the democratisation of the corporate world through business unit
structures and widespread empowerment processes.

Unity is a myth

Simple unity of purpose is a complete myth in these circumstances, yet the
old mindset of corporate rationality refuses to bow out gracefully. It takes
more than a couple of decades of non-hierarchical organisations to eradicate
hierarchical thinking, and it is this that ensures politics continues to have a
bad name.

Management developers would do a rather better job of serving the interests
of managers if they set about clarifying the critical role of politics in
organisations. Too much of management development leaves the official corporate
agenda unquestioned rather than deal with messy reality. But helping managers
to understand the constructive side of politics would provide them with a
new-found scope to deliver.

More fundamentally, such a focus would accelerate the process of ushering in
a political mindset – inevitable in any case since the old pyramid model of
organisation is now far too simplistic. What is needed is a learning process
which uses the dysfunctional effects of the rational mindset to impress upon managers
just how much energy they waste on fruitless attempts to force fit competing
agendas into grand corporate strategy.

Re-drawing managerial role

Add to this a view of politics as good, not bad or indifferent, and there is
the possibility of a re-drawing of the managerial role. Give them the skills to
gather power to themselves and use it judiciously, lobby effectively, read the
organisation with real insight, and you have a formula for true competence.

If managers see the political process as constructive they will use it well
and it will become simply "part of the job".

Politics will surely come of age in organisations, but managers could use
some help in speeding up the process.

David Butcher is senior lecturer in management development and director
of general management programmes at Cranfield School of Management

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