Thinking Politically in the Corporate Environment

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Abid Mustafa
Director, United Kingdom

Thinking Politically in the Corporate Environment

In companies that are besotted by (Ed: ~ full of) politics and intrigue, problem solvers rarely fix issues and are more likely to spawn new problems that weigh heavily on the organization’s ability to serve customers and respond to market trends. This is because most problem solvers in such organizations eschew thinking about the political dimension of problems. For them problem solving is apolitical and necessitates issues to be understood and analyzed, root causes identified and validated, and initiatives developed and implemented that eventually result in workable solutions. The solutions— by and large—are delivered in the form of processes and governance models, roles and responsibilities, training, automation etc. Problem solving in this manner always conforms to the politics of the company or what I like to call the “corporate order”.

Corporate politics...No matter how hard problem solvers try to fix problems, the corporate order always ensures that facets of the solution they deem to be dangerous to their interests are either lobbied away or sufficiently diluted before the green light is given for implementation. Even the implementation of the solution is not secure from the prying eyes and ears of the corporate order. If they discover that red flags can expose their incompetence or heap embarrassment upon them, project and operational reports are adroitly manipulated to steer initiatives into paralysis or the guillotine is employed to give the initiatives a death blow.

In such environments, problem fixers— executives, programme directors, project managers, line managers etc— quickly learn to mould their thinking to accommodate the interests of the corporate order, even if it is detrimental to the (real) corporate interests. Subsequently problem fixers spend huge amounts of intellectual capital, invest considerable money and exert much effort in producing and delivering solutions that are fundamentally flawed both in scope and application. From the outset the purpose of such solutions is to maintain the status quo i.e. keeps the executives that preside over the corporate order in power. Problem fixers are only permitted to solve those problems that enable the custodians of the corporate order to meet their performance targets and maintain good relations with the board.

Problem solvers who adhere to the purity of their thinking and are sincere to the (real) corporate interests find it extremely difficult to conceal their frustrations in such working environments. They often clash with the interests of the corporate order—many do so with a poor understanding of the political situation. In the end—depending upon the level of seniority and political influence—they are either brow beaten into submission, contained but isolated or their employment is terminated. This usually happens after a lengthy war of attrition—often disguised in business parlance, so that unaware employees do not become suspicious and can be used as pawns in the ensuing power play—and the company’s resources, money and time are wasted in such pursuits.

Those problem fixers that survive the onslaught are intellectually scarred and find it difficult to solve problems. They procrastinate fearful that their solutions will be rejected by other employees who work under the shadow of the corporate order. Such problem fixers very quickly lose credibility and consign themselves to problems they cannot solve.

How to solve problems in politically charged companies?
If problems solvers truly want to solve problems in politically charged companies, then they must frame the problems in the context of the corporate order. But to do so, they must excel in three areas:
1. Develop a firm understanding of the corporate order and its political influence on the entire company.
2. Learn to think politically and not intellectually. Unlike intellectual thinking, political thinking has no rules. Its source is the statements and deeds of those who engage in politics at work. Techniques such as generalisation, modelling and analogies rarely work to uncover or counter the motives and plans of the corporate order. Conversely, the corporate order is apt at exploiting such techniques to imprison problem solvers in their thinking thereby rendering them impotent. Hence, it is incumbent upon the problem solver to build a profound understanding of all the major players at work, their domains of influence and how they manoeuvre politically to safeguard their interests. In sum the problem solver needs to possess a crystal clear picture about their political plans and actions.
3. The problem solver must have the courage to challenge the existing corporate order. Challenge here should not be confused with mere confrontation with the guardians of the corporate order that ultimately yields a compromise—this will never lead to proper change. At best the problem solver’s concerns will be accommodated by the corporate order, but at the mercy of to their terms and conditions. Moreover the problem solver will be regarded by other employees as a poodle of those executives under whose hegemony the corporate order thrives. To produce effective change the problem solver must expand the support base to include other executives willing to spearhead the cause, and then challenge the corporate order until it is reformed or reconstructed. This is a high risk strategy—failure will certainly spell the end of the problem solver, but success will usher in an era of genuine problem solving and propel the company to new heights.

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