Someone asked me the other day: “Mark what do think is the biggest challenge for small businesses today?”
I didn’t have to think about this very long. I know they were expecting me to say something about: the affects of the economy or the stock market or the impact of technology or the lack of funding or resources or even the breakneck speed which we are expected to operate at.But the reality is that these are relatively minor forces when compared with the most powerful force of all:Office Politics!If you could walk with my consultants and I, in and out of businesses we each see everyday you would see the obvious yet devastating result of office politics. I believe it is by far the biggest obstacle to change and growth for companies today. Not that this is new. Office politics has been with us for decades. But the changing financial, political and social landscape makes it more insidious than ever and literally threatens the survival of many small businesses and even larger organizations.Why? Because of the exorbitant cost associated with office politics.The cost of office politics is a kind of activity-based cost. It includes time lost, waste of resources, low staff morale and ineffective delegation. Some of these costs are tangible but not accountable. Often time this kind of loss is ignored or neglected. Since many political activities are cross-departmental, office politics can render an organization completely dysfunctional in a very short period of time. While it is usually unwise to let office politics freely develop, unfortunately many companies cannot tackle such a political problem and let it erode their productivity and profitability and sometimes even endanger their survival.Office politics is about the application, distribution and negotiation of power and resources in an organization. This power includes authority (formal power) and influence (informal power). Politics is basically the application of that power. The desire for power is determined by one’s personality. Leaders can affect this principal in every organization. Strong, ethical leadership regulates the application of informal power (i.e. influence) to avoid the overuse and abuse of authority. Abuse of authority will lead to a chain of negative effects such as low staff morale, conflict, bias, bad image, poor communication, dishonesty and social conflict.When ethical leadership exists, office politics will abate. This is because ethical leadership is essentially self-management and self-control as an example for subordinates to follow. It is the strongest influence for change in any relationship. As I’ve said before, leaders act the way they want their team members to act. Cultural actions cannot be ordered or commanded. Most political office issues are symptoms of weakness at the senior management and organization level.While every organization is different, most have some type of definable culture. Some call this the organization design. It is essentially referring to the general distribution and structure of authority, responsibilities and resources in the organization. Poor organizational design is a common cause of office politics because ineffective organizational structure allows too much room for the negotiation for authority and resources.The organization chart in the business leader’s mind is far more important than the official one. Ricky W.O. Lau, author of Politics in Business calls it the “hidden organization chart.” Often times this means that the leader has bias and personal favor to individual members but does not act openly and his delegation is based on the hidden organizational chart rather than the official one. This is a common yet unfair and very detrimental management practice.While delegation is the distribution of specific work, responsibilities and authority, in an effective organization, delegation must be based on the organizational structure. Otherwise, there would be structural overlap, confusion, conflict and politics. Conflict usually involves different interests of different people (especially in different departments). Conflict may be minimized if the focus is on the whole organization rather than individual department or individuals. Some management styles may easily lead to office politics because the focus is on the performance of individuals and departments rather than the organization as a whole.Certainly interdepartmental conflict cannot be completely eliminated. Nor should we attempt to do so. It is important to remember that disagreement is not equivalent to conflict. People may disagree or criticize others if:
- They view the matter from another viewpoint
- They have misunderstood other’s meaning
- They want improvement
- They want to challenge others’ position or power.
Out of the above four motives of disagreement, only the last one is the result of conflict and is a political motive. However, when a manager is too politically sensitive, he may mistakenly treat the first three motives as political motives, and interpret the conflict as an intention to challenge his position or power.Desire of power may be a strong motive to perform, but it may also lead to a negative and destructive result. An effective manager should apply his influential power rather than authority because abuse and overuse of authority can lead to poor relations, distrust, misunderstanding and disorganization.Are office politics an issue in your business? If any of these symptoms are present in your business, its time to think about making some core changes to your business culture. At the Small Business Advisory Network we like to say that we influence decisions, improve performance and inspire change. That’s what our consulting, workshops, web site, weekly articles and The Small Business Hour Radio Show are all about.