07 Dec. 2017 | Comments (0) Share Follow @Conferenceboard
I once served on the board of a nonprofit with a group of men and women I deeply admired. Board meetings were an uninterrupted joy. Even lengthy conference calls were opportunities for spontaneous sharing, personal connection, and productive problem-solving. It was Camelot. Until it wasn’t.
As the composition of the board changed, so did my experience. The board got larger. Big donors took board seats – bringing important connections and resources as well as egos and politics. When a voluble board member went on about himself in agonizing detail, others rolled their eyes and turned to their laptops. When the rich and powerful made lame self-referential jokes, executive team members laughed too loud and too long. Decisions reflected who said it as much as what was said. I found myself avoiding dinners and other social gatherings and even sniping about the degenerating experience outside of meetings.
It wasn’t until a few years into this slide that I realized I was as much to blame as anyone for the change.
Too many management articles — including many I’ve written — serve to comfort those afflicted by the misdeeds of others. Authors invite you into an article with tacit collusion: describing some miscreant then doling out advice for how to fix “him” or “her.” The unstated conceit is that you and I are pretty good folk — if we could only figure out how to deal with the rabble.
Well, I’ve got none of that for you. In the 30 years I’ve been mucking about organizations, I’ve come to see that those who spend the most time cursing the darkness are the least likely to be holding a candle.
I certainly wasn’t helping the situation with the board I was on. As an organizational “expert,” I was proficient at enumerating its dysfunctions. I could catalog the creeping evidence of covert struggles for status, power, and resources.
- Status-building. I cringed when people spoke and acted for the purpose of garnering respect rather than building the enterprise. For example, a tardy board member would take eight minutes to explain how his late arrival was the inevitable consequence of multiple “liquidity events” he had to attend to that morning.
- Power-wielding. I resented it when a colleague referenced who supported an idea more than why the idea had merit in relationship to our mission. Not unlike announcing, “Tony Stark thinks we should look more at East Africa as our next geography.”
- Resource-competition. I was disgusted when budgeting decisions were turned into tests of loyalty. “Do you prefer Lynda’s debt strategy or Cal’s equity fund?”
Power, personality, and prestige loomed larger as our mission receded in the rear view mirror.
Fifty years ago, the Austrian-born organizational psychologist Fred Fiedler made a fascinating discovery. He administered a survey to employees asking them to describe their “least-preferred coworker” on a series of scales from “hostile” to “supportive” and “insincere” to “sincere,” for example. Some people derided their least-liked colleague with every harsh adjective they were offered — while others offered a more nuanced and tempered view. The surprise was that Fielder found that the magnitude of the criticism had more to say about the respondent than their coworker. To this day, the Least-Preferred Coworker instrument is a reliable way of inviting prickly professionals to unwittingly self-identify as those who are most difficult to get along with.
What Fiedler has made clear — and what became obvious to me in my board experience — is that it’s less about what other people are doing and more about how you respond. Office politics are real, and dangerous. Just as there is likely merit to the judgements of those who judge colleagues harshly — so is it true that power politics in organizations can cause organizational drag, dumb down decisions, and damage careers. My point is that it is your response to both perceived and real machinations that either amplifies or moderates these dysfunctions.
Responding with integrity rather than complicity — being open and communicating clearly and directly — helps you both observe and be less of a problem.
Political behavior is based on an assumption of mistrust. For example, a board member makes pre-meeting calls to recruit two friendly members to her position on an issue. I see how aligned they appear during the meeting and suspect conspiracy. Following that board meeting, I ask another board member to join me for coffee to debrief. In our discussion, we describe what we really think about what happened in the meeting and prepare covertly for the next one.
Notice that office politics thrive on secrecy. We can diminish, if not eliminate, petty practices by skillfully practicing guileless openness because the selfishness and manipulation that are the primary principles of politics can’t bear transparency.
Imagine, if when I arrive late for a meeting, I announced, “I will now detail for you how much money I made this morning in an attempt to make you think I am more important than you.” My manipulation would lose its effect.
The way to ensure your openness is guileless is to practice it rather than use it. It becomes a practice when you apply it to yourself first — examining and exposing your own motives — and others second.
Return to Camelot
Some of the most political behavior in our board related to concerns with the chairman. Staff were publicly friendly but privately outraged about some of his behavior. Other board members lobbied and gossiped outside of meetings as work-arounds to his weaknesses. All justified their game playing with references to the chairman’s connections to important donors. And I played right along.
Eventually, I looked in the mirror and I realized that my behavior was identical to those I saw as my moral inferiors. So, I swallowed hard, took a leap into guileless openness, and made the following changes.
- Start with heart. I opened up my own motives for examination. I asked myself, “What are my actionssaying that I want?” and “What do I really want?” My behavior showed that my ego, my reputation, and my position had become more important than our mission. I resolved to change that. I wanted to be a man I admired and make a contribution to a mission I loved. All other considerations were secondary.
- Abandon collusion. First, I abrogated all of my tacit conspiracies with staff and board. I let them know I didn’t like the way I had behaved and that I wanted to be honest with the chairman about my concerns. I asked their permission to cite them. When they refused permission, I let them know I still intended to share cumulative unattributed feedback, including views they might have shared with me. I ensured the permanence of my new commitment by announcing my new rule would be: “If you put it in my brain, you must assume I will act on it.” I would no longer participate in conversations absent of accountability.
Second, I opened up with the chairman. I had a one-on-one meeting and asked for permission to share some tough feedback. He responded with tentative permission. I described the behaviors I believed were undermining our mission and health. I expressed sincere gratitude for his influence on our mission. And I concluded by sharing my opinion that resigning would be profound evidence of the primacy of his commitment to our mission over his ego. I felt slightly nauseous as I began, but grew in confidence as I reconnected with my convictions.
- Own the meeting. My new rule in our meetings became, “If I am acting it out, I’ll talk it out.” In other words, if thoughts, judgments, or feelings began to show up covertly in my behavior, I would check my gut and go public about it. I acted as if I was a co-creator of our meetings rather than a victim of them. When board members would take us on tangents, I’d call attention to what was happening and politely ask if the group wanted to return to topic. When we seemed to skirt a sensitive subject, I’d find a tactful way to draw attention to the avoidance. At times, people disagreed with my observations and the meeting continued on its path. But more often than not, others rallied around my comment as though they had previously suffered in silence.
Things got much better. The chair resigned. But our former cordiality was replaced with an icy stiffness. It was not quite Camelot again. However, the organization began to make bold moves in a direction much more aligned with the mission. I became reengaged with the mission — as did others.
We become complicit with the political climate we despise when we participate in it rather than confront it. The first step to addressing office politics is self-examination. You can’t expect an organization to operate at a higher moral level than the one you hold yourself to.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 11/16/17.