Company Politics

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As our bodies can catch a case of the common, so too can our minds catch a case of self-righteousness. Both colds and self-righteousness are very contagious and, as human beings, we are susceptible to them.  For the most part, both come and go doing us no real harm. Our body’s immune system is usually strong enough to get rid of the cold in a few days. A sense of humor, if we have one, or reality if we don’t, will usually be enough to rid us of our self-righteousness. But just as some people have a near constant sniffle, so too do some of us develop chronic self-righteousness. And just as the common cold can turn into something more long term like pneumonia or bronchitis, self-righteousness can also become more virulent and long lasting.

Back in the days before I had my own company, I had a chronic case of that self-righteousness about company politics, among other things. Those of us with experience in the workforce are all familiar with that blend of flattery, relationship and back scratching known as company politics. It is a close cousin of the old boys network, and works in similar ways. In companies or other human organizations, certain people seem to get the breaks that lead to more money, promotion or to simply have their indiscretions winked at rather than punished. The rules just seem to work differently for some people than others.

For those of us who have that aforementioned case of self-righteousness, this is cause for righteous indignation. It seems to be the case that if we are prone to self-righteousness, we are generally prone to all of the strains of the righteous virus. While most people deplore the existence of company politics, it excites some of us more than others. I must admit that I was one of those who could get excited about the issue.

One of the symptoms of the self-righteousness disease, among many I might add, is a lack of self-awareness. To anyone remotely familiar with the inner workings of the company(s) that I worked at, it would seem obvious that I was given more favorable treatment than I had any right to expect. My disregard for company rules and procedures was almost legendary. Those of us who are most flexible regarding rules and procedures have an almost childlike faith in the need for others to follow them. But of course in my case the favorable treatment accorded me was soon forgotten, invisible to me or, most often, awarded strictly on merit. In any case, it was not when the wheel of company politics turned in my favor that exercised my excitement. It was all of the unmerited favors shown those others who were so undeserving of them.

Merit is the fevered dream of those of us who carry the virus of self-righteousness. Given that we are also deficient in self-awareness, we are convinced that we are virtually inexhaustible reservoirs of merit. Since we know ourselves, that limitless mine of merit, so well, we consider ourselves connoisseurs of merit, particularly that possessed by others. Since we are so perceptive, when our judgment of fairness does not accord with that we perceive to be, we are sure that we know the reason. It obviously happened because of company politics.

The perception of fairness is at the very heart of the term; company politics. Since the term is almost never used in a positive way, company politics always means that we have been on the receiving end of unfair treatment. Human beings don’t like being treated unfairly. It is something that we remember, some of us longer than others. The Klingons have an old proverb shedding light on this human trait, “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. We remember when we were treated unfairly for a long time and in remembering, act accordingly. On a side note, it is wise for the CEO to always remember this proverb, both to use it, as well as to predict the future behavior of employees and clients.

Returning to the metaphor, in my search for justification to leave the campfire, company politics certainly provided some of the reason. My need to leave was a need requiring no justification to happen. But as is ever true with human beings, we will create reasons for that which we do, whether we need them or not, whether they are true or not. The world has no shortage of unfairness and injustice. We can always find reasons without searching too hard when we desire justification for what we do.

We go out into the dark to find something better. We know that there is a better place, a better world, out there. In my case, a lack of self-awareness allowed me to fantasize about what I would find. Out there would be another campfire with fair treatment, company politics would be a thing of the past. I knew that there would be a better place with a better way. I left the campfire full of ideals. Eden was just over the hill.

I think that we all know what happens when our ideals meet reality. Sometimes our ideals don’t survive their first contact with reality, other times we keep them alive through repeated disappointment because we are either blind or stubborn. It seems that my ideals seldom die all at once. It is often a lingering death that they suffer. My lack of self-awareness is itself a symptom of my ability to fool myself. As time passed and as my company grew, the existence of my ideal blinded me to the reality of what was. But even though I rank high on the scales of stubbornness and deliberate blindness, I eventually came to see the reality of my company.

Once you see something, it is impossible not see it anymore. At least that is true for me. Seeing that my company, my baby, was awash in company politics confused and confounded me. The departure of self-righteousness and the return of self-awareness were humbling. I was at a loss for what to do. And so I chose the honorable thing to do and I did nothing. Somewhat like the departure of a fever does not mean that the cold is gone, my self-awareness was back but I still had a case of the original disease of self-righteousness.

Being self-aware does not mean that you can’t fool yourself. The fact that I wanted something better, and believed in something better, was my justification for those places where we, and I, didn’t measure up to the standard. I let the virtue of my idea atone for the sins that I, and others, committed. In my defense, I was not unaware of the irony of the situation. It did occur to me from time to time that my awareness might not be a virtue, but rather punishment.

One of the hard lessons that life sometimes teaches is that our ideals are not always virtuous. The idea that our ideal is false and damaging is not an easy one. We have an easier time with the idea that our ideals are too good for this fallen world. But to accept that the ideal we aspire to would not be a bright and shining vision if brought into being is a much tougher sell. Is a company that refuses to fall victim to company politics; and instead is a practitioner of merit in both reward and performance, as well as enforcement of adherence to proper practice of rules and procedures, anything other than a great place to work?

If company politics is about the unfair treatment of employees, whether undeserved reward or punishment, then the absence of company politics must be the deserved reward and punishment of all employees. The judgment of management must be reduced to the minimum possible, else how to ensure that rewards and punishments are truly merited? Objective and measured performance against written standards is always fairer than human judgment and uncertain goals, isn’t it? After all, substituting any human judgment in place of measured performance is certain to be unfair in the eyes of some, with their predictable perception of the operation of company politics.

Perhaps it takes a lawyer to put some perspective on the ideal that I carried? One of Western Civilization’s proudest achievements is the law. It is our protection from the arbitrary power of our governments and the harmful actions of our fellow citizens. In fact, the law is the accomplishment of men to do for our society that which my ideal said should be done for a company. Lawyers spend their careers working with the law and should know the practice, as well as the ideal, well. An otherwise little remembered law professor named Grant Gilmore is preserved for posterity because of something profound that he said shedding light on the ability of law to replace human judgment:

“The worse the society, the more law there will be. In Hell will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed”

Reality is a hammer. Someone once characterized an idea as being an irresistible force. An ideal may well be an irresistible force, but let me tell you that reality is an immovable object. Based on my experience, if you must bet on the outcome of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, betting on the immovable object is the smart bet. To be honest, many ideas, certainly most of my ideas, are crap and reality handily disposes of them. The idea of pursuing an ideal for its own sake is one of those ideas that falls into the box marked “Crap”.

I think that ideals are something like the North Star. When we are in unfamiliar country without reliable landmarks or a GPS to guide us, we can easily get lost without a sure way to show us which way is north. An ideal gives us direction and provides guidance in the trackless sea of reality. A CEO, as well as any manager, needs that sense of direction for when dealing with people, we are often strangers in a strange land.

It is no secret that people come in a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes and personalities. Some people are ambitious and some are not. Some are honest to a fault and some would find their true calling selling used cars. The organizations that we work in are themselves amorphous creatures, ever changing and shifting in response to the needs of their marketplace, whether that marketplace is commercial, political or otherwise. Any system of rules or procedures that we attempt to put into place is necessarily out of date and unfair to many before it is put into place. The combined human judgment of CEO’s, managers, customers and employees is what makes those systems of rules and procedures workable even though we know that they are deeply flawed, both the rules and the people making the judgments.

I think that anyone free of that particular strain of the self-righteous virus recognizes this need for human judgment to lubricate any system of rules and procedures. Talk of company politics is usually recreational complaining. It provides a convenient scapegoat for the rise and fall of our co-workers, as well as our self, within the hierarchy of our work existence.

But company politics also has a more pointed existence for some within the organization. This definition of company politics is not recreational griping, but instead is the definition of the tactics in a more serious game of power. Power is the most serious of all the games that human beings play. It is so serious that we seldom talk about it and so invisible that we seldom even recognize that it is being played.

The game of power is played in all human organizations and company politics is an apt description of how that game is played. While some of us are more aware of the game than others, stepping into the top spot in an organization brings the game into sharp focus. I think that I was a little more naïve than most. The innocence I brought to the job was part of my self-righteousness. The two go together quite well. If you think that something is evil or beneath your dignity, it clouds your ability to see it clearly and to understand it. I was certainly of the opinion that politics was both evil and beneath my dignity.

Understanding the game of company politics may be a little like raising a child. Those of us who are there when our children are born and parent them through all the stages of their growth have a different experience from those who suddenly become the parents of teenagers. Those of us who grow a company from scratch have more time to adjust to the new reality. Just as those learning to deal with a new baby, company founders also get to start out with a simpler game of power with less consequence. But we also are less aware of the game being played.

But as the company grows, the game becomes more and more complex and we have a more and more difficult time being blind to it. As entrepreneurs who birth new organizations, the game we play is both different and the same as the game played in more established and usually larger organizations. The game is different because the rules, the positions of the players and the relationship of the players are new, without the need to work within the constraints of past moves in the game. The game is the same because we are human beings, with the rules and tactics hardwired into us.

It can be unnerving for a self-righteous engineer to be put into a situation more suited to the skills of a Machiavelli or county commissioner. But like an engineer would do, as I became more aware of what I was doing and what I saw my managers doing, I looked for an instruction manual. There are always instructions somewhere, even though they may not be understandable until you have broken most of the parts.

Of course the first place for an engineer to look for help is the bookshelf marked “Business Books”. You may notice that we sometimes suffer from a lack of imagination. To be sure, the bookshelf is large and well stocked. I looked at a few of the books but found none that spoke to me. None of them resembled the manuals that I was familiar with. To be honest, the “Business Book” section reminded me of the “Self Help” section in the same bookstores. Most of the advice was relentlessly cheerful and focused on making me a more effective person. If I just managed my time better, I would be able to do even more of the ineffective things that I was already doing.

Another large portion of the books that I found was by celebrity managers and CEO’s. Insight into the reasons for their success did not seem to be their strong suit. After I realized that the author’s had almost always been right in their decisions, with rich and fulfilling lives, I didn’t know what to do with what they had to say. Being a nerdy social misfit, stories of the rich and famous made me envious, and a little alienated. Most of the time their books reminded me of reading a longer, and rarely more literate, version of People magazine.

The remaining books were by academics and consultants. What they said made sense and had logic to it, but I found it difficult to put into practice. The transition from theory to a how of messy practice was seldom provided. It seemed that they were in the business of writing sex education manuals, but I was directing an x-rated movie.

But help did come at last. As I worked my way through the thicket of company politics, I saw a certain resonance between the reality of the company I was experiencing and the world of medieval Europe. What? You are not familiar with the world of medieval Europe? Where did you go to school?

That was a joke, at least the part about your school. Well maybe the whole is a little tongue-in-cheek aside on numerous issues. Part of my charm is that I relax by reading history books. Before you make a snide comment, I know lots of normal people who do the same thing. Really. But it is true and no joke that being an entrepreneur and running a growing company reminded me of the narratives I read about the kingdoms of Europe in the Middle Ages. For those few of my readers who are not familiar with the ins and outs of the Middle Ages, think about the HBO series, Game of Thrones.

As a company grows, it needs to add people to accomplish that growth. Those people bring their skills, talents and experience to the new company. They also bring their ambition, desires and needs along with them as well. In the beginning, I never thought about why successful and powerful people would want to join my company and work for me. I was driven and enthusiastic about this new company. Why wouldn’t others want to come and work for a new company that was so short of money that a single hiccup in cash flow would close its doors over the weekend? As for the working conditions, I like to work for me, why wouldn’t they?

That is the key question. Why do people come to work for you in this new company? Just as importantly, or maybe even more importantly, why do they stay in your company when they have other future opportunities? It is a fact of life that good people always have other opportunities. People choose to work for a certain company because they value certain things, money, security, opportunity, etc. People will pursue those things that they value by the exercise of the power that they possess.

Having the top job in an organization means that you have to look many difficult realities square in the eyes, without blinking. Life is more pleasant when we do not have to deal with the dark and messy realities of our existence. The CEO can’t ignore the game of power being played in his organization if he is to have a healthy organization, but the reality of the game of power in an organization is much like changing diapers. Only love, duty or necessity is reason enough to make us change those diapers and even then it is an unpleasant task. But for entrepreneurs all three of those reasons are tied up in our company and so we do change the diapers.

Many of the diapers we change have to do with the exercise of power and the gamesmanship of the people, including ourselves, who seek to exercise that power. The position we hold as CEO does not allow for us to opt out of the game. Let me hasten to say that this is not a moral conversation or a dilemma in any way. Just as changing diapers is a normal part of our lives, so too is playing the game of power. Part of the reluctance of our culture to discuss power is that we tend to view power as being evil and the use of power as immoral.

But power exists, and more importantly, it will be used. If we as the CEO do not exercise the power of our position within the organization, those who work for us will exercise it in our place. Power is no more, and no less than, the ability to direct and control the resources of the organization. Those resources are made up of people, money and time. It includes the resources for more indefinable things like the presence that the company has in its market and how that presence is used to capture more business, move into new markets or enable certain individuals to attend the Super Bowl.

Those with a sunny view of life assume that organizations make decisions in an altruistic way with careful consideration of everyone’s best interests. Others with a slightly more jaundiced view of human nature just assume that the CEO tells everyone what to do. Others with an even more negative view just assume that life is out to get them.

My admittedly skeptical, some would say cynical, response to the Pollyanna’s among us is that most decisions are made with altruism in mind. We do try to make good decisions and balance everyone’s best interests. But our own best interests do weigh very heavily in that balance. It is also true that everyone in the company has their own idea of what those best interests are and how best to achieve them. However, the people that assume life is out to get them have it exactly right. That is in fact the case.

The idea that the CEO just tells everyone what to do is a common one, reinforced by the way we think the world really works. We see the CEO holding a meeting of his top managers and outlining the actions that he expects the company to take on a new initiative by the company. A well-oiled machine springs into action as clear and precise directions are transmitted through clear communication channels and hierarchies to the employees who will then execute the work required. The managers meet among themselves on a regular basis to see that there are no misunderstandings or missed steps. Everyone participates wholeheartedly in a selfless way to achieve the goals of the company.

And so we return to medieval Europe, or the Game of Thrones and view that meeting of the CEO with his top managers through another lens. It turns out that one of the top managers in the meeting has been in negotiation for a similar position, but more highly paid, with the company’s main competitor for some weeks and now has a firm offer on the table. While the manager in question wishes to stay at his present company he has children in college and needs more money. He realizes that he is a critical part of the action proposed by the CEO because of his position and experience within his present company. He ponders what he should do. And when.

One of the managers, naturally a skeptical person, thinks that this proposed initiative another ill-advised adventure by the CEO. Trying to comply with what the CEO wants will require that he stretch his over-extended resources from the productive work that they are doing to engage in another boondoggle. While he won’t directly challenge the CEO this time because he is still licking his wounds from the last incident, he is an expert at manipulating resource and time schedules. It may well be that the management information system will show that his department can’t comply with the CEO’s request without untenable damage to other more necessary work.

Another of the managers has been nursing a grudge against a fellow manager for a long time. Convinced that the manager in question achieved his position through seniority rather than competence, he is enraged by the employees’ barely hidden disdain for that manager which reflects badly on all of the managers. He has been privately urging the CEO to fire this other manager for some time. It occurs to him that this other manager will be stretched by this new initiative. It also occurs to him that the lack of certain timely communications in the future will cause much wasted time and effort on the part of the other manager.

A manager for a branch of the company in a distant state is hardly listening. He thinks that headquarters is completely out of touch and simply siphons money from his profitable branch to fund easy living back here. He is a past master at providing lip service to headquarters and then doing as he sees fit back home. As long as he makes a little money and doesn’t thumb his nose at the bureaucrats here at headquarters, he is pretty safe. And if he doesn’t make any money, who are they going to find to replace him in North Dakota?

Lets not forget the CEO. He is aware that the company has grown substantially since the management team was put in place. Some of the managers are clearly struggling with bigger responsibilities and new talent may be necessary. He thinks that prudence dictates the search for new talent starts now. He remembers that in a client meeting some weeks past, there were hints that a major part of the work now done by the company may be disappearing down the road, but only hints. If the work does disappear however, it will almost certainly cause the company to close the branch office in North Dakota. He remembers his lunch today with the banker. Unless salary costs are reduced, the bank will cut the line of credit upon which the company absolutely depends.

All of the people in the meeting wish for the company to do well. They wish no real harm to any of their fellows, often meeting for lunch or drinks after work. They are all capable people and have done great things for the company in the past. But they all have different views of what is best and how to accomplish it. They are all human beings with needs, ambitions and positions of power. And so let the game of company politics begin!


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