Organization Politics – How We See It Can Change the Meaning
“I like doing my job, but I hate politics. Almost everyone says that they hate politics. If no one likes it, then who creates it in the first place”? My friend Barb sighed as she and I were catching up over coffee on a beautiful sunny spring afternoon.
We commonly use the term “politics” to describe people’s actions to advance their self-interest at the cost of their coworkers’ interests. It is a win-lose game driven by the intention of gaining something for a selfish purpose.
As someone who spent 20+ years inside organizations and then coaching organization leaders, I get curious about this. Barb’s comment made me ponder even more. Very timely, the book by Jennifer Garvey Berger, Changing on The Job-Developing Leaders for the Complex World, sheds some light on this curiosity. According to Dr. Berger’s research (based on renowned developmental psychologist Robert Kegan’s work), we make sense of the events around us based on our mind’s form at that stage. Constructive-developmental theories focus on development in specific ways on issues like authority, responsibility, and the ability to tolerate complexity and ambiguity. As people develop their form of mind, they can better take others’ perspectives, become more aware of their own emotions, and react to life events.
The Forms of Mind (Human Development Stages)
The only perspective a person in this form of mind can hold is of his own. Any different perspective is mysterious to them. A typical question at this stage – “What is in there for me?” In disagreement, a typical reaction is, “You are either with me or against me.”
A person can take and become embedded in the perspective of other people/theories/organizations/social groups. Judging right and wrong come from the perspective of others. Typical question- “What will others say?” Disagreement – “You are either with them or with us.”
A person can take multiple perspectives while maintaining his own. He often uses others’ perspectives to fine-tune his own. Typical question- “How does this forward my bigger goals/values/principles.” Disagreement – “I seek to understand your reason for holding a different opinion.”
A person can see and understand other perspectives and uses those to continuously transform his internal system, becoming more expansive and more inclusive. Typical question- “What can I learn from this.” Disagreement- “I am interested in all the views because that pushes my thinking and helps me learn.”
It is not too uncommon that a person with a self-authored form of mind can sometimes act as socialized or even self-sovereign in a stressful situation. When we say someone has a self-authored form of mind, it means it (self-authorship) is the highest level of complexities they can hold in their mind. According to Dr. Berger, we see mostly socialized and self-authored forms of mind in the corporate world. As we grow, we do not cleanly move from one stage to the next; we sometimes stay in the mid-point of two stages or forms.
Adults in their 30s/40s might notice the tension between two very distinct choices, “if I do x it will go against my family/community/group norms, but I am longing for doing something more meaningful to me and x gives me that”. We often label this kind of dilemma as the “mid-life crisis”.
In my life, it showed up when I noticed my lack of fulfillment in my corporate job, and I was feeling the urge to go for something creating a more direct impact on people.
The Forms of Mind Applied in Everyday Situation
Many “politics” situations can be explained using this theory. Here is a typical example from everyday corporate life:
Alice just presented a plan for a 9-month project to her boss’s direct reports and some partner teams. Nathan, a peer, raised some concerns that might require Alice to go back to the drawing board. Here are three possible scenarios for how Alice would react to this:
Scenario 1: Alice becomes afraid and suspicious that Nathan is trying to show off his talent. She knew Nathan, and she didn’t get along, and this is another “proof” of that.
Scenario 2: Alice is disappointed that Nathan is creating trouble for the team. She knows he doesn’t get along with others well. She thinks that Nathan is not a team player, and his contributions lead to disruptions.
Scenario 3: Alice knew she was missing something, and Nathan’s concerns helped her and others discover it earlier than later. She wished she had known about those sooner, but it is better now than too late in the project. Alice wanted to get others’ input, and she is glad that at least Nathan spoke up, which allows her to make the plan more robust. Though she didn’t agree with all of them or the way Nathan articulated those, Alice recognized some of the valid points in Nathan’s concerns.
What form of mind does Alice have in these three scenarios? You might have guessed that these scenarios reflected self-sovereign, socialized, and self-authored forms of mind, respectively. Anyone familiar with the corporate culture may agree that the third scenario would be most effective in this case. So why is not everyone embracing it then?
The bad news is that we don’t see what we don’t see. It directly correlates with our form of mind, which doesn’t change overnight by throwing a few pieces of training or feedback. However, there are ways we can start building towards a higher form of mind to hold higher complexities. Here are some key points to ponder –
- “Politics” may exist but not always because someone is being vicious and is coming after you or your team.
- When you feel a strong negative emotion about someone’s behavior, notice and accept it, “I am feeling sad/mad/disappointed/angry; I wonder what triggered this in me.” Then, please share your thoughts (possible explanations, stories) with someone more experienced and see their perspective.
- When you judge someone’s intention as wrong, challenge yourself – what data supports that. Again, writing down helps to see things more objectively.
Tying it Altogether
Holding opposite perspectives is essential to our growth as humans. Not all of us will become transforming leaders like Nelson Mandela or Dalai Lama, but we can develop our minds. The world is becoming more complex and diverse every day, and so are our workplaces. It is high time we prepare ourselves to understand that beauty in complexities and thrive together!
Related Article: Caterpillars to Butterflies: Human Maturity Stages
Book: Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know- by Adam Grant