Politics is treated as a dirty word by most organizations, but it’s necessary for organizations to survive. Conflict is uncomfortable however when it’s small and frequent it’s one of the best ways of generating alignment. Small and frequent is a necessary combination, you want issues to be brought to the surface quickly and acted on instead of having something wait for a long time and become a much bigger issue.
For this to happen people need to be fearless about what they talk about. They also need to be empowered to push organizations towards there goals. At some point people are going to have differing ideas about where to go and that will mean conflict. Frequent small conflicts happening means that what is right for the organization is consistently being hashed out. While these arguments can be very inefficient they help avoid major pitfalls and keep the organization moving in the correct direction.
The instinct to avoid pain and shut down these discussions is harmful in an organizational sense. It makes it so that only the people at the top can make decisions about the direction of an organization. Since there is a limited amount that they can see the decisions that they make end up being larger and more extreme than they have to be.
Ultimately every person and organization has to decide what is right and then orient towards it. Also most missions require convincing other people that what you want is correct. While people like to think this isn’t political, it’s usually about the distribution of resources, status or changing power relationships. That is the actual definition of politics.
Why you want to be political even if it’s in a weird way
Companies have a vision for what the world looks like. Often time this is talked about in terms of mission or vision. It’s really the thing that they are oriented towards and trying to change. Ultimately this is a statement on how their community or the world should be. This is political, it doesn’t necessarily have to align with national politics or what is happening in congress but there should be a statement that things can be better, the way the world is organized is wrong and we’re going to change it.
People have goals and beliefs about how the world should be as well. From the organizaiton prospective they want people who’s goals line up with the organizations. In most corporations that doesn’t just happen. Their are a few ways that organizations can get people who are aligned with there vision.
- Prefiltering of people for example Netflix’s culture deck
- Training and indoctranition (every weird company meeting you’ve sat through about how we are the best).
- Explicitly hiring and firing people for alignment with the mission of the organization.
None of those methods are actually perfect for producing cultural alignment though. It’s also something that’s easy to mess up because people see what is actually rewarded and optimize towards that and not stated values.
This means that to actually keep things moving towards the actualy desired values constant repetition of those values and realigning actions towards them is necessary. What is the right thing to do needs to be a constant thing inside an organization. While what is rewarded can be decided at the top these decisions happen at all levels. That means you need everyone in the organization to be able to make political decisions and decide what is correct.
When those discussions are avoided for long periods of times problems occur. The first major problem is that people are working on the wrong thing. The other issue that occurs especially in larger or high growth companies is a drift in values between different parts of the organizaiton. This can lead to terrible experiences between teams because what they view as important or right can be wildly different. In essence what happens there is everyone isn’t on the same team hell they might not even be playing the same game.
None of what I’m saying here should be viewed as saying diversity and inclusion is bad. It’s the opposite in lots of ways people should have a voice inside the organization. If it’s not provided to them the only choice when they disagree is to exit. High performing people have opinions about how the world should be. If there isn’t a space for them to voice those opinions they will exit.
This is because people want to work on stuff that they view as valuable and important. If they feel there work isn’t going towards something valuable they will leave when they are presented with the opportunity. This means the people that leave first will be the ones with options and that is pretty heavily correlated with those that are viewed as high performing.
Doing What is Right
Organizaitons have an obligation to try and make the world a better place. This can be in a very narrow sense but the world should be better. Moral choices aren’t just big moments but instead take place across thousands of small acts every day. It’s not enough to be efficent or the best, we also need to be intenional about what we do.
Big Manifestos about how a company should change can work but can have really drastic effects. What happens is that the manifesto changes who wants to work at a company. Those people have there own set of values and the company will start to drift towards them. Actually setting a desired direction requires constant work just saying this is how it’s going to be and keeping doing what you are doing will just result in a new mess over time.
Efficency applied to the wrong goal is just getting to the wrong place faster. It’s more important to be heading in the right direction than to be going fast. Velocity is something that an organization should develop after it’s gained the ability to steer. That’s not saying you can’t run experiments but you have to know the impact you want. The easy answer there is we want money and that’s how we’ll measure it. However you probably don’t want to do that by any means necessary. For example you’re probably not ready to rob people to make money faster.
This is why there is the cliche of every startup trying to change the world. It’s harnesses people to work towards a vision of a new world. This is far more motivational then money. People like money but it’s a proxy for other needs. If you make it so all that matter is the money then you are offering a mercenarny vision of the world. This works for some organizations for example hedge funds but it’s not what most people want.
What we should do
Politics isn’t the problem for the most part. It’s the refusal to engage with it in a clear way or decide what you actually believe in that causes problems. What is the right thing to do should infuse an organizaiton at all levels. In reality it’s a constantly negoitated contract that changes over time as more people and ideas are added to a system. Theses changes are necessary to actually keep things on course but without a clear vision set from the beginning you can get weird results.
Instead of trying to avoid politics it’s better to be grounded in the community and the world around us. This means things will frequently by messy and hard, however as a company a sense of what is right will be developed. In doing this work we actually can make a difference in the world around us.