Can Politics Screw Up Engagement?

A few things happened this week that have got me wondering why and how politics can muck up systems. So bear with me as I connect some dots.  I happened to catch the end of an interview on BBC America regarding excessive executive compensation.  The interview was with someone who did or currently works at a firm like Goldman Sachs who was talking about how bonuses affected what he did throughout the year.  He talked about “sucking up to the boss”, and back stabbing fellow workers in an effort to outshine his peers. Distasteful comments, although I found it refreshing to hear someone tell the truth about the impact of incentive compensation on workers and the culture within which they work. For those interested in alternative compensation look at Elliott Jaques’ work on Felt Fair Pay.  Simply brilliant and elegant!

I also heard Teresa Heinz being interviewed on Good Morning America and a comment was made regarding how often on the 2004 campaign trail she was called out for making candid comments.  Her response this morning was and I paraphrase here, “I always speak from the heart and I’m never intending to be hurtful”.

My sweetie and I listened too president Obama’s State of the Union speech late week and both of us were struck by his comments regarding elected officials in Congress to serve the people not their own ambitions.  All of this got me to wondering….

How have we as a nation, in our institutions, corporations and even our social lives become so distanced from doing what is right in situations. Granted “what’s right” is subjective, but more importantly how have we lost sight of what is important to each of us? Work systems have become just as politicized as our political system.  In speaking with a client recently he said “this is a very political place”.  We have a senior consultant here, helping people to become more politically savvy.  To myself I wonder “why”?  Wouldn’t we want to eliminate politics from work systems?  Politics running rampant in the workplace breeds distrust and uncertainty.  An engaged organization requires a foundation of trust.  There are many ways to build trust some of which reside in individuals like knowing your moral compass and values and behaving in ways consistent to them.

From a structural standpoint political behaviors in a work system are a direct outgrowth of a poorly designed network of role relationships, managerial accountabilities and authorities.  Work is important to people-of course to earn a salary so that they can feed their families but also to provide the satisfaction that comes with completing a task and being acknowledged for your efforts.  When there is uncertainty in reference to: what is to be done, who is to do it, how one role interfaces with another, and the authority one role has over another people being the creative beings they are make it up. Uncertainty breeds fear in many. People turn to personal currency and favors to get things done.

I like President Obama am optimistic about the future of our country and the future of business. We have an opportunity to build engaged workplaces.  It requires managers to step up.  Exercise courage to speak out and begin to truly identify what needs to be altered in their companies. They need to welcome input from the frontlines. It also requires employees at all levels to learn to speak their truth and put forth ideas for improvement.  We also need to look at how we design the network of role relationships upon which we build our companies.  Managers must ask themselves and others in the organization the difficult questions.  I am not saying this is easy but its necessary.  Our future and the future of our children and grandchildren depend on it.