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It’s just politics!

Have you ever heard the phrase: “It’s just politics” and wondered what it meant? Ever heard the phrase: “It’s not personal – it’s just business” and wondered too what it meant?

I looked up the definition of the word politics. Outside of its use in governance of a country, the Oxford Dictionary says that:

DEF POLITICS: are activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing one’s power in an organisation

It is a tricky thing to think and write about politics. It is a deep dive into some of the dark side of our human behaviour. It also is very prevalent, very complex, and very important. I say that because politics leave messy wounds, feelings of alienation, not feeling good enough, wanting to be heard, feeling guilty or shameful, and feeling powerful and seeking validation of self-esteem. It is also a discussion about power-over others, and not power-with.

The dynamics of political situations are quite intricate.  It involves actors, power and resistance. There are stakeholders in a relational game. There are dissenting views, alterior motives and hidden intent. The behaviour that couples it can be quite obvious to those paying attention – ‘saying one thing, and doing another’ – or wearing masks – not being authentic. It includes disadvantage of another, and not informing or discussing intent. Politics may be long and extended game playing, or short sharp whips of the tail. It signifies mistrust, a lack of followership – a coup d’état if you will. 

In attempting to understand its ingredients, politics also involves will-full or deliberate violation. I find that understanding it can be helpful using information around human error – that there are slips, lapses and mistakes, and sometimes intentional violation of power and rules, and as the literature suggests can be done for many different reasons such as “I felt I had no choice” or “I didn’t care about the consequences”. When said in a political situation there are many emotions underneath what is being said both from the person saying it, and the receiver.

Thinking about what is at play in ‘political’ situations or climates – hidden in the depths – may be lack of awareness of oneself or others, an inability to verbalise intent, an avoidance of difficult conversations, lack of authenticity, and a lack of collaborative processes. 

Organisations can also have structural divides in which to hide or gain power, such as level of authority over others.

Patrick Lencioni suggests in his book ‘Silo’s, Politics and Turf Wars’ that politics can show up as wasted resources, unproductive time, and may jeopardise results. He suggests that in these situations having a shared vision and purpose for what people in the organisation are creating is important for everyone to buy into.

Esther Perrel will tell us that everything in life is relational which makes sense given the understanding that organisations are complex networks and systems to achieve the same goal. In organisations we have activities and tasks, AND a huge relational piece which allows us to socialise, achieve, collaborate, and build better projects. So how does business become not personal?  The disadvantage of building a culture in which people have to disregard something because ‘its just business’ or ‘its just politics’ means people disengage or detach from work and relationships. 

We spend an inordinate amount of time at work – living there. We cannot leave our life, and preferences, and styles, and feelings at the door. If we detach from our true selves, if we have to wear masks, if we say somethings and do something else, there is an increase in chaos and aggressive tactics in organisations and that does us a great disservice.

I find Brené Brown’s work about vulnerability so important if the collective we are looking to achieve cultures in organisations that are healthier. Vulnerability, she reminds us, is hard. It is about leaving the armour we carry behind, it is about bridging trust, having difficult conversations, and building clearer understandings of where we are going and how we work to get there. The shared intent here is that we all need to work together to get a task done – shared vision and purpose, and that we can still have conversations about what that means on a personal level. It allows a conversation about emotions and feelings to emerge while allowing people to take responsibility for their own or shared part of the experience.

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