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The Politically Skilled Manager

The Politically Skilled Manager

While Machiavelli wrote his opus in the middle of the Italian Wars, most of us live in relatively stable societies where people expect and rely on mutually cooperative behavior. The long-term downside for not following the norm often outweighs any potential short-term gains. Some would say that modern social institutions, including the firm, exist because they provide incentives for collective action.


Political Games series: I, II, III


Yet opportunities for manipulation and deceit still exist. In all organizations, people play games with each other. These games can have small and big consequences. From an organizational standpoint, competitive power games may result in short-term benefits for individuals who win, but if left unchecked, they risk causing serious detriment to the organization in the long run.


The ability to counteract and minimize power games requires several qualities.


The first is empathy. Leaders with political savvy seek to understand the motivations of their entourage. They possess an emotional intelligence that allows them to notice behavior that is indicative of what really goes on underneath the surface. They listen to people, not because they agree, but because they are keen to understand. They know that political games flourish when anxiety is high and when the things that people want are threatened.


The second is self-control. Emotions can lead to impulsive and rash decisions. Power games therefore imply that we play an ‘inner game’ with ourselves to avoid being drawn into drama. Managers must constantly strive not to take things personally and try to minimize their own reactiveness to unexpected circumstances. The word ‘try’ should be emphasized, because nobody has a perfect control over their emotions. The goal is not to become an insensitive robot, but to apply personal restraint and display courage when it matters most.


The third is rhetoric. This is a skill that somewhat depends on empathy, because good rhetoric requires an understanding of human psychology. Rhetoric is not only about presidential speeches. It is, more generally, about using signs and language to achieve an intended effect in the audience. Rhetoric is essential to face up to unexpected events. It allows leaders to reframe situations by communicating in a way that alters people’s ideas and emotional states. In this sense, rhetoric can attenuate the effect of conflicting interests. Efficient leaders effectively manipulate to reduce manipulation by others. One could also say that dealing with political games often requires that we play them, to a certain extent.


The fourth is ethics. ‘Good’ leaders possess a sensitivity to the social context and specific norms that shape people’s beliefs. This allows them to demonstrate strong values that they know people will identify with. The fact is that most people actually appreciate ethical behavior, perhaps because we have a natural propensity to shun rule-breakers. It is always easier to face political threats when you have a strong ethical track record.


As Matthew Stewart perfectly explains in The Management Myth:


"Management involves not just a bundle of techniques for organizing human activity, but also a set of norms governing the ways in which individuals should relate to one another within an organization and within a society. Ask anyone to talk about a great manager they know, and, after some recognition of the individual’s technical skills, the discussion will almost always take place in the language of moral obligation: respect, consideration, fairness.


To put it all in Greek, one could say that management relies on both a techne (meaning ‘skill or craft,’ and the root of our word technology) and an ethos (meaning ‘a pattern of behavior, or character,’ insofar as it discloses bonds with other individuals in a group or society). While techne aims in a general way at the goal of efficiency, ethos is concerned primarily with building trust. Trust is the infrastructure on which the marvels of technology deliver their gains in productivity. Where trust is lacking, efficiency is rarely possible; conversely, inefficiency erodes trust.


To a certain extent, of course, there is a techne associated with ethos – that is to say, a craft or body of techniques that can reliably help build character in the individual and trust among groups. The Greeks had a word for this craft: ethics, which derives from the conjunction of ethos and techne. Those who master ethics, the Greeks added, may lay claim to a kind of practical wisdom called phronesis – distinct from sophia, or theoretical wisdom. One could say that this kind of practical wisdom, or phronesis, is the natural end of management."


Many self-help books about office politics would argue that “whether you are truly virtuous is less important than whether you are perceived to have these traits. From an office political standpoint, virtue has to be analyzed as a form of impression management.”


The problem with this view is that it is narrow-minded. It only says what is best for the individual, and fails to say what is best for the organization. From an organizational standpoint, ethical behavior promotes greater trust and group coherence, which in turn increase organizational efficiency. Relentlessly pursuing self-interest at the expense of others may eventually backfire: a team or a subsidiary in which there is too much infighting may be closed down by company executives because of its continuing underperformance. Everyone loses, big-time.


Yet no matter how well-designed an organization is, and no matter how much one minimizes office politics, individual behavior cannot be fully controlled and predicted. As such, a minimum of power games remain present in all organizations. Although some maneuvers can be anticipated, many cannot, which is why most of us will be better prepared by cultivating general capacities in empathy, self-control, rhetoric, and ethics. The rest is creativity.

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