Sunday, January 22, 2012

A political paradox for OD & HR

“This is a political issue and we should resolve it politically”, said the senior consultant. I heard this interesting piece of ‘wisdom’ at an early stage in my career as an OD/HR consultant and it had left me somewhat confused.

I knew that as external consultants one of our main tasks was to diagnose the core issue/root problem correctly (as opposed to merely documenting the symptoms) so that we can design an intervention at the appropriate level. I also knew that ‘workplace politics’ existed in many of our client organizations. What confused me was the part that said ‘we should resolve it politically’. ‘Organizational politics’ was a ‘bad’ word for me at that time – something that incompetent people do to further their selfish motives – something that we as external  consultants should keep a safe distance from. So the suggestion that we should use political means to resolve the issue alarmed me. Over the last decade, I have developed a better understanding of the paradoxical nature of organizational politics and its implications for anyone who wants to lead/facilitate change in business organizations. 

As we have seen earlier (see 'Paradox of business orientation of HR'), a paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives/opinions (doxa) that exist alongside (para)- each of which is true - but they appear to be in conflict with one another. Let us look at some of these opinions about organizational politics.

1. Politics is essentially about power. Any activity that reinforces or alters the existing power balance in a relationship, group or organization is a political activity. Organization development(OD) is about facilitating change. To make change happen power needs to be exercised and hence all Organization Development is essentially political.
2. Politics is based on informal power - power that is not officially sanctioned. Hence politics is illegitimate in the organization context.
3. A large part of the work in any organization takes place through the 'informal organization' (informal channels that are not captured in the organization structure/job descriptions/chart of authority/operating manual). Keeping this in mind, one can't claim that organization politics is illegitimate just because it is based on informal power.
4. Organization politics is undesirable as it is all about pursuing selfish interests.
5. Organization politics need not be about pursuing selfish interests. It is necessary in order to secure resources and further ideas in an organization. Both ‘bad politics’ (characterized by impression management, deceit, manipulation and coercion) and ‘good politics’ (characterized by awareness, creativity, innovation, informed judgment, and critical self-monitoring) exist in organizations.  
6. A good organization culture can eliminate organizational politics
7. Politics will be present in any group of human beings. The only way to avoid politics is to define and enforce detailed rules and procedures for all activities and interactions among the employees. This would be very difficult to do in most organizations and this would get more difficult when uncertain and fast changing business environment requires organizations to be dynamic and rapidly evolving. When an organization is in transition there won’t be clearly established rules/procedures and hence politics will become more prevalent. Since organizations are likely to spend increasing amounts of time in the ‘transition state’(because of the multiples waves of change), politics will become even more prevalent.
8. Politics is a social construct. Hence the behaviors that are perceived to be 'politcal' in one organization might not be perceived as 'political' in another organization.

So where does this leave us? I think that organization politics is  a reality and any one driving or facilitating change in an organization (like a business leader or an HR/OD professional) need to develop an accurate understanding of the power structure and political dynamics of the organization. One of the key reasons why many of the change efforts fail (and why many of the consultants’ reports/recommendations gather dust without getting implemented) is that they didn’t pay sufficient attention to the political dynamics of the organization. As Human Resource Management (HR) professionals move from transactional roles to more consultative/'change agent like' roles, they need to develop the ability to naviagte the 'polical waters' of the orgnization better. Again, if the change facilitators don't pay attention to the political dynamics, they might end up as ‘pawns in the political game’ or even as ‘sacrificial lambs in the political battle’

I also think that both formal and informal influence needs to be used to maximize the chances of the change effort's success. This will become increasingly critical as the organizations become more fluid (with less rigidly/clearly defined procedures) and dynamic (fast changing with higher degree of uncertainty both externally and internally).

However, I feel that the OD consultant should not ‘play politics’ (i.e. become a political activist) as that would mean driving a political agenda/imposing the consultant’s agenda on the organization. This goes back to the ‘process consulting’ foundations of OD where the consultant’s role is to enable the organization to solve its problems (and to increase its problem solving capability) as opposed to providing solutions. Yes, I agree that all HR/OD consulting need not be process consulting and that the dividing line between the mandate of the HR/OD initiative/project and the political agenda of the consultant (especially internal consultant) is not always clear.

Hence, my current thinking is that the change facilitator/change leader should gather data on the political dynamics of the organization (power structure, various clusters of interests and their assumptions/world view/agenda/unstated concerns, interrelationships among the various clusters etc.) and leverage the same to improve diagnosis, solution design and implementation. This includes presenting (at appropriate times/stages) relevant data on the conflicting assumptions/interests without taking sides. This can also reduce the relevance of politics by making relevant parts of the informal (unstated/implicit) elements of the organization dynamics more formal (stated/explicit). This is not unlike a psychoanalyst helping a patient to be more psychologically healthy by enabling the patent to make some of the relevant parts of the unconscious more conscious (and hence better integrated). Most managers consider politics as a routine part of organizational life - though they might not talk about it openly. Hence, incorporating (without any negative associations) discussions/training on 'understanding and managing the political dimension of change' in the change management intervention, will give the leaders/managers a legitimate platform and skills to surface, talk about and deal with this dimension thereby increasing the probability of the successful implementation of the change.  

Another relevant analogy is the approach for incorporating feelings and emotions into the decision-making process. Feelings and emotions are real – though they might not be rational – and hence they can’t be ignored.  However, ‘making decisions based on emotions’ is not desirable, from an effectiveness point of view. We can improve the quality of our decisions by gathering data on the emotions/feelings of the stakeholders/ourselves (including impact of the various decisions/possible options on the feelings/emotions of the stakeholders) and using the same to inform our diagnosis, solution design and implementation. Similarly, we can improve the effectiveness of our change interventions (diagnosis, solution design and implementation) by leveraging the data on the political dynamics of the organization without ‘playing politics’. Yes, this is a tightrope walk that requires very high degree of self awareness and critical-self monitoring. But it is something that HR/OD consultants must do to maintain their integrity, credibility, effectiveness & relevance!