The Politics of Favour

Many organisations are wracked by internal dynamics that conspire to actively work against optimal performance.

Sometimes, the internal issues are obvious – management weaknesses, overt conflict and insufficient resources are examples of these. But in other instances, the negative internal dynamics are much more subtle and difficult to observe…

When I studied for my Masters degree in Canada over 20 years ago, I learned a great deal about leadership and management models which were all based on good thinking and rigorous logic. It was a fascinating and stimulating learning experience.

When I returned to the workforce after completing my study, I found that much of what I had learned had little practical application. The models didn’t seem to work in the real world.

For me, this proved really frustrating, as the intellectual rigour behind what I had learned was high – but people in the workplace didn’t seem to act in predictive, logical ways.

What I observed in the workplace were networks – almost ‘social’ groups – which were discrete. These network groups, which in some cases were highly exclusive, were information centre points. The groups had standing in terms of seniority and perceived power. If there were senior people within the group, it obviously had higher status and perceived power.

It also seemed to me that the people within these groups received ‘favours’ over those who were not part of the group. In many cases, these favours could be seen as trivial – opinions being sought, jokes being shared and the like. On other occasions however, the favours were more substantial, such as gaining an inside running on a promotion.

As a younger person in my late twenties, I found this enormously frustrating. How did I gain access to these groups?

Did I have to pressure my way into these groups, or was it best to wait for an invitation? If I gained access to one group, did that work against access to another? Was I overstepping my rights if I tried to gain entry into a group, with the result that I would be blacklisted forever more? If I was to wait for an invitation, how long would I have to wait?

As time went by, I became even more frustrated. I saw that some people in the organisation played the networking game and reaped the benefits. These people knew the network groups and actively sought to gain entry. Once part of a group, these people often worked against entry into the group by other people.

For those of us who were excluded from the groups, this created varying degrees of animosity!

Internal politics are inevitable in an organisation – there is an unequal distribution of power, so individuals will engage in internal politics in an attempt to achieve their goals. What differs across organisations is the extent to which internal politics exist. In some corporations, management will actively work against it, while in others, they will engage in the politicking and thereby promote it.

In my view, a high level of internal politics can only be destructive because it is exclusive.

If managers deny the existence of internal politics, there is a fair bet it is prospering! It is the job of leaders to foster an environment of inclusion – and to do so, requires leaders to work hard against internal politics, while recognising they will never eliminate it!