Posted by jlubans on January 12, 2016

Caption: Indicative of a wide prevalence, a Dummies guide to OP.

A friend who’d recently retired from the behemoth IBM told me that on-the-job office politics (OP) took up 50% of her day. Imagine that, half of your workday invested in surviving to yet another day. Is OP a productive or unproductive activity? Some might claim OP is the social lubricant, when applied sparingly, which makes the office machine work.
I am not sure. OP carries a largely negative connotation and can manifest itself as secretive, selfish, hypocritical, hierarchical, and incompetent behavior. Yet, I have seen colleagues who adroitly practiced OP and were decent folks and successful at "playing the game". And, I have experienced, personally, where ignoring OP led to an innovative and productive worker’s blackballing.
Indeed, OP can shut down candid communication, the freedom to offer up ideas without retribution and can leave an organization in desperate need of change, unchanged.
Is candid communication not quintessential to a democratic workplace? If you fear speaking up because you’ll be punished, is that not how totalitarianism works? Open communication is essential to anything approaching the democratic.
IBMs founder, Tom Watson, is on record about organizations needing more mistake-making, not less. Mr. Watson believed that a willingness to upset the apple cart would lead to innovation and discovery. Well, how does that compute for my retired friend who spent half of every day keeping up a fake veneer of politeness to cultivate, Darwinistically, a network for survival?
I agree with Mr. Watson that freedom to make mistakes is a good thing. Yet, cultivating such a culture can be difficult if OP dominates our every gesture and word.
So, how does an organization cultivate open and free communication? How do you eliminate fear of reprisal? Or, do you shake your head figuratively and believe that OP is a given, an imperfect yet prevalent part of human communication?
Recently, some options have been offered to help us cut through the fakery and get to a candid, mutually beneficial, discussion about things that matter in the work place. Rachel Feintzeig surveys corporate efforts to get around OP – to replace it with something like “shameless honesty
- in her article, “’Nice’ Is a Four-Letter Word….
These magic bullets - “radical candor,” “mokita moments*” and “front-stabbing” – do not address the underlying causes of OP – instead they brawl with it, out in the open, mano-a-mano, and seemingly hope for the best. I tend to think this is like putting a band-aid on a broken leg, but at least it is something meant to alleviate and to improve. How will these efforts play out? Will they give us better workplaces or will these attempts at frankness only aggravate misery and spite? My difficulty with imposed solutions – which these are - is that unless you address what is causing the OP, you cannot hope to change it with scheduled confessionals.
Perhaps the most important take away from this article is illustrated by a low-key example of office candor: Feintzeig writes of a VPs taking aside a junior executive and advising her to stop using “uh, uh, uh”, in presentations; those “uh, uhs” make her look less intelligent than she might want. When done one on one, in private, caring and honest feedback is essential to someone’s developing into an effective leader. That’s vastly different from putting someone in the “hot seat” and giving a group free rein (front-stabbing?) to tell that person just how awful he is.
I recall, early in my career, a department head peer who was tingling to tell me just how ineffective I was; all that she needed was my permission. I much preferred the way of my then boss. He was someone to whom I’d go to grumble about work problems. One day he offered up some excellent criticism. “Talk to me about problems, for sure, but, you know what, give me ideas on how to fix the problem.”
Now that little bit of advice, caringly administered, from forty years ago affected me profoundly. I sought, from that point on, to understand problems and to offer solutions.

*Mokita is a New Guinea word for “the truth everyone knows but nobody says”. Some places claim to have mokita amnesty days. In other words, you can speak about the elephant in the room, name the un-nameable, express the unspoken without getting booted.
One consultant suggests going to a bar and getting the company to buy the mojito (a rum drink) to go with the mokita. I can imagine how that might turn out! Cuidado! Excessive mojitos may lead to speaking in Spanish.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016

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