The Style of the Top Dog Does Matter

Originally published 9/12/10

As I discussed in a previous post, politics in the Corporation (indeed, politics anywhere), revolve around perceptions rather than reality. If you are politically active, then you are engaged in managing those perceptions -- either perceptions of you (which many people think of as -- okay), or of someone else (often seen as slimy, unless done in a positive way).

But why do we need to be worried about perceptions? Why can't we just rely on our supervisors to know the reality of of our behaviors and performance? Why isn't life in the corporation a meritocracy?

The answer to these questions are determined by the style top executive, his senior team, and the organization's past way of doing things.

First, let me reiterate a couple of concepts I discussed previously -- Large organizations are too big for the top executive to intimately know all employees and their performance, and politics acts like a gas to fill the space between the formal system and informal one.

In this context, the top executive's style can have a very significant impact on the political environment. Behaviors that fertilize the organization's politics include:

  • being detached from day to day operations and individual performance.
  • taking the word of other senior executives about employees who don't work for them.
  • making snap judgments about people the top executive really doesn't know well, on very scant information.
  • being unclear or vague in opinions or direction.
  • lying or knowingly allowing employees to operate with incorrect assumptions.
  • substantial consequences for mistakes (sometimes called "holding people accountable").
  • assuming every problem has a cause with a person's name attached to it.
  • scapegoating.

I'm sure there are other behaviors that contribute to a corrosive political environment, that I simply haven't thought of and listed here. And I'm not saying that all of these behaviors are bad (in fact, research shows that some of them correlate well to superior organizational performance), I'm just saying they increase politicking in the company.

On the other hand, there are other top executive behaviors that will reduce the level of politics in the organization.

  • adhering to the formal system, even if painful in the short term.
  • being hands-on and aware of the details of what happens in the organization, particularly in reference to employee performance.
  • respecting direct supervisor's evaluations of a subordinates.
  • being clear and consistent in direction.
  • being slow to judge employees further down the ladder.
  • taking personal responsibility for mistakes and failures.
  • believing that people usually try to perform well, and some issues can not be overcome by a simple swap out of people.
  • knowing who on the senior team is using politics to advance their image and not counting on their council, or even getting them off the team.

Again, I'm sure I'm missing a number of additional items that could go on this list, but you get the idea -- the top executive (along with the company's history) sets the tone for politics in the corporate environment.