Exercising Agency: What To Do When Politics Gets In The Way

The following is the fourth in a series of posts further exploring questions and concepts that emerged during the book launch for Exercising Agency.

Politics is a challenging concept. We tend to view the term ‘organizational politics’ negatively, often seeing it as competitive, antagonistic, manipulative and dysfunctional. Certainly organizational politics can be all of these things, but it doesn’t have to be. We engage in political behaviours when we negotiate for resources, seek approval on a steering committee decision or negotiate about a scope change. Positive politics is a product of seeking outcomes that are in the best interests of all involved, including the organization. Negative politics occur when someone seeks personal advantage at the expense of someone else or the organization. Being clear about this difference is important.

Looking at project initiation decisions, there is often political influence at play. People have an interest in projects for the capabilities that they enable. Advocating for a project involves gaining support for a specific change in the organization, one that requires buy-in and support. Approval of one project often comes at the expense of another project, one that someone else viewed as being equally (if not more) important. Where there is not formal and clear process in place, the way that these decisions are made is inherently through the use of politics.

The challenge here is that even where politics was viewed as functional and positive, it only produced moderately successful decision making outcomes. Consistently effective decision making outcomes required not only a supportive political environment, but also the positive exercise of agency by someone in the project shaper role. Given that most organizations are inherently political in their project initiation processes, it is important to understand how politics plays a role.

A significant influence on project initiation decisions in environments where politics holds sway is the degree to which political behaviours are positive and functional. In such an environment, extensive consultation and collaboration is the norm. Ideas are socialized, views and perspectives are sought, support is weighed and the degree to which favourable opinion exists is carefully calculated. Political decision making environments that are functional work through consensus and mutual support; for a project to move forward, it has to be collectively viewed as valued and worthwhile.

The role of the project shaper is an extremely important one in a political environment. There needs to be a clear champion of the potential project. This is someone whose role is to actually introduce and socialize the idea, who engages in consultation and advocates for the value and relevance of the opportunity that the project makes possible. Where decision making effectiveness is higher in project initiation decisions, this is a formal one, where it is fully expected that someone should be shaping the project.

Finally, the personal influences of the individual performing the project shaper role also make a difference. Unlike in process-based environments, where reputation, credibility and a track-record of performance were valued, here what needs to be emphasized are—perhaps unsurprisingly—political factors. The project shaper must be someone who engages in proactive communication, possesses political savvy and leverages relationships in order to secure support for the project.

Caution needs to be exercised in political environments where the nature of the politics is dysfunctional or obstructive. In dysfunctional environments, constructive political behaviours are not present. Instead, people are seeking their own advantage and furthering their own agenda, at the expense of others or the organization itself. In this situation, it is difficult—and at times quite dangerous—to be advocating for project initiation decisions. Where the project is not seen to further, or is counter to, the desired agenda of powerful political players, the project—and by extension the champion of the project—could well be challenged.

As well, where the project shaper role is informally recognized, it is more difficult to hold sway and gain effective decisions in political environments. The risk is that the project shaper becomes viewed as another political player, furthering the agenda of advocating their project at the expense of some other project or person. Caution needs to be exercised in determining whether to engage with the organization and act independently in such situations. Individuals need to carefully assess their likelihood of success, and the consequences of potential failure.

Politics is the dominant means by which projects are initiated in the majority of organizations. In a functional political organization, the project shaper is often a valued role where a person is seen as advocating for and guiding the discussion around an individual project opportunity. In dysfunctional environments, however, the project shaper runs the risk of being just another political opponent. Proceed with caution in such circumstances.

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