From my very first experience with a political working environment (at my first job, in fact) I’ve always tried to avoid and diffuse organizational politics.  My stance: it’s distracting and a waste of time – the sooner the tension is resolved, the sooner everyone can get back to working in a mutually productive environment.

Whether it’s a power struggle or a territory fight, taking credit for a success or avoiding credit for a failure, my instinct has always been to look for an amicable outcome for all parties.  Assuage the conflict and get back to work.  This thesis held strong for many years until last month when I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

I remember exactly where I was – riding the subway home two stops away – when I read the following passage.  It hit me like a line backer.

“Most economists are accustomed to treating companies as idyllic places where everyone is devoted to a common goal: making as much money as possible.  Nelson and Winter pointed out that, in the real world, that’s not how things work at all.  Companies aren’t big happy families where everyone plays together nicely.  Rather, most workplaces are made up of fiefdoms where executives compete for power and credit, often in hidden skirmishes that make their own performances appear superior and their rivals’ seem worse.  Divisions complete for resources and sabotage each other to steal glory.  Bosses pit their subordinates against one another so that no one can mount a coup.  Companies aren’t families.  They’re battlefields in a civil war.” (The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, p. 162)

Holy crap.

I have worked in political environments before, but I always saw politics as a symptom of my unique circumstance and the personalities of my coworkers: hence my instinct to dampen and dissolve.  I had never thought about organizational politics as a naturally occurring, even universal phenomenon.

Since reading this passage three weeks ago, it’s been sitting like a weight in the back of my mind.

Today, I had an epiphany.

My entire career I’ve always tried to eliminate politics, however, maybe this has been the wrong approach.  Is it possible that organizational politics actually help make companies more efficient?  At the core, politics stem from competition: multiple parties vying for a scarce resource.  It could be internal funding, office equipment, organizational responsibility, or even personal advancement.  From capitalism to natural selection, competition is one of the cornerstones of our society.  An organization that works together in perfect harmony (if such a thing exists) might make for a nice place to work, but optimizing solely for cooperation must, at some level, sacrifice performance.  Although crude, warring fiefdoms may help an organization naturally optimize for overall performance: survival of the fittest played out between cubicle walls.

I believe I may need to rethink my approach to organizational politics.  Competition of this type may in fact be healthy, so long as proper control is maintained and conflicts don’t develop into all-out civil war.

What do you think?

Workplace Politics