Enterprise 2.0 : the end of office politics ?

I have been thinking about this topic for a while now. Enterprise 2.0 book from Andrew McAfee chapter 8  (Looking ahead), a nice twitter conversation with @oscarberg, and a New York Times article about Microsoft Creative Destruction : all combined to convince me there was some room for a blog post.

Snip from the NYT article :

Internal competition is common at great companies. It can be wisely encouraged to force ideas to compete. The problem comes when the competition becomes uncontrolled and destructive. At Microsoft, it has created a dysfunctional corporate culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence. It’s not an accident that almost all the executives in charge of Microsoft’s music, e-books, phone, online, search and tablet efforts over the past decade have left.

As Wikipedia defines it :

“Office politics is the use of one’s individual or assigned power within an employing organization for the purpose of obtaining advantages beyond one’s legitimate authority. Those advantages may include access to tangible assets, or intangible benefits such as status or pseudo-authority that influences the behavior of others. Both individuals and groups may engage in Office Politics.”

One has to be extremely pedagogic to explain me how on earth this may help the company in being more profitable, increasing customers satisfaction and being a better place for employees, the three goals of any company according to Eliyahu Goldratt.

The Transparency test

Throwing such concepts as Trust and Transparency into the discussion is a good method to identify the politics freaks out there. Transparency is their worst enemy : manipulating and controlling information is their favorite way to achieve their goals : intriguing to keep and strengthen their positions and power (as Oscar puts it).

They’ll soon show the standard behavior pattern of politics : denial and/or cynisism and standard resignation. “It’s not that simple, it just can’t work like that, You just can’t change that, that’s the way it has been and that’s the way it always will be etc …”.

I am very defiant towards these people. More often than not, this is somehow to excuse their own questionable  behaviour. My take on politics jerks : The No Asshole rule.

Office politics specialists of the world unite ! Because you will soon die and no-one will shed a tear on you. Enterprise 2.0 is near the corner : trust and transparency will eventually rule the work place and the exact nature of your contribution will clearly appear : poisonous, irrelevant and damaging. We shall then follow Robert Sutton advice : get rid of you.

Model 1

Chapter 8 (Looking Ahead) of Enterprise 2.0 book is, according to me, the most engaging and impressive. In that section, McAfee describes how the egalitarian and transparency values of the social platforms born on the internet may not be very welcomed in some companies.

To illustrates this, he mentions The Liar’s Club, this weekly executive meeting in a company where some people lie to each other regarding their budget, progress etc … to make sure they are not the ones the blame is put upon.

He then goes on and mentions Chris Argyris people behaviour models in organisations. Argyris describes two types of model. Model 1 is defined with the following principles :

1 – Define goals and try to achieve them.

2- Maximize winnings, minimize losings

3- Suppress negative feelings :

4- Behave rationally

ChangingMinds offers a clear description of Model 1 limitations :

In order to acquire a sense of control we need to prove to ourselves that we can control our environment. We thus set ourselves goals and do our best to achieve these goals. In order to maintain our sense of control, we tend to do this unilaterally — to include others is to risk losing control

We all like to win, because this proves to ourselves that we are achieving our goals and are in control. On the other hand, if we lose, we not only do not achieve our goals, but we are seen by others as inferior and are likely to receive less support in the future (thus we lose social control–i.e. power). Winning (or losing) becomes a spiral as the more people ally with us, the more others will feel socially isolated and be motivated to join us.

There are many ways we can experience dissonance in the actions from the above approaches (how well we achieve our goals, what we lose …). We will tend towards avoidance, denial and suppression. This suppression can be a collaborative action — I won’t talk about your limitations if you don’t talk about mine. This is a hugely poisonous spiral that leads entire organizations into sub-optimal and dysfunctional ways of working that can eventually bring down the entire company.

We all need to predict  the world around us, including what other people will say and do. A defensive way of being rational is to judge the rationality of others, thus setting ourselves up as authorities and hence automatic winners. Blaming people and situations is to  attribute cause, which is itself a rational action.

Even if these 4 principles may sound legitimate at first, soon the the trade-offs become obvious : it focus on individuals hence foster ego centric decisions and actions. Defensive communication, problems and mistake denials, stealing other people’s ideas and results (in France we are world champions), blaming, bitching and gossiping about people, brown-nosing, manipulating information … In one word : politics.

Model 2

As an alternative, Argyris proposes another behavior model based on (from Wikipedia which tends to prove that Tables are not Wiki specialty):

1- Valid information : Design situations or environments where participants can be origins and can experience high personal causation (psychological success, confirmation, essentiality). Actor experienced as minimally defensive (facilitator, collaborator, choice creator). Quality of life will be more positive than negative (high authenticity and high freedom of choice)

2- Free and informed choice : tasks are controlled jointly, Minimally defensive interpersonal relations and group dynamics, effectiveness of problem solving and decision making will be great, especially for difficult problems, Increase long-run effectiveness

3- Internal commitment to the choice : Protection of self is a joint enterprise and oriented toward growth (speck in directly observable categories, seek to reduce blindness about own inconsistency and incongruity), Learning-oriented norms (trust, individuality), Public testing of theories

4- Constant monitoring of the implementation : open confrontation on difficult issues, Bilateral protection of others

The second model is based on valid information, choices, commitment and monitoring, all within a team activity. This is transparency. And transparency is a bedrock for trust.

As this is less individual centric, this second model is more open to the possibility of admiting mistakes (a great enabler of office balanced relationships) : it makes assertive communication natural and the only way to go.

From Model 1 to Model 2

This will resonate with a strong echo for any of us that have witnessed these top managers meetings where one hardly talks not to make a mistake and undergo a scathering attack by other managers. This is just dreadful.

McAfee concludes that :

ESSP can help organizations move from a Model 1 to a Model 2 theory-in-use. These tools can change the nature of collaboration and discussion within the enterprise giving people the ability both to contribute their perspective to a dialogue and to inform themselves by incorporating multiple perspectives. In short, they can help organizations move from defensive to productive reasoning(…) Enterprise 2.0 is about abandonning the assumption that unilateral control is the best way to achieve desired outcomes.

This is my favorite part of the book as this sounds to me the most enlightening.

While implementing Enterprise 2.0 and moving from Model 1 to Model 2, would we eventualy defuse office politics and focus, at last, on the main goals of private organisations : profits, customers satisfaction and employees well being ?


  1. Great article with perspectives on single- and double loop learning. Unfourtunately, I don´t thin it as easy as implementing tools for Enterprise 2.0. There still will be room for people who likes office politics. It´s more about personal maturity, to be able to describe your experiences using facts, thoughts, feelings and what you want right now. To be clear as a leader (or employee) you need to train to express those things in a clear way. Our perception of the real world will always be different no matter of what kind of organisations we have. People using tools for digital/social media also need to express themselves in a clear way. Real collaboration needs mature people who knows that the reality that they perceive is not the same as others perceive. They have to stop making stories about other peoples thinking and feeling (sense-making). Then we can strive for a learning organisation with conversations based upon true openess!

  2. Hi Mikael,

    Many thanks for your wise comment. I agree with you it’s challenging but hey this is where the fun is.

    To be honest with you I don’t think it’s about personal maturity. It’s about company maturity. And leadership.

    Real collaboration need people who share the same objectives and don’t tolerate behavior deviance – no asshole rule.

    I had people in my team having assertive communication trainings. The result is amazing. They used to get bullyed and treated badly – no more.

    My take : most of the time people have defensive communication and behavior because they feel unsafe for some reasons. In the knwoledge worker work place it is pretty difficult to give sense and value to what you do.

    This is the role of management of making sense and making people comfortable with their work and productivity. Thus people will feel safer and won’t have to use these dreadful communication techniques.

    And then, this is the role of management not to tolerate unacceptable behavior.

  3. When I looked at the Wikipedia article on Office Politics, I found a link to an interview with John Eldred in Fast Company magazine which goes some way to answering your question as to how office politics may help the company in being more profitable, increasing customers satisfaction and being a better place for employees.


    Clearly there are some unpleasant manifestations of office politics, but it’s bad logic to conclude that all politicians are evil b******s.

    If we accept the Wikipedia definition of politics as what people do when they don’t have legitimate authority, and we recognize that most organizations fail to give people sufficient authority to innovate and use their initiative, then office politics may sometimes be a necessary and even healthy way of dealing with the legitimate demands of the customers and the workforce.

    So the solution to bad politics is not crossing your fingers and hope that politics will go away (it won’t) but replacing bad politics with good politics – which means open and honest negotiation around conflicting stakeholder needs.

  4. Hi Richard,

    Many thanks, this is an excellent read which basically goes against the results of my article.

    Actually, it reminds me the part of Scott Berkun chapter on Politics in The Art of Project Management.

    My take : Politics as Berkun or Eldred present it is how to get power and get funding for your ideas.

    How Oscar and I see it is just a distorsion of that original meaning. Not a distorsion we have invented but one we have witnessed and that wikipedia defines : the use of one’s individual or assigned power within an employing organization for the purpose of obtaining advantages beyond one’s legitimate authority. Which goes against Eldred’s defintiion : Politics isn’t about winning at all costs. It’s about maintaining relationships and getting results at the same time.

    If office politics remains it will changed as FastForward blog puts it : politics change in an era of grassroots leadership and distributed organizations.

  5. Perhaps the Wikipedia definition is ambiguous and should be improved, but I think we are reading it differently. When I see the words “legitimate authority” I think this refers to what you are mandated to do according to the official management hierarchy and job descriptions – what Wilfred (later Lord) Brown called the Formal Organization. But I have never encountered an organization where the Formal Organization was completely aligned and consistent with the Real Organization. A lot of what occupies the gap between the Formal Organization and the Real Organization can be understood in terms of office politics.

    But is that cause or effect? Is politics a destructive force that pushes the Real Organization away from the Formal Organization? Or is politics a potentially healing force that helps to manage the perceived inadequacy and inflexibility of the Formal Organization?

    I tend to think that in most complex environments, the Formal Organization just wouldn’t be viable. So I do not assume that the distribution of “legitimate authority” is completely satisfactory, or that activity that goes beyond one’s legitimate authority is necessarily bad.

  6. Richard,

    As I read it, the issue raised by Wikipedia definition does not lie in the legitimate authority part but rather on the obtaining advantages beyond part.

    Clearly most of the times, the end objective behind obtaining advantages is not to help the company/product/department to achieve something but rather to help the individual achieve or protect something. Hence the McLeod illustration.

    Which is (at best) neutral to the company benefits but most of the times, against company benefits. Refer to Microsft example at the beginning of the article.

    I love this other example from Future Of Management where Gary Hamel gives the example of Nokia CTO who did not want to design folding handset. The reason ? he was the one to design the single block phone and thought the folding phone goes against his concept.

    He did all he could to prevent Nokia from going that way, leaving huge market space for Samsung (who made millions). Nokia eventualy get there but were late and lost millions.

    This is pure political decision for someone to protect his technological influence. It went against the company benefits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s