Sunday, August 05, 2007

Company Culture and Politics - Survival of the Savvy

Business school alums often come back to campus and tell students that Organizational behavior proved to be the most valuable course(s) they took. When I studied at Kellogg, I never understood why.

I often meet with people who ruefully state, "my company is too political;" "there is no transparency where I work, things happen, people come and go, and no one knows why;" "I don't understand how decisions get made, things seem so random."

Politics, as we all know, is not something that just happens in Washington DC. All companies, be they start-ups or GM, are political. Politics are informal, unofficial, and sometimes behind-the-scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence an organization, increase power, and achieve other targeted objectives.

Politics have a truly pejorative connotation and being accused of being a political animal is most often meant to be an insult. Since I left business school in 1999, however, I have come to appreciate the fact that to ignore the realities of organizational life and decision making is certain to reduce your effectiveness and influence at work. I believe people often join start-ups to escape the crushing politics of large companies. The reality is that organizational politics are a constant, while start-ups may be lower on the political spectrum/continuum than larger companies, they remain organizations populated by people.

I recently read a book that provided a model with respect to understanding the organizational political continuum. The book, Survival of the Savvy, argues there are two contrasting styles and hence models of people and companies.

The first model is idea-centric. Idea-centric people and companies are driven by the power of an idea. They view power as residing in facts, logic, analysis, and innovation. These companies are often flat, meritocracies where the best ideas win and the way to win is to make the most cogent, objectively correct arguments. These people believe in substance, in doing the right (logically speaking) thing, open agendas and transparency, and the belief that ideas speak for themselves. Ie, if the ideas are well stated, why wouldn't someone agree? I fall into this camp and often believe that if I make a logically consistent argument (ie axiomatic) then it should be clear what to do.

The second model is person-centric. Person-centric people and companies are driven by the power of hierarchy. The merit of an idea is not driven by the cogency of the logic but by the power, position, and political support for the speaker. In this world, ideas definitely do not speak for themselves, but rather image and the perception of support (who supports this, what does the VP/CEO, etc think about it).

In these companies, people often don't do what's right but rather what works. Decisions, given they are not based on logic, are far from transparent and meetings are fait accomplis rather than opportunities for genuine discussion and feedback. Relationships drive support, not ideas and merit appears to lose out to coalitions and sponsorship. Loyalty, alliances, and working the system outweigh doing whats right and trusting the system to pick the "best" outcome.

In my experience, companies land somewhere along a continuum of the two models. The challenge for all of us is to understand the type of company we work in and what style we will need to adopt to be successful, or rather to quit and leave. Often the most frustrated people are idea-centric people working in people-centric companies who simply don't realize it and cannot understand why their brilliant ideas find no support or traction.

We owe it to ourselves to be self-aware. I believe this is the message the alums were bringing to students - don't be naive, calibrate your company's culture and style, and recognize that merit alone, unfortunately, is often not enough to get things done. The key is to always maintain integrity, avoid ugly ethical compromises, while working within the political constraints of your employer.


  1. Mark Tsimelzon6:07 PM

    This sounds a bit too black and white. What about disadvantages of idea-centric companies, and advantages of person-centric companies? Are their none?

  2. Zoli Erdos8:16 PM

    Adopt? No way... that is, if you are the idea-centric type, and recognize you are trapped in a people-centric company - you're doomed, you can't possibly be both successful and happy, so get out!

    If you're the "people-centric" type - well you don't need to adopt, it comes second nature, so you'll be successful in a company with that culture... and if you are in an idea-centric company, you can try to adopt, but you will be recognized for being .. well, short in ideas :-)

  3. Anonymous10:18 AM

    Office politics killed a promising start-up I used to work for. The antagonists were OK with the prospect of the political stakes trumping the commercial opportunity. Maybe this is just a longterm cultural trend in the U.S. Congress has moved the "common good bar" lower over the past 10-15 years. Sadly, it's no longer about getting something done, rather about getting someone.

  4. Anonymous10:31 PM


    Thanks for the book recommendation. One thing I've found is that many businesses and technology trends require such expertise that many rely on the person rather than ideas (dare I say some venture capitalists ;-). It becomes a shorthand that is the reality of an operating environment (getting to market, term sheet, etc.). "If X supports it, that's good enough for me as I'm overwhelmed and this is tough stuff." I think this may complicate the idea v. person framework. Even more interesting is when an idea culture leader loses his/her way and begins to rely only on gravitas. So many variants but, yes, self-awareness is key.

    A big company guy for now

  5. Idea-centric sounds suspiciously like one kind of Myers-Briggs personality type while person-centric is another.

    I raise this issue because Myers-Briggs (and the many similar personality profiles) allows for more than just 2 options.

    For example, there is the "gut feel"-centric organization for all the intuitives out there.

    The thing about these personality types is not that they're particularly better or worse than one another, but rather that they enable you to understand how to communicate with others.

    Politics are a reality, but in my experience, much political behavior boils down more to a difference of styles.

    When I first saw the Myers Briggs grid for the executive staff at my last company, my reaction was, "Gee, that looks like a seating chart of who would sit next to whom at lunch."

    And so it goes...