The Manager as Politician
Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.
Born to a wealthy but unorthodox family, Aruna Roy decided early in life that her mission was to do something for India’s poor. After getting a
master’s degree from the University of Delhi, she became one of the few women who passed the national test to join India’s elite civil service. Thrilled at !rst, she gradually became disillusioned with the rigid, top-down Indian bureaucracy and concluded she could do more out of government.
She joined a nonpro!t her husband had founded in a poor rural village. It was not an easy transition. She had to walk miles to get there, the village lacked electricity and running water, and the women she hoped to work with were initially suspicious. But Roy persisted, adapted to village life, made friends, and worked on issues of incomes and children’s education. Through several years of travel and discussion, she came to a clearer sense of what rural women needed and built a support network of individuals and agencies willing to help on her goal of systemic change.
Roy then took another, even more radical step. She recruited a few allies who shared her vision, and together they moved into a two-room hut in a remote village. They began by building relationships, listening, learning, and looking for opportunities. One came when they helped a nearby village reclaim 1,500 acres previously misappropriated by a well- connected landowner. Over time, Roy and her group built a support base. In May, 1990,
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal. ! 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.
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they were able to bring a thousand people together to form a new organization, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), or Worker and Peasant Empowerment Union.
As they continued to press for better village conditions, they realized that money intended for workers’ pay or village improvements was often disappearing. On the rare occasions that they could get access to government records, they found that of!cials were generating reams of falsi!ed documents to hide corruption. Roy and her allies began a campaign for more government transparency and drew support from the middle class as well as the poor—both suffered when money to repair roads or put a roof on the local school disappeared into someone’s pocket. Roy and her allies began to hold public hearings, with little more than a tent and an open mike for people to voice grievances. The government tried to shut down the hearings, which only intensi!ed support for the campaign. Trade unions got on board, national media covered the story, and approxi- mately 400 organizations joined the cause. It took years of hard work, but in 2005 India enacted the National Right to Information Act (Krishnamurthy and Winston, 2010). Aruna Roy’s ability to mobilize power, assemble coalitions, and champion a noble cause paid off.
It may not be obvious that political skill is as vital in business as in community organizing, but a case from Microsoft provides an example. Bill Gates and his tiny software business got their big break in the early 1980s when they obtained the contract to supply an operating system, DOS, for IBM’s new line of personal computers. IBM PC’s and clones soon dominated the PC business, and Microsoft began a meteoric rise.
Ten years later, everyone knew that DOS was obsolete and woefully de!cient. The replacement was supposed to be OS/2, a new operating system developed jointly by Microsoft and IBM, but it was a tense partnership. IBMers saw “Microsofties” as undisciplined adolescents. Microsoft folks moaned that “Big Blue” was a hopelessly bureaucratic producer of “poor code, poor design, and poor process” (Manes and Andrews, 1994, p. 425). Increasingly pessimistic about the viability of OS/2, Gates decided to hedge his bets by developing his own new operating system to be calledWindows NT. Gates recruited the brilliant but crotchety Dave Cutler from Digital Equipment to head the effort.
Gates recognized that Cutler was known “more for his code than his charm” (Zachary, 1993, p. A1). Things started well, but Cutler insisted on keeping his team small and wanted no responsibility beyond the “kernel” of the operating system. He !gured someone else could worry about details like the user interface. Gates began to see a potential disaster looming, but issuing orders to the temperamental Cutler was as promising as telling Picasso how to paint. So Gates put the calm, understated Paul Maritz on the case. Born in South Africa, Maritz had studied mathematics and economics in Cape Town before deciding that
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software was his destiny. He joined Microsoft in 1986 and became the leader of its OS/2 effort. When he was assigned informal oversight of Windows NT, he got a frosty welcome:
As he began meeting regularly with Cutler on NT matters, Maritz often found himself the victim of slights. Once Maritz innocently suggested to Cutler that “We should—” Cutler interrupted, “We! Who’s we? You mean you and the mouse in your pocket?” Maritz brushed off such retorts, even !nding humor in Cutler’s apparently inexhaustible supply of epithets. He refused to allow Cutler to draw him into a brawl. Instead, he hoped Cutler would “volunteer” for greater responsibility as the shortcomings of the status quo became more apparent (Zachary, 1994, p. 76).
Maritz enticed Cutler with tempting challenges. In early 1990, he asked Cutler if he could put together a demonstration of NT for COMDEX, the industry’s biggest trade show. Cutler took the bait. Maritz knew that the effort would expose NT’s weaknesses (Zachary, 1994). When Gates subsequently seethed that NT was too late, too big, and too slow, Maritz scrambled to “!lter that stuff from Dave” (p. 208). Maritz’s patience eventually paid off when he was promoted to head all operating systems development:
The promotion gave Maritz formal and actual authority over Cutler and the entire NT project. Still, he avoided confrontations, preferring to wait until Cutler came to see the bene!ts of Maritz’s views. Increasingly Cutler and his inner circle viewed Maritz as a powerhouse, not an empty suit. “He’s critical to the project,” said [one of Cutler’s most loyal lieutenants]. “He got into it a little bit at a time. Slowly he blended his way in until it was obvious who was running the show. Him” (Zachary, 1994, p. 204).
Chapter 9’s account of the Columbia and Challenger cases drives home a chilling lesson about political pressures sidetracking momentous decisions. The implosion of !rms such as Enron, WorldCom, and Portugal’s oldest bank, Banco Espírito Santo, shows how the unfettered pursuit of self-interest by powerful executives can bring even a huge corporation to its knees. Many believe that the antidote is to get politics out of management. But this is unrealistic. Enduring differences lead to multiple interpretations of what’s true and what’s important. Scarce resources trigger contests about who gets what. Interdependence means that people cannot ignore one another; they need each other’s assistance, support, and resources. Under such conditions, efforts to eliminate politics are futile and
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counterproductive. Aruna Roy’s passion and persistence and Paul Maritz’s deft combina- tion of patience and diplomacy offer hope—positive examples of the manager as construc- tive politician.
Kotter (1985) contends that too many managers are either naive or cynical about organizational politics. Pollyannas view the world through rose-colored glasses, assuming that most people are good, kind, and trustworthy. Cynics believe the opposite: Everyone is sel!sh, things are always cutthroat, and “get them before they get you” is the best survival tactic. Brown and Hesketh (2004) documented parallel stances among college job seekers. The naive “purists” believed hiring was fair and they’d be rewarded on their merits if they presented themselves honestly. The more cynical “players” gamed the system and tried to present themselves as whatever they thought employers wanted. In Kotter’s view, neither extreme is realistic or effective: “Organizational excellence . . . demands a sophisticated type of social skill: a leadership skill that can mobilize people and accomplish important objectives despite dozens of obstacles; a skill that can pull people together for meaningful purposes despite the thousands of forces that push us apart; a skill that can keep our corporations and public institutions from descending into a mediocrity characterized by bureaucratic in!ghting, parochial politics, and vicious power struggles” (p. 11).
In a world of chronic scarcity, diversity, and con”ict, the nimble manager walks a tightrope: developing a direction, building a base of support, and cobbling together working relations with both allies and opponents. In this chapter, we discuss why this is vital and then lay out the basic skills of the manager as politician. Finally, we tackle ethical issues, the soft underbelly of organizational politics. Is it possible to play politics and still do the right thing? We discuss four instrumental values to guide ethical choice.
POLITICAL SKILLS The manager as politician exercises four key skills: agenda-setting (Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1988; Pfeffer, 1992; Smith, 1988), mapping the political terrain (DeLuca, 1999; Pfeffer, 1992; Pichault, 1993), networking and building coalitions (Brass and Krackhardt, 2012; Burt, 1992; DeLuca, 1999; Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1982, 1985, 1988; Kurchner-Hawkins and Miller, 2006; Pfeffer, 1992; Smith, 1988), and bargaining and negotiating (Bellow and Moulton, 1978; Fisher and Ury, 1981; Lax and Sebenius, 1986).
Agenda Setting Structurally, an agenda outlines a goal and a schedule of activities. Politically, an agenda is a statement of interests and a scenario for getting the goods. In re”ecting on his experience as
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a university president, Warren Bennis arrived at a deceptively simple observation: “It struck me that I was most effective when I knew what I wanted” (1989, p. 20). Kanter’s study of internal entrepreneurs in American corporations (1983), Kotter’s analysis of effective corporate leaders (1988), and Smith’s examination of effective U.S. presidents (1988) all reached a similar conclusion: Regardless of the role you’re in, the !rst step in effective political leadership is setting an agenda.