Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Business Affairs & Human Resources and Professor Practice, School of Government & Public Policy at The University of Arizona

You Don’t Do Politics?

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Image: Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution, by Junius Brutus Stearns

A recent Faculty Senate vote on a departmental restructuring at my university got my attention even before the debate turned contentious. The restructuring proposal seemed completely practical and straightforward to me (I’ll spare you the details as they are only of interest internally). Asked for my advice before the vote, I encouraged a colleague supportive of the proposal to engage in extensive conversation before it hit the Senate floor. And, most important: I suggested making a special effort to communicate with those Senate members known for being especially suspicious about change.

“The rationale makes sense,” I said, “you just need to make sure everyone understands why this would be beneficial.”

The organizers secured the support of Senate leadership in advance of the meeting, but they neglected to “educate” the other members of the Senate. The issue was put before the membership cold and it was not received warmly. While an adequate number of votes was eventually secured, the process to achieve that was painful and protracted. “Line up the votes before you get in the room” -- Rule No. 12 of The Academic Organizational Politics Playbook -- was broken that day. The Academic Organizational Politics Playbook does not actually exist, but if it did, it would contain a full chapter on how to ensure that no debate of significance occurs inside formal meetings.

This heated vote demonstrated the variability in political prowess that exists in my university, and I bet in your organization as well. Those who engage in political strategy for a living have developed an intuitive sense about how to advance agendas, but those who don’t do this regularly tend to struggle to navigate the individual and organizational dynamics.

“I don’t do politics” is a common refrain among academics. And there are many who believe that all it should take to move a proposal forward are solid data and the power of a good idea. Unfortunately, it takes a good deal more than that. Relationships, coalitions, reciprocity, mutual interests, influence, and formal and informal authority must be considered. There is extensive social science research on all of this, but too few people are using it.

I have come to believe that the “I don’t do politics” declaration is often borne of a desire to be just, kind, pure, and in control. Those with a distaste for organizational politics imagine scenes from Mean Girls, House of Cards, or Game of Thrones, and seek to distance themselves from the nastiness of jockeying, shunning, and even beheadings.

But day-to-day organizational politics need not be nasty or deadly, and reframing the way we think about them may prove helpful.

In his book, Power, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s business school, notes that “power and influence skills are essential for getting things done in complex, interdependent systems and may be an effective way to make decisions, particularly compared to the more typical hierarchical arrangements.”

In other words, if we are comfortable with top-down, command and control decision making, there is no need to engage in organizational politics. However, if we want to shape how things are decided, we must be actively engaged. That’s a fairly neutral way of viewing organizational politics and suggests that we don’t have to be sinister in order to be strategic.

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