Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Office politics, ethics, and the darker shades of gray

PlatoA recurring theme in conversations with friends in the industry is a dislike for politics mixing into personal evaluation systems used in large corporations. In this entry, I wanted to explore the subject under rational lenses to separate real ethics from emotional perceptions.

Many good people have willfully curbed their career potential for fear of losing their immortal souls in a sea of corrupt office mates. Many more good people have inadvertently incurred in the same mistake by not making others aware of their presence. Somehow I felt the majority in both camps have made such decisions without analyzing office politics, at the same time causing more harm than benefit damaging to the business.

There are many equally good people who have entered office politics and hardened their souls to withstand the pressures. Not to be left alone in their pain, people in this group will often shed portions of that pain onto the first group. More frequently than not, the 'sharing' comes courtesy of a rather cynical statement of politics as an unavoidable fixture in the office scene.

There are good politics and bad politics, and it has been my experience that good people practice good politics. They have to become bad people before they start practicing bad politics and that transformation may take a long time. For instance, reviewing a 200-page specification for an architect in your area may be good politics (unless I have lost my ways and can no longer tell the difference); after all you are helping improve the quality of someone's work and may rely on his support later on. The returned favor may be a note to his peers endorsing a reasonable proposal you have in mind. I often think of it as creating time in someone's calendar for some task I need from them.

As a counter example, bad politics would be to negatively influence the reviewers of a proposal that could make your project unnecessary. It takes a lot of selflessness to make the right decision and working with author of the proposal instead; but if one's job solely depends on others being unaware of its uselessness, that may be a job not worth having.

PlatoThe world of politics has a way of pushing away the good people, and I am in good company while saying so. But it is the responsibility of the good people to resist the push and inject good politics into the system. Staying away from politics and proudly resenting others who don't is an act of passive-aggression. Going in and deriding those who choose to stay away is equally unproductive.

Now, for the difficult part, what about the situation where one compromises his integrity to benefit those under his responsibility?

A few years ago, in a leadership class, the instructor brought over a retired officer who had a strong opinion on the subject. He used his own example of playing golf with higher-ranking officers even though he disliked the game and some of the officers. At that point, the other students were directing rather unflattering eyes at him. His calculated pause lasted a few more seconds until he continued: "I did it for my men. When it rained hard in our base, the poorly built barracks invariably leaked water. I could bring in my golfing 'buddies' over, point to the leaks and get special attention on fixing them'.

There is saying "there are many shades of gray between black and white". That may be so, but some are darker than others.

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