Remaining honest in organisational politics – is it naive? by Yvonne Thackray

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Honesty requires some form of self-disclosure of which there are many layers that can be shared based on the circumstances created. You may choose to be honest, up to a certain point, but what about the other person whom you are in a conversation with? Where are they at? What is their agenda? What is it they are looking to take away from that conversation? Are they prepared to share something of themselves to create the beginning of a mutually trusting relationship, or are they going to simply take and manipulate to their benefit?

If we agree to take this working definition as a starting point, can we still remain as honest when engaged in organisational politics?

Everyone works in some sort of organisation. No matter how big or small, public or private, politics exists because we are working with individuals who have different needs and motivators to yourself. They will also have different interpretations and perceptions of how they need to meet and reach the goals set for the group in order to meet the purpose of their organisation. Importantly, and very crudely, knowing how to play the politics equates to building up your power base because the reality is that an organisation is not a just and fair place.

From David McClelland’s work as a social psychologist1, he both hypothesized and evidenced that power seeking is one of the fundamental drivers of human behaviour found in people from many cultures. The strength of that power motive will vary across individuals and their desire for high personal achievement for themselves, their team and the organisation.

And if we can remain open-minded, power2 is useful because:

  • It is related to living a longer and healthier life.

  • Combined with visibility and stature it can produce wealth.

  • It is part of leadership and this is necessary to influence and get things done.

Acquisition of power for its own sake is widely perceived to be unhealthy and there are plenty of examples in our news cycle to choose from.

So where does honesty fit into all of this? Can you remain honest in a politically charged situation that is daily organizational life?

This is a huge topic, a thesis in its own right! So let's start with bite-size chunks that make it more relatable.

Let’s consider a more controlled example of a 360 feedback session. An interviewer (typically the coach/consultant) has requested a meeting to discuss the behaviours of the assessed who may be their manager, their peer or their subordinate. How honest will they be? It is presumptuous and naive of the interviewer to assume that because they think they are acting as an independent, the interviewees are willing to present an entirely honest picture. More likely, they will present what needs to be heard to be able to get on with their normal routine without consequences? Therefore, how much can the interviewer interpret as being relevant than an outlier to the person in question? An unspoken agreement has been made between the two parties in the room that this dance will be taking place.

Let’s consider a more open example. What happens when you’re being interviewed with an explicit agenda of gathering intelligence about one of your peers? The scenario being the interviewer wants to know how they can work well with them (your peer). Proactively asking you or someone else is a positive and efficient approach to building rapport for the purpose of the project or organisation. Being honest seems positive, particularly as the benefits is for everyone concerned. This is one end of the spectrum. The other end (not the extreme) is what happens if the conversation has an underlying agenda to confirm something that could result in a demotion or dismissal of that individual from the team or even the organisation. No matter how honest the conversation is, it has become a one-way conversation because the other party has locked into what they want to hear rather than listen to the whole story.  

How can you tell when this is happening? Some clues may be they have not offered any self-disclosure, or they may not have asked any questions of how they might use that to help them working with the individual in question, or they may ask for other examples of where else they (typically negative behaviours) have occurred.

Honesty then becomes a double edge sword; without meaning to, you have given the ammunition for the opposite of the intention you went into the conversation with particularly if you’re oblivious to all the ongoing and subtle politics happening within the organisation.

What do you do when the realisation hits you, particularly as we may not all be politically savvy to the situation!

  • Are you able to disclose fully the conversation you had with the interviewer of the assessed?

    • That will depend on the type of relationship you have and the capacity to deal with the consequences that ensue.

    • Are you able to intervene and minimise the damage?

      • Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s sometimes completely out of your control, and there is little you can do in the form of damage limitations.

      • Would you have done things differently, knowing what you know now, how much more preparation would you do and consider the worst case scenario to the most positive outcome?

        • Perhaps talking with the right coach would help because their focus is in what’s in the best interest of you and the organisation (external and internal) not the organisation, and then you.

Returning to the question at the start – remaining honest in organisational politics – is it naive?

Yes and No … it depends on how you want to build your power base.

What do you think?


1 McClelland, D. (1976) Power is the Great Motivator

2 Pfeffer, J. (2010)  Power: Why Some People Have it - and others don’t.