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Overcoming the negatives: organisational politics and bureaucracy


This week's feature article from Scott Simmerman's ever-reliable newsletter, 'Tips and Ideas on Using Square Wheels':

Politics and Bureaucracy - Thoughts and Solutions on Constructive Criticism

The bad part of organizational politics and bureaucracy generally relates to the negative things that happen within organizations. Politics are merely differences of opinion and belief and bureaucracy is merely the structural things needed to get administrate organization. They will always exist and they are not necessarily negative. The problems seem to occur when these get out of control and interfere with productivity and performance.

And since there are so many different kinds, we'll try to keep this note brief and general and focused on what you can do to have some positive impacts. The focus of this Square Wheels newsletter is dealing with this organizational glop that gets in the way of making progress.

A short time ago, I sent an email to a listserve on facilitation skills, my first post, and I quickly received 3 personal notes back asking for more thoughts on these initial comments. Since I am a great believer in
serendipity and coincidence, this becomes the subject for this newsletter.

Readers will be familiar with my basic concept of the wagon and Square Wheels. In my way of thinking, the reality of organizations is much more like the wagon up to its axles in mud (or maybe cement in some circumstances). The mud tends to bog down progress and make things more difficult to move. It is also hard to get a grip on ñ a culture of politics and other organizational glop can be universally acknowledged but the possible solutions to this mess are quite difficult to manage.

(You can find some of my thoughts on mud in Newsletter 3. And you can find a good deal of my thinking around this cartoon in the article 'Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly' from my website:

In organizations, there is often an unspoken political reality - it is real but sometimes not tangible. People can sometimes seem blind to these factors and lacking in perspective. They have difficulty being objective and creating good solutions. The focus can often be on the past and not the future.

It is common for organizations to place blame and look for the guilty when certain kinds of issues and problems arise, especially when there are interdepartmental politics associated with them. When this occurs instead of the more collaborative and productive search for solutions, we blame
the politics and bureaucracy.

A number of people in the NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) community have noted the tendency for some people to react negatively as a primary sorting style or thinking pattern -- that is, they tend to put a negative cast on behavior in the way they think about performance. It is kin to the process of 'constructive criticism'. (In my way of thinking,
constructive criticism, no matter how well intentioned, is nothing but an oxymoron ñ it is not a useful performance correction paradigm. 'We judge ourselves by our intentions; we judge others by their behavior.')

As confirmation, I remember an old framework called "The Six Phases of an Improvement Project"
1. Enthusiasm
2. Disillusionment
3. Panic
4. Search for the Guilty
5. Punishment of the Innocent
6. Praise and Honor for the Non-Participants

People see organizations routinely shifting to a negative pattern and blame. One impact is that individuals who know the pattern may not choose to get involved because of perceived risks even though the benefits may be obvious.

This negative framework can be called a Blame Frame, a term I first heard used by Lucy Freedman at Syntax.

In trying to address this issue, I began using an illustration of a horse PUSHING a cart with round wheels as the cargo and Square Wheels actually in use. The team of pushers and the puller are standing on the hill in the
background looking at their creation.

Asking people to confer as a team and make comments about the illustration, we commonly get a normal ratio of 18:1 ñ 18 negative comments for every 1 positive comment.

They focus on blaming the people not fixing the Square Wheels and/or for having the horse facing the wrong way. They might say that the 'cart was before the horse' or that the people still did not see the solutions 'at hand'. Most comments are the "woulda - shoulda" type and very few focus
on the reality that an improvement was attempted. It is not positive feedback.

This generally occurs after they have all agreed that one of the factors in any successful change / improvement effort requires the individuals and the group to have a POSITIVE history of success in order to build on that with new endeavors.

Thus, we find people giving constructive criticism and focusing on the negative rather than recognizing that continuous improvement is continuous and that it is built on prior successes.

The irony is that a horse will push a cart (if you consider adding a carrot as an incentive, for example). While not an optimal strategy, it does work. AND, the people in the illustration still have the option of using round wheels.

The KEY is generating perspective on one's own behavior!!! The improvement principle is that we need to have objectivity and perspective to deal with most things effectively. In organizations, this can be difficult.

By stepping back from the situation, we can demonstrate one of the issues of politics - the tendency to focus on what is wrong combined with a past-focus. By allowing people to see themselves in action and recognizing this kind of negative behavior, we at least have the chance to address some of the cultural issues surrounding performance.


One key is to addressing political issues is to generate a level of objectivity and perspective about the situation, using some approach to get the group to "dissociate" from their current jobs and positions and to take an outsider's look at the problem and issues. This tends to make them
less emotional and less likely to search for people to blame.

If people were to behave as a group of "outsiders," some of these political issues might be reduced. It is common for people to not view things when they have some emotional biases in operation. Any feeling that they are either putting themselves in a bad position or making a superior potentially lose face or embarrassing an associate may cause them to lose this perspective and objectivity.

By "stepping back from the wagon," we can create a mental framework that helps people view things with less personal bias.

If you want a FREE copy of the Trial and Error illustration with the horse pushing the wagon, email me.


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