If I were to ask you what is the filthiest, most visceral fictional television show you know, I reckon I’ll get answers like Game of Thrones, or The Walking Dead. Maybe even American Horror Story. The cynics among you might say Pretty Little Liars.
But I will look at you with a mysterious smile and shake my head knowingly. Because the cruellest, filthiest, most visceral fictional show on TV is also the most real bit of fiction there is. It’s the Good Wife.
For the longest time I’ve been lauding it the best show on TV, and – as it the latch clicks shut on its sixth season, I’m yet to have experienced a show like it. It keeps pushing the envelope with amazing writing that is so close to the edge of real life, it’s terrifying and enlightening in equal measures.
I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t caught up to the latest season (and if you haven’t started, you should make it your monthly challenge to get it and watch it, darn it!), so nothing about what’s actually happening in the show. It just inspired this post.
Politics on TV
The Good Wife shows us – time and again – the difficult, and sometimes dirty, practice of politics. It shows how it unfolds in organisations (a law firm, the DA’s office, the campaign party), how it unfolds in life (through the cases, through the family, through relationships) but also the kind of politics that governs the official authorities and political parties.
One of the reasons I love it so much, is that there are no black hats or white hats. A person you wished would get their comeuppance in this week’s episode, would be the rooted-for underdog in next week’s.
Similarly, you learn very quickly that every story has more than two sides and that truth is a matter of perspective. There is no black and white in the show, there is just a whole bunch of colours, none of which is pure, and they keep changing.
Sounds familiar? Yeah. It’s a lot like life.
Politics in organisations
We use the word “politics” a lot. It gets thrown around very frequently in organisations as much as it does in government. But what is politics? Well, if you look it up in the dictionary, you will find all sorts of definitions. Most of them are about government (and let’s remember for a moment that even organisations have governments), and as you drill further down the page, you find two of its original meanings:
“use of intrigue or strategy in obtaining any position of power or control.”
“(initial capital letter, italics) a treatise (4th century b.c.) by Aristotle dealing with the structure and administration of the state, especially the city-state as known in ancient Greece.”
(Definitions from Dictionary.com)
So if your organisation is a city-state (of sorts), Politics (with a capital P) will pertain to how it is structured, governed and administered (lead and managed), and politics will pertain to the practice people use, in order to place themselves in positions of leadership and management.
So let me ask you this –
Can politics or Politics be honest?
I used to work with a girl whose motto was “I don’t do office politics”. In the early days of my knowing her, I thought that was a cool statement to make and a great motto to live by.
As I got to know her (and as I got to know many more organisations) I began to think that while it being a rather noble statement, we can’t extricate ourselves from office politics, no matter how much we’d like.
Because politics (with a small p) is a game everyone is subject to, whether or not they are a willing participant.
I think people influence and people manipulate. Sometimes they do that with the best intentions, sometimes less so. But as they will influence and manipulate you even if you don’t want to be. You will come across them, and they will come across you. And that is all part of that political landscape.
I’m not sure you can remove yourself from Politics either. You may leave the organisational rat race, if you wish. But by virtue of being in an organisation, you are part of its structure. You manage and are managed, you lead and are lead.
Openness and Honesty
In one of our ConsultancyHive meetings we counted how many organisations we know have the values of openness and honesty etched on their literature. The answer was “lots”. When we went on to find out how many of them actually practice them, the answer was “not many at all”.
To me, openness and honesty can give politics (with a small p) a decent run for its money, because the minute you are open and honest, there is considerably less intrigue.
If you want to obtain a position of power or control, just go out to do that. You can be strategic without being conniving. Not every plan for progress or promotion is a battle plan or a plot for a coup d’etas.
When everyone knows that everyone knows
I, personally, found that being clear and honest about my intentions is rather useful. I found it is a great way to find out who’s on your side (often making more of the ranks visible more quickly). It brings the controversial discussions to the forefront of people’s minds.
It makes it okay to discuss things that people think are taboo (and most of the times, are not).
This trick is called mutual knowledge (as opposed to individual knowledge), as Steven Pinker illustrates in this RSA Animate video (at 7:40, or enjoy the whole thing. It’s worth it).
This isn’t easy stuff, and may take you a more than a week:
Step 1: Next time you need to achieve something with people, try and have an open an honest conversation with them.
Step 2: Do the facilitative thing next time you are in a communal forum, so people can be honest and talk about their concerns and motivations with the knowledge that what is said in the room, stays in the room.
Then step outside the role of facilitator and be a participant as well. If that’s difficult and you are a participant, get someone else to facilitate.
Something to remember: giving people time to plan for this, to consider their thoughts and feelings is a good thing. Being honest is a terrifying and vulnerable thing. Most people need to get used to the idea.
Maybe you do too.
(And if you haven’t already, start watching The Good Wife.)
Tell us what you think! Can we and should we rid our organisations of politics?
And – are you open and honest?
You can also get in touch through email or twitter. It’s great to hear what you think!
Image sourced via Google Images, via this link.