Colleagues cross a balance beam as part of a team building exercise

In business, most strategic decisions are influenced by politics to some extent, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that this is typically damaging. But not in all cases.

Self-interest can lead individuals or small groups to make decisions that are best for them, and not in the best interests of the organization as a whole.

Politics is important, however, in driving vision and encouraging scrutiny of new plans and ideas. Given the right curbs, it can help generate optimum strategies for the organization. 

Some top management teams can withstand the corrosive effects of political behaviour better than others. They do this by encouraging decision makers to focus on group outcomes, and to try and consider and align these with personal interest.

In our paper, “Political behaviour does not (always) undermine strategic decision making: Theory and evidence,” we identify three main mechanisms that theoretically enable management teams to offset the potentially negative impact of (arguably) inevitable political behaviour – cognitive alignment, power decentralization, and behavioural integration.

However, we only found strong evidence for two of these mechanisms. Power decentralization, which helps “flatten” organizational structures and bureaucracy and encourages teamwork and team goals, was found to help moderate detrimental politics.

Similarly, there was a positive link with behavioural integration – where a team is taught to approach problems and challenges in the same systematic, evidence-based way and to recognize the importance of mutual interaction and alignment.

Both these factors were clearly central to a top management team’s ability to weaken the negative effects of political behaviour on decision quality.

There was less evidence however, for the third theoretical element, cognitive consensus, offsetting negative politics. To infer cognitive consensus in the study, measures of agreement were used – but it appears that when everyone just agrees, strategy doesn’t get the discussion, scrutiny and “buy-in” it requires to work.  There must be politics, disagreement, and discussion to ensure robust strategic decisions and enhance overall decision quality.  

Agreement is not something that should be seen as end in itself, or even something that is realistic or desirable all of the time. Consensus must be worked around what the team is trying to do – and members must learn to trust team goals.

Top managers must understand their personal human interest and bias, and that optimum decisions require behaviour/cognition change and, wherever possible, alignment of personal objectives.

Practical measures  

Our study recommends several practical measures that companies might take to protect against the damaging effects of politics.

First, they can hire top managers who are naturally predisposed to shared decision-making, close collaboration, and the free exchange of information and ideas.

Of particular importance is the need to identify and nurture senior executives with a “servant” leadership style, to help promote power sharing and a sense of community.

Similarly, CEOs with a collectivist orientation seek inclusion and more collective decision making, which helps foster group harmony and emphasizes the importance of shared/group goals and objectives over personal interests.

The approach needs to be evidence based, rather than reliant on persuasion. It should establish connections between individuals’ wants and needs, and the future direction of the organization; with management working towards organizational goals. There is some self-selection, as top managers that can’t be brought into the fold tend to leave, as they feel out of place and anomalous.

Strategy away days and retreats can reinforce the approach, providing a practical means for building strong relationships among top managers.

But organizational leaders and strategists must be careful that these sessions are not seen as “the place and time where strategy happens”. This would be to miss the point.

These events should be primarily about teambuilding, communication and calibration (of ideas and orientations) – more a chance to press “pause” on day to day operational activities, and create space to reset integration and cognition, reinforcing the notion of team and collectivism.

In particular, strategy away days that are carefully designed with clear objectives and small numbers of participants, can facilitate interpersonal contact and foster cohesion. These are essential traits for top management teams that enable behavioural integration and decentralization, and the building of a shared identity that can help manage political behaviour more effectively.

Finally, formal team interaction training—teaching top managers how to function better as a team – also helps behavioural integration. This entails top teams learning how to alter coordination practices, adjust their patterns of communication, and even reassign roles to ensure effective task execution.

There needs to be acceptance and understanding of sub/unconscious bias and the way it can affect objective assessment. This equips top managers with the skills to use politics more judiciously for the benefit of the decision at hand, and to respond more appropriately to the political actions of others. It enables recalibration, so that ideas can be discussed and more easily selected on evidence-based merit, and through a collective, consensus-based approach.

True for most organisations

We only considered companies with 50-500 staff, but our findings are applicable to smaller fast-growing companies, who’s senior leaders/founders find themselves having to delegate more during periods of rapid growth.

Our research is also relevant for larger businesses, as they tend to consist of multiple layers and units, and processes becomes more complex as more conversations, reinforcement and calibration is required throughout the business. Larger companies need more formalized structures and systems to execute the process well.

So, while it is clear that politics can damage decision quality if unchecked or unrecognized, such outcomes can be avoided or mitigated somewhat when the right systems and processes are in place.

Self-interest is not something to be ignored, but embraced as it provides opportunities for counterpoints and alternative viewpoints and positions to be explored alongside evidence and data. By establishing a collective view, that prioritizes communal goals and open, evidence-based discussions, politics can be tamed - improving organizational chances of future success.

John Rudd is Professor Marketing and Head of the Marketing Group at WBS. He teaches Marketing on the Executive MBA and Distance Learning MBA and Customer Experience on the undergraduate programmes.