Josh Jordan spent 6 years in the Navy as Cryptologic Technician (Collection).  Following his Navy career, he joined the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center to work as an Information Operations Specialist.  Mr. Jordan received a commission in 2011 and serves as a reserve Information Warfare Officer at NIOC Georgia.  He holds a BS in Business Management from University of Maryland and an MS in Security from George Washington University. 

A couple of months ago I commented on CDR Heritage’s blog post “Potential Principle“.  While I agreed with the basic premise (past performance does not necessarily equate to one’s potential to succeed at a higher level), I argued that past performance is likely the best gauge on hand to determine future contributions.  Specifically, I believe an individual’s drive and willingness to pursue different challenges is a strong indicator that he or she has the capacity to successfully take on increased levels of responsibility.  In my comment, I mentioned the prevalence of what I dubbed the “political principle”.  To further expound on this alleged “political principle”, I wanted to outline my view on promotion and potential and, how these concepts are directly tied to organizational politics.  Politics is viewed in many different lights.  At its core, politics is the practice of influencing people.  For the purpose of this paper, I interpret organizational politics as various informal methods that are used by members of an organization to gain power and pursue individual agendas.

Organizational politics is inevitable.  Politics exist at every level of an organization and must be harnessed to meet objectives.  I am not dismissing the need for organizational politics nor am I saying that all instances of politics are destructive.  I am simply pointing out the fact that highly political organizational climates distort the conventional process of career development and misrepresent employee potential.   In terms of promotion or the perception of one’s potential, networking and organizational politics have become the predominant means to pursue advancement opportunities.    For example, my organization is competency aligned; meaning individuals are aligned to emerging demand signals based on their skill sets.   There are numerous projects and funding sources that come through my organization; much of which goes unbeknownst to the general workforce.  Employees depend on supervisor facilitation to become aware of emerging opportunities.  Unfortunately, supervisor endorsement is seldom tied to employee skills or potential, rather, it tends to be attached to an informal network or political connection…. “This employee has demonstrated his willingness to advance my agenda and therefore I will reward him or her with this opportunity”.  This illustration of the “good old boy system” encourages excessive political engagement and serves to distract people from organizational objectives.  Organizational politics in this light usually occurs in the form of distorting factual information and or restricting information flow to serve self-interests.  By restricting the flow of information at the supervisory level, leaders (good or bad) are able to reserve opportunities and funding for select individuals and base their decisions on political motivations rather than organizational needs.  Scholars have conducted extensive research on this issue and have found politics to become apparent during the business planning process by way of coalition building, information control, empire building, and budget distortion. These political behaviors often lead to a fractionalized organization rather than a cohesive cooperative one; creating an inaccurate representation of the organizations’ strengths and weaknesses and generating advantages for select individuals rather than for the organization as a whole.  Unfortunately, this seems to be an accepted practice in many organizations.  In highly political environments, leaders build informal coalitions; control information to bolster influence; and closely manage funding to secure power.  It is a destructive pattern that greatly hinders efficiency and the overall potential of an organization.

Going back to the CDR’s “potential principle”, it appears to me that one’s professional development and potential depend largely on their ability to influence the political environment as well as their personal and professional relationships.  If this theory does, in fact, hold water, then one’s ability to attain a position of leadership or increased responsibility is often only a reflection of their social enterprise.  If this is the case, then in order to climb the proverbial ladder, one must endorse the agenda of current leadership regardless of whether or not it aligns to their point of view.  Employees often promote existing strategies and policies simply to get out of the cubicle farm and into an office on the top floor.  This pursuit stifles innovation and organizational change; jeopardizing an organization’s capacity to learn and evolve.

Does the prospect of obtaining a leadership position really depend on how successful one is at engaging in organizational politics?  Is it necessary to sacrifice principle and or conform to the status quo to facilitate career progression?   Opportunities should be provided to those who contribute to organizational objectives not individual ones.   Employees should strive to achieve personal and professional goals that align to the mission of their organization.  Too much focus on organizational politics can drive employee efforts away from organizational goals and towards fulfilling high-ranking singular agendas and executive self-interests.

At the end of the day, if the perception of career advancement is dominated by a sense of inequality, a culture will emerge built on distrust, self-serving actions, and the exploitation of organizational politics. This type of environment is extremely destructive to organizational progress.  Political practices such as these impede necessary organizational change and damage the integrity of career development models.  I often wonder how career progression and achieving one’s potential has become so entrenched in organizational politics.  Is a high level of competence, stellar performance, and hard work enough to reach your potential? Is the old saying; “it’s not about what you know but who you know” an accurate representation of the organizational environment?