There’s a lot of advice out there on the Internet for corporate leaders on how to make their organizations less political. Everyone hates office politics; it’s all that shit that deprives an organization of its ability to do the right thing, causes good people to leave in disgust or get fired for the wrong reasons, and enables bad people to rise, and eventually causes the organization to fail in ways that seem obviously preventable from the outside. Ben Horowitz has a lot to say on the tactics of fighting political behavior. I don’t disagree with what he says, but I’m going to take a different approach, from a higher level.
First, one has to define what politics is, in this sense. See, one can argue that politics is the art of making human organizations work well, in which case for something to be “political” isn’t wrong. The American “founding fathers” were, quite literally, political architects. Democracy and meritocracy are fundamentally political ideas. When people complain about a decision they found to be “political”, they’re actually saying that it’s corrupt. In neutral terms, all promotions of personnel in a workplace are political, even when made correctly, because politics is all about the distribution of power. When people complain about office politics, they’re really complaining about corruption in the political environment of the office. People often refuse to use the more accurate words, like “corrupt” and “dysfunctional”, as those are impolite and impossible to hedge. After all, it’s easier to say, “well, the decision was political” (a statement with no content, because all political decisions are political) than, “the wrong decision was made” or “the decision was made for the wrong reasons” (i.e. corruption). You probably won’t get fired for saying that your organization or team environment is more “political” than you like; while using the more direct term, “corrupt”, will raise eyebrows.
Then, the question we should be asking is, why is office corruption so common? Ben Horowitz defines politics as, “people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution.” That is, of course, where corruption starts. It begins with illicit “carrots”– people getting favors they don’t deserve. In the beginning of an organization’s lifecycle, this isn’t that harmful– the wrong people are getting more than they deserve, but the civilians aren’t getting less– because the expansion creates a surplus. Unfortunately, every organization will, at some point, cease to expand– at least temporarily. Then, peacetime carrot-hoarding gives way to wartime stick-brandishing. Ben Horowitz, taking the perspective of a business leader trying to prevent such things, describes the ugliness of office politics at its beginning– people rising who shouldn’t– but most people experience the pain of office political corruption at its end, when it takes the form of good people getting fired, good efforts being unfairly sidelined, and organizational dysfunction reaching the level of an existential threat– and, often, by this point it’s too late to do anything about it.
Why, in human organizations and societies, do bad people advance? Just as “rich people” are neither the best nor worst nor smartest people in the world, but (disregarding inheritance) merely those who are best at making money (a tautology) the people who run human organizations are not necessarily the best or worst but, by definition, those who are best at turning human organizations toward their own desires. This isn’t a surprising conclusion, but it must always be remembered. Very few organizations, if any, have a robust enough immune system to root out and exclude the psychopaths who would become individually fit at the the organism’s expense.
Psychopaths are undesirable people, but there aren’t a lot of them in the world: possibly 2 percent of the general population. I think it’s intellectually very lazy to blame psychopaths for humanity’s dysfunctions, as if the better-inclined 98 percent were somehow blameless. Politics, done right, is all about building structures that are resilient against incompetent and malicious people, no matter how popular or charismatic they might be. Most of the great work done in politics by European and American intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries was based on this insight: focus on structure, not on personalities. This seems obvious now, but it’s something that most societies in human history– run by charismatic actors, then their progeny– missed, which is that structure is more durable than faith in some quasi-divine human or caste. A good king might turn bad, trust the wrong people, or hand the throne to an undeserving son. The only way to build a sustainable government is to design it with bad actors in mind because they will come, and some of them will be remarkably attractive and popular people. Without structure (e.g. a constitution) it will be extremely difficult for society’s guardians to resist them.
Corporations don’t have evolved political structures. They don’t have constitutions. In a non-pejorative and literal sense, they are plutocracies: governed in proportion to the financial stakes of the investors. (Financial stakes of the workers are not considered; this is one of the root moral problems with corporate capitalism. A step in the right direction would be a bicameral system in which each worker gets one vote, and both houses must clear a measure, but I digress.) The tendency, over time, toward political dysfunction is almost guaranteed. In truth, most company founders don’t worry about the long-term threat of organizational dysfunction; once the company has made them rich, it has served its purpose. Companies aren’t really designed with hundred-year visions; they don’t need to last that long to make the important people rich. The institutional erosion that occurs as people serve their own needs over the organization’s objectives is not a threat, so long as it occurs at a slow enough rate.
Let’s say, however, that one does wish to solve this problem in a meaningful way. We’re ruling out quick-and-dirty next-quarter solutions or mashed-potatoes heuristics, because we actually want to build a hundred-year organization. It should outlast its leader, which means it needs a constitution. (Employee Bill of Rights? It’s not a bad idea.) It needs to come up with a principled and transparent way of handling compensation, without becoming so complex that the most well rewarded are those who play the system. It needs to have a clear purpose, otherwise it will default to the standard corporate purpose of making management rich. A lot of this stuff I won’t cover, for now. I’m going to get to something more basic, and something organizations do that makes it impossible to avoid corruption but, in fact, encourages it.
Core insight: political corruption emerges when people all covet the same scarce things.
This is why, for just one example, well-running governments attempt to limit or even eradicate the influence of money over political decisions. Money exists in economies, by necessity, as a way for people to trade and get things they want. An undesirable side effect of this is that money becomes something that everyone wants. Money simplifies, but it also creates a bilge.
No matter what it is– real estate, jewelry, illegal drugs, reputation, or sex– anything scarce that everyone wants will be surrounded by the worst kinds of human behavior. If everyone wants it, it’s surrounded by sharp knives.
The conclusion to take from this is that anyone who wants a healthy organization needs to build one where people want different things. If five people are vying for the exact same promotion, four of them will lose and become toxic. The long odds faced even by the strongest contender will create an environment where all of them are ready to break the rules on a moment’s notice. I find it almost self-evident that the only way an organization can function, in the long term, is if the things that people want for themselves are different, to minimize those sorts of conflicts. They can share in a communal vision, sure; but people go to work for mostly selfish reasons and it’s best that the things people want for themselves be different.
That seems impossible, from a basic economic perspective, insofar as people trade labor for income and wish to do so at the most advantageous rate. Isn’t money one thing that everyone wants? Yes, but it’s probably possible, in the workplace, to have it be the only thing everyone wants. Then, there’s only one potential hotspot– compensation– and it can be dealt with in a principled and transparent way. There’s actually some really good news here, which is that I think it is possible (at least in software) to create an organization in which most people will (a) consider themselves well-compensated, and (b) be, in fact, compensated better than they would at other companies. Executives make less, in the short term; they’re paid in the long term through the superior health of the organization. An outline of what this would look like is given here.
At any rate, I don’t think most of the political nastiness in organizations comes down to money per se. I’ve met plenty of bad actors in the course of my career, and most are no richer from the bad activity than they’d be had they played a more decent game– several are poorer for it. People don’t sabotage others’ careers or ruin reputations for financial reasons so much as they’re about status. Getting more money is a side perk of winning that game, but often they play it just because they enjoy blowing up other people and warming their ugly faces in the managerial sun. Social status, to them, is an end of its own. The toxic people who destroy organizations will engage in social competition even if there is nothing at stake. It’s just what they do.
There are some crucial things to understand about toxic people (assholes). First, the only way to win is not to attract them. Even if an asshole is defeated, humiliated, or killed, he is victorious because he corrupted whatever good person condescended to fight him. It’s also impossible to exclude assholes because whatever social exclusion mechanisms a group of humans invent will, over time, be co-opted by assholes and used as a weapon against the good. Second, toxic people are attracted to social competition for its own sake– not because they want better lives for their kids or even larger cars, but simply because they enjoy humiliating other people. Third, assholes will gravitate naturally toward the largest and baddest social competitions– the major leagues. Non-assholes will behave badly in competition for scarce resources, but do not seek such engagements out; assholes gravitate toward such regions of contest and make them worse because damaged social ecologies amuse them. All of this is good news, because it means that one who understands what attracts assholes can learn how not to attract them.
Given that assholes enjoy social competition, and are especially attracted to the largest social contests, the best strategy is to avoid creating all-office social contests. Yes, there will be pissing matches that flare up from time to time over one scarce resource or another; but the asshole isn’t usually interested in the small-scale battles with trivial stakes. He wants to play in the big games that involve a whole office, draw in plenty of involuntary participants, and where winning or losing determines who gets promoted and who gets sacked. If there aren’t such conflagrations around, the asshole will likely get bored and, after starting some small shit (which must be stopped) he will leave for a better fight.
How do organizations destroy themselves, then? Simply put, they encourage everyone to want the same things. They create “up-or-out” cultures where not getting promoted– or even the image of not wanting fast promotion– can result in sudden termination. They attach an increasing array of inappropriate perks to job titles (I know of one company that has a manager-only in-office gym) in order to create a climate where everyone wants a fancier title. Almost by intention, companies use envy to motivate their people because it’s easier to homogenize the motivational array than to accept its inherent heterogeneity. Many of these firms explicitly want their employees all to want the same things, but that’s a recipe for disaster. When there’s that much competition for the same stuff, you get the social contests that attract assholes. Once these toxic people have taken over the social ecology, it’s very difficult to get them out.
In reality, in a healthy workplace environment, people all want different things. Some people want good work experience so they can apply to business school. Some want a short workday and will work very efficiently if they can leave at 4:00. Some want recognition and leadership opportunities. Some just want to coast, but will support their managers’ careers with a loyalty not seen in the ambitious. Some want to run the company, and some want to be out of that company in two years. Some want to make a lot of money and will work very hard if properly paid. Some just want interesting problems to solve. When there’s heterogeneity, it’s quite likely that most or all of the peoples’ desires can be met without anyone getting trampled. The ambitious will work hard and get the promotions they want, and the unambitious are left alone. Heterogeneity of desire makes it possible for everyone to get subjectively large share of the pie; because the finite resources of the company (including intangibles like managerial approval and job titles, which are not technically finite but subject to dilution) are of unequal value to different people, it’s usually possible to find an arrangement where everyone wins. It’s not always easy– I could probably formalize it as an NP-complete problem– but it can be done.
There is one “problem”, if it can be called that, with heterogeneity in desire, which is that it does make it harder to read a social hierarchy. People tend to evaluate another’s social status in terms of his ability to get what he wants. Heterogeneity makes that illegible, because while it’s usually clear what people have, it’s not clear what they want, which makes it hard to tell who is succeeding and who is failing. Does the guy working in the Denver branch office want to be in Manhattan, or does he really like the mountains? The problem is that an organization’s chain of command typically must be legitimated with some form of distributed social status, but the only way to create such a beast (noting that our social-status modules evolved in small-group contexts) is through material signals. Yet, with the value of all things being subjective, the only way for this to work is almost to coerce people into wanting the same things, making everyone’s social status visible. That’s where this desire to homogenize desires (don’t want your boss’s job? Then get the fuck out of here!) comes from. No matter how competent, the 55-year-old programmer with no desire to advance into management must go, because his existence refutes the idea that everyone should desire supervisory accolades and, eventually, introduction into the management club.
In addition to the intentional desire homogeneity that organizations create in order to assess social standing, there are also unintentional varieties that emerge when there’s a general lack of diversity in staffing. Consider the VC-funded startup world (“VC-istan”) and the engineers there. One surprising observation about more than 90 percent of these “tech” startups is that the software engineering done in them is terrible. Why is that? Almost all of the programmers in them are white, male, and under 30. That’s not inherently a bad thing– I don’t think that white men under 30 (I was one, until a couple months ago) are any worse or better than any other group– but it leads to a homogeneity in desire that is toxic to a technical culture (“launch and flee” behaviors become common). In the startup world, those engineers all want the same thing: to be funded founders someday. That’s not going to happen unless they get (a) management positions of VP/Engineering or higher, and (b) investor contact and mentorship, preferably starting 24 months before they strike out on their own– so they can arrange funding for their new ventures while working their day jobs. What you have is an environment in which all the people want the same things. That inherently leads to the worst kinds of behavior. No organization can have everyone as a leader; but many of these companies end up hiring tens of clones of the same ambitious young person, and then struggle when no one is ever willing to truly follow.
This homogeneity comes from a common conceit, “We hire only the best”. Far more than 0.1% of people work at companies that claim only to hire the top 0.1 percent. What people often mean, when they say that shit, is that they only hire people exactly like them, except preferably just slightly inferior in some legible way (younger, shorter, less attractive). To use Mitch Kapor’s phrase, their supposed meritocracy is more of a mirrortocracy. This lack of diversity kills the organization as it expands. With everyone wanting the same scarce resources, the organization gives way to political in-fighting before it can even get started.
The antidote to this behavior is to accept heterogeneity. I’m not talking about diversity only, because a company can have a diverse crowd, by typical metrics, of people who all think the same way. Rather, I mean that organizations should encourage the natural tendency of people to want different things from them. Unfortunately, this is really hard to do. Most organizations create an environment where getting anything done requires jockeying for managerial approval– yet another finite resource that generates toxic social contests. I think that the only way to solve that one is to rethink hierarchy and start fresh from the ground up.