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Special Report: What Our Nation's Party System Tells Us About the Dangers of Office Politics and How to Avoid Them

By Bruce Bolger 
 
As ISO standards clearly emphasize, the best organizational results come from sensible, evidence-based decision making focused on achieving agreed-upon goals, rather than from the desire of leaders to acquire power. To illustrate how the ISO framework can be applied to any challenge involving people, even the federal government, and to show what ‘politics’ does to governance without taking any sides, here's how the ISO Annex SL and Quality People Management principles could help both our elected officials as well as all organizations avoid the noxious influence of office politics—i.e., the focus on gaining power rather than on achieving consensus-based results. 
 


Most everyone would agree that one of the worst enemies of effective management is office politics, defined by Merriam-Webster as: “the activities, attitudes, or behaviors that are used to get or keep power or an advantage within a business or company.” This Special Report illustrates through the example of government what politics could be doing to your own organization. 
 
Did you ever stop to think that when one cuts through the harsh partisanship we see in the media and online, America benefits from a fundamental consensus? Despite the party polarization, Americans for the most part share a love for our country: we work side by side at millions of organizations creating great wealth every year and in the military to protect our country. We joyfully celebrate our national and local holidays at events together; sit together at work and in restaurants, theaters, events, religious ceremonies and on mass transit, and generally get along (and maybe even share a few laughs), whatever our differences. We root for our favorite teams together, from stadium-filled events down to the smallest local high school football games, and we support the artists and performers we love across all races, politics and religions. The U.S. is admired worldwide for it’s ability to “get going when the going gets tough,” and for providing charitable support when tragedy hits almost anywhere in the world.
 
So why is it that while Americans work, create wealth, party, celebrate and persevere together despite our political stripes or leanings, our two parties and the congress and executive branch appear to have so much difficulty getting anything done? And what might that tell us about the management of our own organizations? Is the focus by our leaders of both parties on acquiring power rather than achieving results hurting our nation, and how often does the same dynamic occur in many organizations with a similar result?
 
Yes, we as a nation debate a lot, and sometimes it gets nasty, especially in social media, where individuals can easily vent, stoke others, from which political power groups on all sides benefit. We, the national “family,” face many serious problems and decisions, as do most families. But, as outlined below, most people in the U.S. would probably agree on many of the guiding principles that could foster effective consensus-based decisions, were it not for politics and the people in politics who profit by dividing us. We can't change easily change the dangerous dynamics of the party system in our nation, but we can minimize the impact by using a systematic process developed by ISO in our own organizations to minimize office politics.
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ISO Guidelines Applied to Our National Elected Officials

To illustrate how politics affects governance and the lessons for organizations, we turn to the seven ISO Quality Management principles and ISO Annex SL management framework first developed in 2012. The principles and framework were designed to help provide a benchmark for the effective leadership of an organization…so why not apply these standards to see how our elected leaders are running the federal government, or for any state or local government as well, and what precisely could be going wrong.   
 
When one analyses the actions of all our elected federal politicians under the lens of ISO standards, as outlined below, one quickly sees that the major culprit for paralysis is politics and the party system. Since the Enterprise Engagement Alliance focuses on organizational excellence and is therefore strictly non-partisan, we choose the example of our elected officials not to single out any party or administration, because the problem is systemic, but to clearly illustrate a fundamental challenge every organization must face: the pernicious impact of politics and power-struggles on sensible decision-making, implicitly or explicitly, a risk that was warned against by some of our founding fathers and, ironically, is addressed in ISO standards as well. 
 
While the fundamental principle of ISO Annex SL is a commitment to “sensible, facts-based decision-making,”  the two-party system leads to conflicts in government that illustrate what politics is doing in many organizations and what can be done. 
 
So, we used the ISO Quality People Management principles and ISO Annex SL framework to conduct a high-level audit of our elected federal officials using a process that could be implemented by the executive branch (the equivalent of an organizational CEO) or of any organization. In fact, U.S. presidents have utilized this process often with little controversy, especially in times of national emergency. No legislation is required to implement this process and there is no need for any reorganizations, any more than there would be using this same process for any other organization. 
 
Here are the seven Quality People Management principles and our view of how our elected officials stack up against effective practices and how ISO principles can be used to minimize the impact of politics, both in government and in your own organization.  
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Principle 1: Customer Focus

The organization’s focus on current and future customer needs, expectations and requirements.
 
The problem with government and effective management anywhere often starts here. Who is the customer with our elected leaders? The active party member, lobbyist and donor, or the loyal voter or common citizen, regardless of party? The obvious answer highlights the fundamental challenge faced in a party system based on the competition for power: In order to raise money and obtain local party machine support, politicians must focus where the money, volunteers and likely voters are, rather than on the needs of all “customers.” 
 
Government action plan: Using the ISO framework, a president, governor or mayor would declare that the customer consists not just of the party base but of all citizens of the U.S. and its protectorates. The internal customers are the civil servants and military we need to engage, train and properly equip if they are to provide effective, efficient service to us, the citizens. Currently, in our two-party system, the prime customers appear to be each party's base, which is effectively about one-third of the country’s adults for either party, leaving the rest dissatisfied. 
 
Organizational action plan: Who is the customer in your organization? Is it always the customer and the internal audiences needed to serve them? Or does your organization have people, power bases or parties whose egos need to be satisfied through a process that disrupts sensible, evidence-based decision-making?
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Principle 2: Leadership 

The establishment of a vision and direction and goals; models organizational values; establishes trust and equips and empowers employees. 
 
This principle is critical to effective governance of any enterprise, because the management principles, culture, values and objectives help craft specific policies, actions and outcomes. In the political arena, elected officials often dissimulate their true intentions for partisan or power purposes, which explains why partisan pundits on both sides often appear to make little sense when supporting a preferred candidate's questionably inconsistent position. Does this ever occur in your organization? When executive leadership involves the nation in developing clear principles agreed upon through a consensus process, it is more difficult for people to profess one intention when in fact their recommendations reflect another. 
 
With ISO, the goal of leadership is to find consensus around a plan and prorities and then engage the entire team in their fruition. As noted above and further illustrated below, the U.S. has a remarkable advantage over many other countries and even large organizations: Contrary to popular belief, and beneath the debates between parties and Blue and Red states, there is as much consensus in the U.S. as there is in a typical organization or family for that matter. The problem is that the media, political parties and partisan fundraising groups and their surveys don’t seek to know what we agree upon. Most make and raise money by seeking to know how we can be divided. The ISO framework suggests that the two-party system makes it all but impossible for any leaders to follow this fundamental requirement to lead all people. To generate eyeballs, our media fosters conflict and outrage; to raise money and gain party support, our elected leaders divide rather than unite. Once a party wins, the winner generally excludes the other from the policy-making process except in times of national emergency. And, when some minority party members seek to reach across the aisle to cooperate, they often get pushback from their own party’s base unless it’s a no-brainer cause. Politics all but eliminates the ability to employ effective leadership that benefits all stakeholders, including both citizens and customers. 
 
Government action plan: Based on ISO principles, a new president of any party would run on a platform of guiding the nation during his or her administration through a consensus-based approach. Upon entering office, he or she would immediately seek to break down the divide by creating a task force and series of subcommittees with the goal of fostering sensible, evidence-based policies to address the most pressing short- and long-term issues. Using a model embodied in ISO standards, one central task force would guide the process. Led by the president, it would consist of cabinet members, leaders from both parties and advisory boards of experts from every relevant sector, as well as representatives of major American political, racial, religious, business, union and not-for-profit groups, from the National Rifle Association to the American Civil Liberties Union. For each major issue, developed through a process outlined below, their task would be to draft a report with a set of principles, priorities and recommendations based on the most pressing current challenges, as well as serious long-term challenges, developed by a consensus of experts and other Americans. These recommendations would be presented to the executive branch to guide planning for action, legislation and budgets, and would be shared with Congress for similar purposes upon the president’s final approval. 
 
This process, which many presidents have used to address national emergencies, does not undermine the rights of either branch, including the president, to make their own final determinations, but this process would provide the American people an effective means of sizing up the underlying motives or outside influences that could affect final legislation or legislative action. In effect, this report is the government equivalent of an Enterprise Engagement Business Plan to address all the key issues necessary to accomplished agreed-upon results representing input from all constituences.  
 
The task force and its subcommittees start by agreeing upon common principles to guide decision-making, just as an Enterprise Engagement Business Plan includes a statement about the organization’s culture, values and objectives, and the process to achieve success. The goal is to agree on principles broad enough to address the needs of all constituencies so that the future policy-making process is guided on the principles of consensus rather than on control of power by the base of one party or the other. To repeat a point: have clear principles are critical to exposing dissimulation and other tactics often used by politicians to gain power rather than fulfill the objectives, and this applies equally to any organization. 
 
A critical step is to look for fundamental principles upon which most people would probably agree. These might include: 
 
1. The need for peace through strength and to support the values for which our veterans and their families served and sacrificed. 
2. The right to equal access to high quality education and healthcare for all that does not burden people and businesses with taxes and regulations that stifle opportunity and investment.
3. The need to ensure equal opportunity for all disadvantaged balanced against unintended consequences of dependency or excessive taxation and regulation or policies unfair to the children of the more advantaged. 
4. Controlled immigration that meets the labor needs of business often not available locally and that remains true to the words etched on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” that welcomed our own ancestors--balanced against security concerns.
5. The desire for effective, customer-oriented government while managing debt, taxes and intrusion in our lives.
6. The right to breath clean air, drink safe water, work in a safe environment and to leave for our children a sustainable environment while balancing the impact of regulations on both business and workers.
7. The need to minimize abortions and unwanted pregnancies. 
8. The need to minimize access to dangerous drugs. 
9. The right to enjoy our own ways of life as long as we do no harm to others. 
10. The right to bear arms while ensuring the safety of those who don’t. 
 
Of course, there is significant disagreement on how to address these issues. Once the fundamental principles and priorities are approved, the president would provide a timeline for each task force to find evidence-based, sensible recommendations to address the challenges of reaching these goals for the benefit all customers—i.e., citizens, not just a party’s base—that transparently weigh the common trade-offs often required in difficult decisions. Yes, it's difficulty--juries make tough decisions every day in our courts. By starting first with clear principles, those with hidden motives have a tougher time making “sensible” recommendations consistent both with agreed-upon principles and their true intentions, as these contradictions usually become exposed in the form of unconvincing arguments. These principles also guide the focus and composition of committees. The committee chairs, likely cabinet members or administration officials, would work in cross-functional committees to make sure the dots are connected as much as possible to improve efficiency and minimize budget impact. Unlike in national emergencies, this is an ongoing process that continues throughout every administration until a new president is elected and creates his or her own task forces, if desired. A strictly non-partisan leader, running on his or her strengths of leadership and competence rather than on gaining power for followers, might actually retain a previous administration’s tasks force--even if from another party--if it is functioning effectively. 
 
Organization action plan: Does your organization have clear agreed-upon culture, values and goals adjusted at least annually to address new market circumstances? The ISO framework provides a system for coming to a consensus on almost any issue by focusing on a common culture, values and goals, and using evidence, facts and research rather than politics to make decisions. Innovative organizations use this same formal approach to systematically incorporate the input of key stakeholders and experts into every key initiative to ensure that decisions are for the common good, to the extent possible, and aren’t used by a leader or faction to accumulate or exercise power. 
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Principle 3: Engagement of People

This principle ensures that peoples’ abilities are used and valued; that people are accountable and enabled to participate in continual improvement, learning and knowledge-sharing, and open discussions.
 
The politics and struggles for power by multiple communities and sectors of the economy through lobbyists make it impossible to engage everyone at the same time to address an issue, except in times of war or crisis. Congress basically deliberates and votes by bloc, with minimal cooperation on any issue for fear of enraging their respective bases, and the executive branch reflects the judgement of the president who risks all by ignoring the wishes of the base. So, by any standard, very few presidents deeply emotionally engage more than about 40% of the voting public, except for short periods of time. 
 
Government action plan: Based on ISO principles, the executive branch would focus heavily on nurturing the vitality and productivity of the task forces by continually monitoring their progress and results, ensuring that they have the necessary information, data and analytics, and/or training to grapple with the difficult issuesl that social and other type events are included to foster open discussions between all “factions,” and that they have tools to conduct surveys or even research when necessary. The executive branch would work closely with legislative leaders to glean from the recommendations legislation to address the related issue in the context of the issues addressed in the other task force reports. This provides some semblance of a systematic plan, rather than the reactive, ad hoc approach of national government today. Having such a set of agreed upon principles would also help engage and focus our government employees on how they can contribute to success in their departments and daily jobs. 
 
Organization action plan: This same task force approach is vital for managing the need for continuous improvement and change and will only thrive with the leadership of the CEO.  These task forces can address ad hoc short-term issues such as a major change initiative or help oversee key organizational policies and actions to ensure alignment, efficiency and return-on-investment over time. 
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Principle 4: A Process Approach

The management and measurement of activities as processes and deploy resources effectively.
 
By now, anyone reading this article who follows U.S. politics has given up hope for effective national government. This concept of applying a process approach seems among the most daunting faced by any organization driven by power and politics versus evidence-based, sensible decision-making. A process approach forces leaders to put down the patronage and buddy system and related politics and demands they act like businesspeople managing resources for the long-term sustainable good of all Americans. For organizations with leadership who understands modern human capital management, this is among the most fun and easiest part of the job; for political leaders, it's almost impossible because of the two-party system and focus on power versus sensible decision-making. 
 
Government action plan: Just like legislation today is subjected to independent review for its impact on government income and the budget, the task forces would have included in their charge the ability to not only make formal recommendations for legislation or executive action, but also weigh the impact of all bills or legislative decisions against the agreed-upon vision. This is the equivalent of the cross-functional leadership approach that guides Enterprise Engagement-oriented organizations. Of course, the president and Congress can ignore the recommendations, but they do so at the peril of going against the agreed-upon principles. The same applies for the CEO of any organization. 
 
Organization action plan: Looking at your own organization, ask yourself whether it’s sensible, process-oriented thinking or politics that typically drive decisions, or whether decisions are made based upon politics, power, and control. Do decisions emerge from agreed-upon culture, values and goals, or to please a leader or faction whose power is based on a specific course of action? After initiatives have failed or succeeded, it’s interesting to look back to see if sensible analysis or the power to please leadership was at the root of the initiative. 
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Principle 5. Improvement

Improve organizational performance and capabilities; align improvement activities; empower people to make improvements and celebrate them.
 
Politicians fear that by even trying to align people across the aisle will get them voted out of office. A sensible approach to addressing the issues related to all the many values Americans agree upon would require people to cross party lines, which is fatal to party fundraising, or for the fundraising of the groups and factional media that support either side or who even profess neutrality. The application of ISO standards doesn't put the media and other organizations out of business, nor does it do so in organizations. What it does is put the burden on them to provide research-based or sensible recommendations that support their solutions balanced with other concerns.
 
Government action plan: Based on ISO principles, the executive branch would report regularly on the progress of the improvement process; i.e., recommendations turned into legislation, outcomes of initiatives, good and bad. As outlined in ISO standards, the executive branch establishes trust by reporting on both successes and failures and directs the task forces to continually solicit and recommend improvements. The president would publicly recognize accomplishments, as well as call out deficiencies or a need for change. 
 
Organizational action plan. Any organization with a systematic approach to quality management already has monthly/quarterly and annual cross-functional meetings to regroup on key objectives, outcomes and improvements required, as well as recalibrate initiatives for coming years.  
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Principle 6. Evidence-Based Decision-Making

Ensuring access to accurate and reliable data and analytics to improve effectiveness. 
 
Government does a good job of collecting data but, like many organizations, not such a good job of using it. Multiple independent government bodies provide extensive data on all sectors of the economy upon which businesses, investors, researchers and others depend, giving our politicians at least as much, if not more, information than most organizations possess to support decision-making. Once again, politics distorts the use of data for the benefit of the base, rather than for the benefit of seriously analyzing issues that have yet to be addressed.  
 
Government action plan. The president demonstrates a commitment to ensure information gets into the right hands untainted by bias and to help the task forces and the interested public make sense of the data and the legislation that comes out of the administration and congress. 
 
Organization action plan. Is there a culture of evidence-based decision making in your organization? Do facts or factions win the day when it comes to key decisions? Is everyone getting the information they need to make the best recommendations or do the jobs necessary to achieve organizational results?
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Principle 7: Relationship Management

Establish relationships based on both the short- and long-term; share expertise, resources, information and plans with partners; collaborate on development and development activities and recognize supplier successes. 
 
Chalk up another victim of politics in government. Party-based leadership does a great job of building relationships with the base, but a terrible job of building relationships with everyone else. The party in power by definition is in opposition often with the very experts and others who could help achieve results. 
 
Government action plan: In both populating and reviewing the recommendations of the task forces, the executive branch strictly focuses on supporting evidence-based and sensible recommendations that balance the benefits, risks and costs, both short- and long-term, for all stakeholders before recommended legislation is created or executive orders drafted. 
 
Organization action plan: What type of relationship-building strategy does your organization employ? Is your organization doing everything to create a vital community engaged in sharing ideas, working together to make improvements and working for the common interest of all? Or do factions vie for power even if it means supporting policies for which there are no facts-based, sensible explanation or that, upon examination, undermine the true intent of the guiding principle?
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Conclusion

In government, politics is not just the fault of leadership but of a system that fosters a focus on power rather than sensible, consensus-based decision making. Similarly, in organizations, the fault is often with leadership and the boards that select them. This article is not written with the expectation that presidents one day will be expected to use ISO frameworks for management, or that individual politicians will go against the fundamental party loyalty required for survival to reach across the aisle to find sensible, facts-based solutions—even though the nation would benefit if they did.  
 
This Special Report is published to demonstrate how ISO standards can be applied to any organization—even elected government—and more importantly to make a point to organizations about something CEO's can control: the existence of the noxious often unspoken impact of office politics. Without realizing it, many organizations suffer from the same affliction as our elected government: decisions get made based on the desire for power rather than sensible, facts-based solutions. When seeking solutions in either government or any organization, the most difficult challenges often lack anything but what the actor Bryan Cranston in the movie Argo refers to as the “best shi**y” solution, so having politics involved makes the process that much more difficult. 
 
The good news is that business is not generally hamstrung by the dynamics of a party system. The amount of office politics is usually in direct proportion to the lack of top leadership with a clear vision and process for enabling it across the organization in a collaborative way, such as outlined in ISO Quality People Management systems and Annex SL.  
 
The bad news is that when there’s a lot of office politics, the problem lies usually with the CEO, which is why increasing numbers of management experts believe that the next generation of CEOs will have to demonstrate greater people leadership capabilities than now required, as well as an understanding of human capital management systems such as those embodied in ISO standards. More on that in an upcoming ESM Special Report.
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Services: The International Center for Enterprise Engagement at TheICEE.org, offering: ISO 10018 certification for employers, solution providers, and Enterprise Engagement technology platforms; Human Resources and Human Capital audits for organizations seeking to benchmark their practices and related Advisory services for the hospitality field.
The Engagement Agency at EngagementAgency.net, offering: complete support services for employers, solution providers, and technology firms seeking to profit from formal engagement practices for themselves or their clients, including Brand and Capability audits for solution providers to make sure their products and services are up to date.
 
Enterprise Engagement Benchmark Tools: The Enterprise Engagement Alliance offers three tools to help organizations profit from Engagement. Click here to access the tools.
• ROI of Engagement Calculator. Use this tool to determine the potential return-on-investment of an engagement strategy. 
• EE Benchmark Indicator. Confidentially benchmark your organization’s Enterprise Engagement practices against organizations and best practices. 
• Compare Your Company’s Level of Engagement. Quickly compare your organization’s level of engagement to those of others based on the same criteria as the EEA’s Engaged Company Stock Index.
• Gauge Your Personal Level of Engagement. This survey, donated by Horsepower, enables individuals to gauge their own personal levels of engagement.
 
For more information, contact Bruce Bolger at Bolger@TheEEA.org, 914-591-7600, ext. 230.
 
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