Tuesday 1 July 2014 8:14 pm

New Machiavelli: Political nous is crucial in offices

Knowing your firm’s social networks will help you get things done.
Niccolo Machiavelli gets a bad rap these days. His name is used as a byword for the ruthless scheming that makes some organisations toxic places to work. But according to a new paper – Power in Management and Organisation Science, by Peter Fleming and Andre Spicer of Cass Business School – the “political intelligence” advocated by the great Italian theorist is one of the most overlooked aspects of business. They’ve systematically analysed 30 years of research on organisational politics, arguing that “managers must drop the fallacy that politics is always destructive.”
Wherever conflicting interests reside, politicking will arise – ignoring this simply means your voice won’t be heard. It’s not about backstabbing and betrayal; rather, as Machiavelli taught, a grounding in the subtleties of wielding power will help you get things done. What’s needed is a new Machiavelli, fit for the modern business. Fleming and Spicer’s findings are a good place to start.
Staff come and go, but scarce resources are a constant point of value amid the chaos of a corporate jungle. “Such resources can come in different forms, including funding, people, knowledge, and skills,” write Fleming and Spicer. Just as the military tacticians of Machiavelli’s day might camp armies near roads and rivers to control supplies, “effective managers understand where resources are concentrated in their organisations, and who controls them.” This may sound like a licence to hoard printer paper, but it’s more subtle than that. Cosying up to the employee who controls a department’s budget (not necessarily the most senior person), or gaining a unique skill (foreign languages, coding) will only improve your negotiating power at work.
Machiavelli stressed the importance of rulers having an instinctive connection with the people in order to understand and pre-empt any grievances. And what was true for Renaissance princes holds for modern managers, say Fleming and Spicer. How will a restructuring of the IT team affect firm morale? Is there anything that can be done to minimise the fallout? “Politically skilled managers usually have an excellent sense of informal changes in mood, beliefs and values in their organisation,” write Fleming and Spicer. It’s a technique many of the best business leaders have made use of. Henry Ford, for example, voluntarily raised the minimum wage of United Auto Workers Union employees prior to negotiations. It prevented a full confrontation, and showed he had his finger on the pulse.
It’s well-known that some offices have sharply divided cliques, with friendships and enmities often straddling the boundaries of business units. Fleming and Spicer say political intelligence requires a thorough understanding of these informal social networks. “A politically savvy manager knows who talks with whom, where hidden conflicts and loyalties are, and who they can approach for important information.” A good Machiavellian prince would have a mental map of information flows around the court. Politically intelligent bosses should do the same.

Get a grip on power structures

If political intelligence requires knowing who is talking to whom, and where control of key resources lies, then having a comprehensive employee directory to hand seems like a good place to start. Businesses provide the information, and then employees can download the app for free, including a searchable database of job titles, contact information, and reporting lines. You can also navigate up and down the organisational chart using registered lines of accountability.