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The politicization of everything

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In response to my recent plugging of my daughter’s nascent contract programming business and my reference to the POTUS’ Twittering support of his own daughter’s business to justify it, a long time subscriber and correspondent wrote, “I am SICK TO DEATH of the politicization of EVERYTHING. Strike two, I unsubscribe next time.”

Huh. I thought I’d indulged in nothing more than a harmless wisecrack, and in fact, unlike various recent Oscar winners, I’ve restrained myself from political commentary in KJR in spite of near-daily temptations.

And, let me cast my vote in the same direction: I’m also sick to death of the politicization of everything, although I doubt my correspondent and I mean the same thing when we say it.

Which brings us to this week’s anti-politicized topic: dealing with politicization in the organization you work in.

But first, let’s be clear about what “politicized” means.

At the easiest-to-deal-with level, politicization means talking about politics in the office. It’s easy to deal with because given the current public political climate it’s an awful idea. Nothing good can come from it … no one will persuade anyone who isn’t already on their side of a given issue and there’s no need to persuade someone who already is.

Either way the most likely outcome of a political conversation is inflammation for all conversing parties, who all also risk damaging their personal relationships with the each other party in the bargain.

At the next level, politicization is a synonym for tribalism: Dividing the world into us and them and viewing them, not as opponents, but as enemies. In the public sphere this is what has made our political climate so toxic. In the enterprise it’s one of the root causes of organizational silos with high walls and minimal collaboration.

Worse is that tribalism almost invariably escalates, as each side views hostile behavior on the other’s part through a magnifying lens, calling for an even-more amplified response.

It’s my impression that silo-driven attitudes and behavior are, as a broad trend, becoming worse in most enterprises, although, as there is no good measure of organizational silo height I can’t prove the point. Nonetheless, whatever the trend line, politicized organizations in this sense of the word handicap themselves when competing with their more cognitive counterparts.

But not as badly as organizations that take politicization to the next level. Call it political epistemology.

Epistemology — the study of what it means to “know” something — is, in addition to being eye-glazingly opaque, quite frustrating to deal with. Peel the epistemological onion and you’ll reach two equally unsatisfying conclusions: (1) It is sensible to be more confident of some propositions than others, based on the comparative levels of evidence and logic in their favor. But (2) it isn’t sensible to be completely certain of any proposition, with the possible exception of the proposition that certainty isn’t possible.

Political epistemology is what happens when what to believe and how certain to be of it depends on an individual’s tribal inclinations.

Never mind public policy and how someone’s party affiliation shapes their beliefs about What Works. There are plenty of business examples right in front of you, from decisions about strategy, to IT’s choice of virtualization technology, to which PaaS provider is best, and whether to deploy its technology stack inside the corporate firewall or to contract for external hosting.

No, no, no, no, no. I’m not saying Democrats favor private clouds while Republicans prefer public ones. Among the metaphorical breakdowns here: Businesses tend to have more than just two major metaphorical political parties. Heck, IT tends to have more than just two, with many IT professionals enjoying at least dual citizenship besides, with such fracture lines as Windows vs Linux, COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) vs open source, Waterfall vs Agile, and Engineering-and-Architecture vs Management-and-Finance.

The hazard doesn’t come from individuals having these inclinations. They’re natural and probably inevitable.

No, the hazard comes from the close-minded certainty that starts with “my tribe is good, my tribe’s allies are good enough, and every other tribe is deluded and evil” and finishes with the by now commonplace phrase “confirmation bias,” which means, if you’re among the uninitiated, that people uncritically accept any and all inputs that affirm their pre-existing beliefs while nit-picking to death anything that appears to contradict them.

Is Keep the Joint Running becoming politicized? As the poet Robert Burns wrote,

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion

Which is to say, you’ll have to tell me.

Comments (16)

  • Hi Bob,
    Excellent and articulate.
    It seems we have lost the art of dialogue and the free exchange of ideas. Democracy cannot exist without compromise.
    I recommend the book: “I Am Right and You’re An Idiot” by James Hoggan. Are we politicizing or is there an inner voice crying out for “let’s talk this out!”? Does it always have to be “Us against them?” We need a special kind of leader now in all aspects of our lives. I think one will arise when it’s time.

  • James A Autry wrote Love and Profit: The Art of Caring Leadership way back in 1992, and one of his repeated principles was “Presumption of Goodwill.” I don’t see any politicization in your column, but even if I did, I hope I would assume the “presumption of goodwill,” believe your statement, and therefore reassess my interpretation as incorrect. I might ask for clarification, especially if further instances appeared without explanation I understood. Maybe then, if it continued, I would disagree. But I could still continue reading. A previous generation would have said, “give the benefit of the doubt.” 2000 years ago, a Bible writer said, “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” It’s not easy to practice, but I never regret when I do and I regret when I don’t. And, please, don’t become totally non-controversial.

  • I cannot agree more with your analysis of the tribalism of both our corporations and our political system. Unfortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen the waning of the golden rule regarding empathetic behavior and the ascent of the Golden rule regarding who has the gold. Too many moves are made by the differing parties with regard only to “how do I achieve my goal NOW!” rather than “If I make that move, how will I like it when the roles are reversed and they do the same thing to me?” When crafting action or policy, I’ve never seen the dominant party write down their proposed actions, then swap the names within the treatise and see how they would like it. If they wouldn’t, perhaps they shouldn’t.

  • From the Will quote to quoting Robert Burns, I really enjoyed reading, although left me wanting more. What’s the antidote for confirmation bias? Did SHIP sail?

  • Bob,

    Great article, great points, great insight. Thank you.

  • Reminds me of a recently read quote:

    β€œIt is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.” – The Catholic Church and Conversion (G.K. Chesterton)

  • It is sad when any reference to a politician is interpreted as a “political discussion.” Too many people do not understand the point of the story, they just focus on one word in the story. Those people miss out on so much.

    I avoid political discussions like the plague. To get out of such conversations I frequently say “I support Gus Hall.” (He ran for President on the Communist ticket for 20 or more years; albeit 20 or more years ago.)

  • As always thanks for your articles. I look forward to them.

    In regards to “…harmless wisecrack…” in today’s environment I would no more make a political joke at work than I would make a racist or sexist one. Which is too bad since, in my opinion, we all need some comic relief. It is also to some extent unfair since there is an entire industry devoted to ‘political cartoons’ and as you point out popular culture is rife with political jokes. Never-the-less sitting around the table the pre-meeting chit-chat is sports, weather, and children. Keep to the safe topics.

  • I’ve observed a lot of politicization in professional work; in technical fields where objective decisions ought to be possible, evidence is often overridden by wishful thinking. This is possible because the wishful thinkers have more influence or political power in the organization.
    I think there’s a philosophical basis: Enlightenment philosophy includes a strong element of relativism, under which there is no absolute truth; everything becomes a matter of opinion. This tends to politicize everything, because there’s no other basis for decision left!

  • I don’t find your column to be political, unless simply mentioning a politician or current events is a political statement. I thought your comment about the POTUS plugging his daughter’s business was funny. You SHOULD unabashedly promote your daughter’s work, you might need her to pay for a nice convalescent home!

  • Look Bob,

    It’s obvious you’re a democrat. Everyone knows that democrats hate RSS feeds and republicans love RSS feeds and since you no longer off an RSS feed, well…

    I’m going to now return to a “true” source of truth. Talk radio on my local AM station…

  • I’ve seen some increase in “politicization” in the sense of referring to national politics in the past few years (though I haven’t gone back and done a statistical analysis, so I don’t have factual evidence πŸ™‚ Lately it’s been tied back to your consistent promotion of using factual evidence and logical reasoning in decision-making in the business setting. In the past it may have been tied back to other business issues and practices that you routinely discuss. In other words, you use examples from national politics the same way you use examples from other news-making realms: cyber security (like Target), mergers and acquisitions, innovation successes and failures, etc. Like other national news, politics is a reference we all share.

    However, I can share what I think your correspondent’s deepest concern is: too much talk about our current president, period. Like a song that’s been overplayed, anyone can get sick of the endless discussion about him, even in tiny throwaway comments. So it’s less of a problem with politicization and more a plea to have one arena free of him (especially if it’s not strictly necessary. If you want to address the issue of H1B visas, which definitely affects IT and business, then you may have to bring up presidential and congressional politics).

    I think you might have overlooked one critical definition of “politicization”, or rather just plain old “politics”; a use that you are constantly and necessarily discussing in your column: internal business politics. More than just siloism or tribalism, it’s the way some people network better than others, some speak more persuasively, some know how to get others on their side. These types of politics often transcend silos and can transcend tribal affiliations that extend outside the business. However, it could be argued that these internal business “politicians” might be creating new tribes internal to the business. Probably depends on what method(s) the business “politicians” use.

    In any case, it seems to me that that type of politics is inescapable, and is frequently an important topic in your column.

  • Your columns always leave me thinking or laughing, and for that, I thank you.

    I think the skin of some folks’ ‘onion’ needs to become a little thicker. But, as another commenter stated, “give the benefit of the doubt” if all else fails.

  • I saw Frank Lutz talk at a conference this week. He was incredible depressed about the current state of politics and the country based on his research and constant talks with focus groups. Frank had one simple recommendation for everyone and I think it plays to corporations and the public political environment.

    Listen and stop talking.

    Frank’s point was we have changed over time and now all we want to do is talk about our side. We have stopped listening, learning, and having dialogs.

    I couldn’t agree with him more.

    Frank also called Twitter and Facebook toxic as they are platforms where people talk and/or find their team (silo). Before anyone asks, he took shots at the left and the right when it came to the growing alt websites.

    Troubled times for sure.

    The author of this blog and I have had many a spirited discussion. I’m grateful I have that opportunity as I learn from the debate and exchange of ideas.

  • It’s hard to make any comment mentioning anything related to current events, however innocent, without ruffling someone’s feathers. We all seem so hypersensitive. Of course we could always stop any effort at communicating but that is probably not productive in the long run. Instead I opt for: 1) Be more sensitive to the feelings of others than to our own, and 2) decide that if we were careful on the first point, we will accept the fallout.

    With regard to politicization — I absolutely see the analogous tendencies in the office. One characteristic I find interesting both in our business and in our governmental politics is that once you chooses a side there is a feeling that you have to defend ALL the positions taken by that side, no matter whether you agree or not. (“you” meaning all of us, not you in particular, Bob) I wish it were still possible to be a little of this and a little of that and maybe have some of my friends back.

Comments are closed.