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.

With 30,000 species of fish identified and catalogued, you’d think some of the more exotic might belong in our growing business bestiary. You’d be right. For example:

Remoras

Remoras have a suction cup on top of their heads. But they aren’t parasites. Just freeloaders. With the suction cup they attach themselves to a convenient predator — sharks are the best-known, but hardly the only ones.

Remora

Photo by Klaus Stiefelall rights reserved

Remoras benefit twice from this arrangement: They get a free ride, and the free ride reliably takes them to a source of food: When sharks kill prey they aren’t tidy. They leave little bits of meat floating around, which the Remora is happy to snag.

The Remoras you have to deal with are like this. Neither energetic nor particularly competent, they ride along on team activities. They don’t produce much, but they don’t get in the way, either. Their specialty is being harmless. In return they get a share of credit for their team’s success.

The problem is that their teammates have to pick up the slack. If you’re part of a seven-person team with one Remora, the rest of you either have to work 15% harder, or you have to accept that your team will be about that much less productive than any non-Remora-afflicted teams you’re compared to.

What to do when a Remora suctions onto you?

What managers can (and can’t) do

Managers can do their best, assigning tasks, making sure “completion” has a tangible definition, and reviewing at least a sample of task results to make sure everyone is at least getting something identifiable done.

But this won’t tell you whether one is a Remora who relies too much on help from teammates, especially because you want to encourage team members to ask each other for help when they’re stuck. Beyond this you also want to assign some tasks as collaborations.

Also, leaders are responsible for team dynamics, and you don’t want a team where ratting each other out to the manager is a common solution, nor do you want to fall into the trap of adjudicating these disputes.

So in the end, Remoras are a team problem. As a team member, what can you do? You can:

  • Complain to your manager, who is, after all, supposed to make sure all members of the workforce are productive.

But in addition to the ratting-out issue, there’s a good chance your manager already knows about the Remora, but isn’t willing to deal with the problem because (1) documenting the Remora’s poor performance in ways HR will accept isn’t always as easy as it sounds; and (2) the Remora is an inoffensive soul and the manager doesn’t want the guilt associated with terminating someone who isn’t, in the end, a bad human being.

  • Accept some of the extra workload, leaving the rest to marginally poorer team performance, and don’t worry about it.

There’s a lot to be said for doing nothing. It’s a stress-free alternative. Here’s how to decide whether it’s the right choice: Make a list of the five biggest problems you face every day in doing your job. If the Remora doesn’t make the list, it’s time to shrug your shoulders and get on with it.

  • Help the Remora find something productive to do. Many Remoras aren’t what they are by choice. They just aren’t very good at what they’re supposed to do and don’t have much opportunity to do what they are at least semi-competent to take on.

Figure out some tasks they can do that would help out the team, and enlist friends on your team to figure out some more. There’s almost always something, even if it’s just taking and publishing all meeting notes, manually unit-testing user-interface code other team members produce, or taking care of bits and pieces of paperwork that’s even more annoying than having a Remora on the team.

  • Ignore. Just because someone asks you for help, that doesn’t mean you have to provide it. As the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me thirty-seven times, shame on me.

Something to keep in mind as you decide what to do about your workplace Remoras:

Sharks ignore them.

* * *

Thanks to Ed Paquette, Paul Schaefer, and Myron Ware for suggesting and offering their descriptions of this gilly critter.