Intra and Extra-organizational Politics

I just have to confess that vacation in the Virginia mountains was great.  It is with little doubt that I assure you that were it not for commitments I have to customers and employees of ORSA Corporation along with Irene’s church and piano studio commitments, we’d still be there.  By now, of course, I’d have to go find a job to pay for the spectacular colors of mountain foliage in the fall!

OK, that aside, the topic is about politics.  If you are anything like me, you might be sick and tired of politics, but the fact remains we cannot escape it.  I was once told that you either learn the rules of the game and figure out what position you play or you default to becoming a training dummy for those who are engaged in the game.  Which reminds me, I’m convinced that when it comes to national and local politics, there are way too many people who really do regard it as some sort of game where they can rack up competitive scores to be tallied when they die.  Our politicians are not singularly guilty of this perception; the media has become complicit having abandoned their role as the ‘fourth estate” for the opportunity to participate actively rather than reporting objectively.  I don’t know that this can ever get fixed.  I’m appalled that so few of them ever really consider the impact upon people who are just trying to make a living and take care of their families.  Apparently there are lots of folks out there who read Machiavelli not from a literary perspective, but as a ‘politics for dummies’ handbook!

Enough of this diversion!

My comments are going to be limited for this blog because I was recently given a copy of a short paper written in 1973.  It was given to me by Fran, the widow of my friend, Steve.

Office and organizational politics are a simple reality of the traditional workplace and it usually manifests itself in the most vile and hideous forms which are not nearly as subtle as those who resort to them believe.  We live in a competitive society and it is instinctual for us to compete for resources.  It might not be as pronounced as the struggle to become the alpha-male in various species, but the reference is still apropos.  Perhaps it has always been the case, but I admit to having noticed the ascendency of alpha-females in the workforce since the 1960’s.  Perhaps that is because I was simply not paying attention prior to those years.

So, to quote a famous politician, “At this point, what does it matter?”

The answer is simple, at least in organizations such as businesses, non-profits and the public sector.  It is probably also a problem in many families although I suspect the dynamic is somewhat different.  I’d love to hear from someone who has studied family relationships and how they morph over time.

Back to the answer.  Organizational leaders are more and more cognizant of how much this competition costs!  It certainly can be argued that competition also improves the bottom line, because it leads to innovation and new ideas on how to improve every aspect of the enterprise.  True.  But there is also the competition that is characterized by back-biting, planting innuendo, gossip, one-upsmanship and other avatars of destructive behavior.  I’m fairly certain you already understand the major difference in the two kinds of competition.  One is focused on the organization while the other is focused on the self. Research shows that non-constructive competition robs the bottom line and zaps the organization of vitality as people start focusing on covering their tracks, assuring plausible deniability and building protective workplace coalitions to cover each others’ backs.  All wasted energy and resources diverted from meeting organizational objectives.

Alas, what can be done about this.   Forging an organization that builds upon trust rather than turmoil isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Organizational leaders must be fully committed to the end goal and establish metrics to measure their progress.  The leadership team in each organization can assess the baseline of organizational behavior and develop the strategy, but commitment at the top has to be clear and undeniable.   Getting everyone to participate in setting goals that will lead to achieving the organizational vision is another concept that is easier to state than execute.  It may take a couple of iterations before employees start to feel like stakeholders and take ownership for their pieces of the goal achievement.  We’ve become fairly cynical in our society and adding to the challenge is the incredibly innovative ways that people find to ‘game’ the key performance indicators.  Then again, nobody ever said leading would always be easy!

That reminds me… here’s a link you might enjoy!

All that having been said… here’s the article I inherited from Steve… I did some web research and found out who wrote it and where it was first published.   “How to Swim with Sharks: A Primer.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 16.4 (1973): 525-528. Project MUSE. Web. 8 Jan. 2015.<>.    I checked out the link and discovered yet another reason to cherish the friendship I had with Steve.  Not only did he rekindle my sense of humor from time to time through discourse or small almost meaningless electronic projects, but his knowledge was both broad and deep.  He was a rare individual.  His death led me to another resource; I would have preferred this epiphany to have come during his life.  Enough… enjoy.

How to Swim with Sharks: A Primer


Actually, nobody wants to swim with sharks.  It is not an acknowledged sport, and it is neither enjoyable nor exhilarating.  These instructions are written primarily for the benefit of those who, by virtue of their occupation, find they must swim and find that the water is infested with sharks.

It is of obvious importance to learn that the waters are shark infested before commencing to swim.  It is safe to assume that this initial determination has already been made.  If the waters were clearly not shark infested, this would be of little interest or value.  If the waters were shark infested, the naive swimmer is by now probably beyond help; at the very least he has doubtless lost any interest in learning how to swim with sharks.

Finally, swimming with sharks is like any other skill: it cannot be learned from books alone; the novice must practice in order to develop the skill.  The following rules simply set form the fundamental principles which, if followed, will make it possible to survive while becoming expert through practice.


1.  Assume unidentified fish are sharks. — Not all sharks look like sharks, and some fish which are not sharks sometimes act like sharks.  Unless you have witnessed docile behavior in the presence of shed blood on more than one occasion, it is best to assume an unknown species is a shark.  Inexperienced swimmers have been badly mangled by assuming that docile behavior in the absence of blood indicates that the fish is not a shark.

2.  Do not bleed. — It is a cardinal principle that if you are injured either by accident or by intent you must not bleed.  Experience shows that bleeding prompts an even more aggressive attack and will often provoke the participation of sharks which are uninvolved or, as noted above, are usually docile.   Admittedly, it is difficult not to bleed when injured.  Indeed, at first this may seem impossible.

Diligent practice, however, will permit the experienced swimmer to sustain a serious laceration without bleeding and without even exhibiting any loss of composure.  This hemostatic reflex can in part be conditioned, but there may be constitutional aspects as well.  Those who cannot learn to control their bleeding should not attempt to swim with sharks, for the peril is too great.

The control of bleeding has a positive protective element for the swimmer.  The shark will be confused as to whether or not his attack has injured you, and confusion is to the swimmer’s advantage.  On the other hand, the shark may know he has injured you and be puzzled as to why you do not bleed or show distress.  This also has a profound effect on sharks.  They begin questioning their own potency or, alternatively, believe the swimmer to have supernatural powers.

3.  Counter any aggression promptly. — Sharks rarely attack a swimmer without warning.  Usually there is some tentative, exploratory aggressive action.  It is important that the swimmer recognizes that this behavior is a prelude to an attack and takes prompt and vigorous remedial action.  The appropriate countermove is a sharp blow to the nose.  Almost invariably this will prevent a full-scale attack, for it makes it clear that you understand the shark’s intentions and are prepared to use whatever force is necessary to repel his aggressive actions.

Some swimmers mistakenly believe that an ingratiating attitude will dispel an attack under these circumstances.  This is not correct:  such a response provokes a shark attack.  Those who hold this erroneous view can usually be identified by their missing limb.

4.  Get out if someone is bleeding. —  If a swimmer (or shark) has been injured and is bleeding, get out of the water promptly.  The presence of blood and the thrashing of water will elicit aggressive behavior even in the most docile of sharks.  This latter group, poorly skilled in attacking, often behaves irrationally and may attack uninvolved swimmers or sharks.  Some are so inept that in the confusion they injure  themselves.

No useful purpose is served in attempting to rescue the injured swimmer.  He either will or will not survive the attack, and your intervention cannot protect him once blood was been shed.  Those who survive such an attack rarely venture to swim with sharks again, an attitude which is readily understandable.

The lack of effective countermeasures to a fully developed shark attack emphasizes the importance of the earlier rules.

5.  Use anticipatory retaliation. —  A constant danger to the skilled swimmer is that the sharks will forget that he is skilled and may attack in error.  Some sharks have notoriously poor memories in this regard.  This memory loss can be prevented by a program of anticipatory retaliation.  The skilled swimmer should engage in these activities periodically, and the periods should be less than the memory span of the shark.  Thus, it is not possible to state fixed intervals.  The procedure may need to be repeated frequently with forgetful sharks and need be done only once for sharks with total recall.

The procedure is essentially the same as described under rule 3 — a sharp blow to the nose.  Here, however, the blow is unexpected and serves to remind the shark that you are both alert and unafraid.  Swimmers should take care not to injure the shark and draw blood during this exercise for two reasons:  First, sharks often bleed profusely, and this leads to the chaotic situation described under rule 4.  Second, if swimmers act in the fashion it may not be possible to distinguish swimmers from sharks.  Indeed, renegade swimmers are far worse than sharks, for none of the rules or measures described here is effective in controlling their aggressive behavior.

6.  Disorganize an organized attack. — Usually sharks are sufficiently self-centered that they do not act in concert against a swimmer.  This lack of organization greatly reduces the risk of swimming among sharks.  However, upon occasion the sharks may launch a coordinated attack upon a swimmer or even upon one of their number.  While the latter event is on no particular concern to the swimmer, it is essential that one know how to handle an organized shark attack  directed against a swimmer.

The proper strategy is diversion.  Sharks can be diverted from their organized attack in one of two ways.  First, sharks as a group are especially prone to internal discussion.  An experienced swimmer can divert an organized attack by introducing something, often something minor or trivial, which sets the sharks to fighting among themselves.  Usually by the time the internal conflict is settled the sharks cannot even recall what they were setting about to do, much less get organized to do it.

A second mechanism of diversion is to introduce something which so enrages the members of the group that they begin to lash out in all directions, even attacking inanimate objects in their fury.

What should be introduced?  Unfortunately, different things prompt internal dissension or blind fury in different groups of sharks.  Here one must be experienced in  dealing with a given group of sharks, for what enrages one group will pass unnoted by another.

It is scarcely necessary to state that it is unethical for a swimmer under attack by a group of sharks to counter the attack by diverting them to another swimmer.  It is, however, common to see this done by novice swimmers and by sharks when they fall under a concerted attack.


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