Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 13;   March 28, 2012: Workplace Politics and Integrity

Workplace Politics and Integrity

by

Some see workplace politics and integrity as inherently opposed. One can participate in politics, or one can have integrity — not both. This belief is a dangerous delusion.
Abraham Lincoln as a young man about to become a candidate for U.S. Senate

Abraham Lincoln as a young man about to become a candidate for U.S. Senate. It was in the context of this election campaign that the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, between Lincoln and the incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, took place. In these debates, Douglas took a generally pro-slavery position. Lincoln's position was not that of an abolitionist — he advocated for halting the extension of slavery to new territories.

During the debates, Douglas repeatedly accused Lincoln of advocating for full equality of blacks and whites, including not only political rights, but what was then called "amalgamation" — intermarriage between the races. Lincoln responded by saying: "Certainly the Negro is not our equal in color — perhaps not in many other respects; still, in the right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the equal of every other man. In pointing out that more has been given to you, you cannot be justified in taking away the little which has been given to him. If God gave him but little, that little let him enjoy." And: "I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that because I do not want a black woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife."

Note that Lincoln doesn't directly confront the racist charges of Douglas, nor does he advocate for abolition. In our time, political debate — such as it is — includes what we call negative attacks. These attacks are often based on critiques of the opponent's integrity using a standard of integrity that is all-or-nothing. In all probability, Lincoln would have failed to meet that standard. Lincoln's approach to the task of moral advancement is pragmatic. He tries to accomplish what is actually achievable at the moment. His failure to reach for the ultimate goal can be criticized for a lack of moral purity, but it did undoubtedly advance the cause. Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress. Photo taken February 28, 1857, by Alexander Hesler (1823-1895).

I'm often asked about how to participate in workplace politics without sacrificing one's integrity. The question itself reveals part of the problem, because it contains within it two examples of a logical fallacy called false dichotomy. With regard to politics, the confusion relates to the concept of participation; with regard to integrity, the confusion relates to the definition of integrity itself.

The basic question is this: How can I participate in workplace politics without compromising my integrity?

To begin to sort out the confusion, let's define both workplace politics and integrity. For this discussion, we take workplace politics to be what happens when we contend with each other for control or dominance, or when we work with others to resolve specific issues. We take integrity to be the alignment of word and deed with values and principles.

The definition of politics exposes the first example of false dichotomy. It is the belief that we can choose not to participate in workplace politics. That is, the question assumes that we either participate, or we don't. In reality, we cannot choose not to participate in workplace politics. Anyone employed in an organization is participating in its politics to some extent. For example, if you decide not to play an active role, you are then still a witness. Because what witnesses see and think is important to the more active participants, even witnesses play a role.

The basic question above mistakenly assumes that it's possible not to participate in workplace politics. We can choose how we participate, but we cannot choose whether we participate. Some roles are more active than others, but if you're inside the organization, you're inside its politics.

Now consider Integrity. Most of us believe that if our words, deeds, values, and principles are not in alignment, then we lack integrity. A single statement, act, principle, or value, no matter how minor, violates one's integrity if it is inconsistent with one's other words, deeds, principles, or values. Indeed, some people believe that a single such violation — no matter how incidental, or how long ago — is enough to destroy a person's integrity utterly.

This exposes the second example of false dichotomy, because perfect alignment of words, deeds, values, and principles — 100% of the time — is impossible. As human beings, we cannot choose whether we Most of us believe that
if our words, deeds,
values, and principles
are not in alignment,
then we lack integrity
will violate our integrity; we can only choose how and — to some extent — how often. Since absolute integrity is unachievable, a concept of degrees of integrity is more useful. For example, "She has a lot of integrity."

The problem underlying the basic question arises when we believe first we can totally avoid political participation, and second that integrity is absolute and all-or-nothing. Out here in Reality, though, both political participation and integrity are matters of degree. Reality is a whole lot messier than our theories. Go to top Top  Next issue: Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why  Next Issue

For more about the false dichotomy, see "Think in Living Color," Point Lookout for June 26, 2002. More about logical fallacies

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenoGshoJSlSszKjzOlner@ChacsbKNmftpPXNTqJpPoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Game ballsWorkplace Politics Is Not a Game
We often think about "playing the game" — either with relish or repugnance. Whatever your level of skill or interest, you'll do better if you see workplace politics as it is. It is not a game.
Gen. George Casey, Dep. Sec. Paul Wolfowitz, and Sec. Donald RumsfeldDismissive Gestures: Part I
Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated, we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a catalog of non-verbal insults.
Linda Tripp, a central figure in the impeachment of President ClintonPumpers
In workplace politics, some people always seem to be seeking information about others, but they give very little in return. They're pumpers. What can you do to deal with pumpers?
USS Indianapolis' last Commanding Officer, Captain Charles B. McVay, IIIThe Politics of Lessons Learned
Many organizations gather lessons learned — or at least, they believe they do. Mastering the political subtleties of lessons learned efforts enhances results.
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torchBeyond Our Control
When bad things happen, despite our plans and our best efforts, we sometimes feel responsible. We failed. We could have done more. But is that really true? Aren't some things beyond our control?

See also Workplace Politics and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A vizsla in a pose called the play bowComing April 26: Why Dogs Make the Best Teammates
Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good teammates. Available here and by RSS on April 26.
A business meetingAnd on May 3: Start the Meeting with a Check-In
Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed. Available here and by RSS on May 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenplTTAnJDUaXWqxYwner@ChactwlHpNYpYewzLfrAoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.