Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 28;   July 10, 2013: Workplace Politics and Type III Errors

Workplace Politics and Type III Errors

by

Most job descriptions contain few references to political effectiveness, beyond the fairly standard collaborate-to-achieve-results kinds of requirements. But because true achievement often requires political sophistication, understanding the political content of our jobs is important.
A dead Manchurian Ash

A dead Manchurian Ash (probably Fraxinus mand­schur­ica). Note that its trunk is far from straight. This condition is called sinuosity. It is thought to result from the tree's attempts to reach for light as openings appear in the forest canopy. (See Charismatic Megaflora: What do Old Trees Look Like? by Neil Pederson) As one canopy opening is filled by foliage of taller trees, and new openings appear, the ash has had to "change course" several times. If we regard the tree as being a problem solver, with the search for light being the problem it's solving, it seems to have led a life in which the solutions it finds repeatedly (and rather suddenly) become invalid. Consequently, it has had to search for new solutions to the new problem, and this has led to sinuosity.

This tree's experience suggests that for us as humans, Type III errors — that is, correct solutions to wrong problems — can arise suddenly out of correct solutions to correct problems. We might be engaged in solving a correct problem correctly, and suddenly, without warning, the problem's "validity" vanishes. If we persist in solving that problem then we would be committing a Type III error, even though we weren't when we began the effort. In this way, we can commit a Type III error by addressing technically a problem that at the outset was fundamentally technical, but which becomes political as the technical solution develops. Photo courtesy Neil Pederson.

Statisticians identified Type I and Type II errors almost 70 years ago. In brief (possibly too brief), a Type I error is a false positive and a Type II error is a false negative. These mistakes can be costly indeed, but they are topics for other days.

The concept of Type III errors is based on a generalization of these first two. The approach I favor is that of Raiffa (see below), who identified Type III errors as those in which one solves the wrong problem correctly. This definition has wide applicability in the realm of workplace politics.

Consider an example. In my workshops I sometimes pose problems like this:

You're in charge of a large, innovative effort for your company, MegaBlunder. Similar but smaller and less complex efforts at MegaBlunder have used SupplierA with satisfactory but not stunningly successful results. Unfortunately, because of the size, complexity, and novelty of your effort, SupplierA cannot meet all your needs. SupplierB can, but because of a bad experience with SupplierB some years ago, there is a "soft" ban of SupplierB, and using them is deprecated. You believe on strong evidence that SupplerB's past is now behind it, but there's some political risk involved in selecting SupplierB. A review of your effort is scheduled for next week. What do you do?

Although this example is expressed in terms of supplier choice, other forms include choices of technologies, locations, markets, and people. We'll stay with the supplier example for concreteness.

Most people address such problems by devising strong defenses of their positions. They gather glowing references from customers of SupplierB, carefully researched evidence of the shortcomings of SupplierA's offerings, and evidence of the strength of SupplierB's offerings. They perform risk analyses of the two alternatives. PowerPoint slides galore. Sometimes it works.

And sometimes not.

Troubles with We are committing a
Type III error when
we correctly solve
the wrong problem
content-based approaches arise when these approaches comprise Type III errors. When the real problem is political, rather than one of supplier capability, these approaches are correct solutions to the wrong problem.

In our example, suppose that the basis of the ban on SupplierB was actually the damaged relationship between SupplierB's former CEO and MegaBlunder's former CEO. The excuse might have been a pattern of late deliveries, but trust was the real issue. Both CEOs have long since moved on, but the ban remained. A more suitable approach might involve consulting your network to gain a deeper understanding of the issue, and then, possibly with help from others on the executive team, working to remove the ban.

In other words, use politics to solve political problems. Use technology to solve technical problems. Don't use technology to solve political problems, or politics to solve technical problems. Avoid committing Type III errors. Go to top Top  Next issue: Agenda Despots: I  Next Issue

Two useful sources:

Raiffa, H. Decision Analysis: Introductory Lectures on Choices Under Uncertainty. New York: Mcgraw-Hill College. Order from Amazon.com

Ian I. Mitroff and Abraham Silvers. Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. Order from Amazon.com

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? rbrengkdABIMxukovdsdUner@ChacwsirvuWZcMTnABKNoCanyon.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:

Blaming and being blamedIs It Blame or Is It Accountability?
When we seek those accountable for a particular failure, we risk blaming them instead, because many of us confuse accountability with blame. What's the difference between them? How can we keep blame at bay?
Freeway damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta, California, EarthquakeManaging Pressure: The Unexpected
When projects falter, we expect demands for status and explanations. What's puzzling is how often this happens to projects that aren't in trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of strategies for managing pressure.
Aggregating anemones (Anthopleura elegantissima)How Pet Projects Get Resources: Cleverness
When pet projects thrive in an organization, they sometimes depend on the clever tactics of those who nurture them to secure resources despite conflict with organizational priorities. How does this happen?
Timber blowdown in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National ForestCoercion by Presupposition
Coercion, physical or psychological, has no place in the workplace. Yet we see it and experience it frequently. We can end the use of presupposition as a tool of coercion, but only if we take personal responsibility for ending it.
Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sJust Make It Happen
Many idolize the no-nonsense manager who says, "I don't want to hear excuses, just make it happen." We associate that stance with strong leadership. Sometimes, though, it's little more than abuse motivated by ambition or ignorance — or both.

See also Workplace Politics and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrennXXdxvIeQNMvBWFRner@ChacWYMvnQuGwpbgFeqboCanyon.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

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 are some dates 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 a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about 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.