Will noticed rapid movement across the empty cafeteria, and looked up from his coffee. Marian always walked fast, but now she was walking fast even for her, so Will knew something was up. She slid onto the bench opposite him in the booth, and said, "They're spinning off Metronome as its own company."
Will was a little stunned, but more than that, impressed. Metronome had begun as a skunk works, and gradually morphed into a division and then to an operating company. "Lamson did it," he said finally, referring to Metronome's founder, then general manager and now Chairman and CEO. "He got so big that they couldn't hold onto him. Amazing."
Lamson had built an empire. Empires come in several varieties:
- Trusts are empires built around critical capabilities upon which much of the rest of the organization depends. An example is the IT director who uses the IT function as a power base, doling out favors to allies and punishment to the rest.
- Empires can be
- Blobs gradually consume ever-larger segments of the organization. At first the consumed segments "make sense" but as the empire grows, it becomes more heterogeneous. Blobs tend to grow when there is a shortage of able leaders.
- Federations are alliances of peers. Usually one of them is dominant, and the others follow his or her lead. Although they retain formal independence, the reality is more like the structure of the former Soviet Union — a dominant central power surrounded by dependent clients.
- Colonies begin life as outposts isolated from the parent organization. They gradually grow in importance, until the tail wags the dog. Lamson's empire was a colony.
Empires can be costly to the organization. Their rulers can shade decisions in favor of their empires, which can subordinate organizational interests to the interests of the empires. To maintain control, empire builders often duplicate functions that already exist elsewhere. And talented employees who happen to be attached to business units that suffer under the empire might be more likely to voluntarily exit the organization.
Empires present both opportunities and risks to the people in and around them. For the people of Metronome, the financial rewards and career opportunities can be significant. And shareholders can benefit too. But this is the brighter side of empire.
Empires can make the organization less competitive, and less able to offer opportunity to its employees. If the problems become obvious enough, interventions can include reorganization, replacement of management, or even disciplinary action. If you're working in an empire now, prepare for that future day. Refresh your network, and search for alternatives. Be ready to move much sooner than you think you need to. If you wait too long, you might become part of a stampede. And then you'll have to walk even faster than Marian. Top Next Issue
Is 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
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- The Advantages of Political Attack: I
- In workplace politics, attackers sometimes prevail even when the attacks are specious, and even when
the attacker's job performance is substandard. Why are attacks so effective, and how can targets respond
- Social Entry Strategies: II
- When we first engage with a group at work, we employ social entry strategies to make places for ourselves
to carry out our responsibilities, and to find enjoyment and fulfillment at work. Here's Part II of
a little catalog of social entry strategies.
- Grace Under Fire: II
- When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the
other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able
to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
- I Don't Understand: I
- When someone makes a statement or offers an explanation that's unclear or ambiguous, there are risks
associated with asking for clarification. The risks can seem so terrifying that we decide not to ask.
What keeps us from seeking clarification?
- An Introduction to Workplace Ostracism
- We say that a person has been ostracized from a group when that person is ignored by the members of
that group or excluded from participating in that group's activities, and when we might otherwise expect
that person to be a member. Workplace ostracism can have expensive consequences for the enterprise.
See also Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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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.