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

Last updated: July 18, 2019

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

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

Two useful sources:

Howard Raiffa. Decision Analysis: Introductory Lectures on Choices Under Uncertainty. New York: Mcgraw-Hill College, 1968.

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

aaa Order from Amazon.com BBB

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:

A knife edgeKnife-Edge Performers
Some employees deliver performance episodically, while some deliver steady, but barely adequate performance. Either way, they keep their managers drained and anxious, on the "knife edge" of terminating them. How can you detect knife-edge performers, and what can you do about them?
The game of chess, a strategic metaphorNasty Questions: I
Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather, they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
The Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus, a German World War II super-heavy tankWhy There Are Pet Projects
Pet projects are common in organizations, including organizations with healthy and mature planning processes. They usually consume resources at levels beyond what the organization intends, which raises the question of their genesis: Where do pet projects come from?
An F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter test aircraft AA-1 undergoes flight testing over Fort Worth, TexasThe Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration
Much of what we call work is as futile and irrelevant as rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors that extend task duration.
Platform supply vessels battle the fire that was consuming remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in April 2010Managing Non-Content Risks: II
When we manage risk, we usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks at hand — content risks. But there are other risks, to which we pay less attention. Many of these are outside our awareness. Here's Part II of an exploration of these non-content risks, emphasizing those that relate to organizational politics.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An abandoned railwayComing August 21: Perfectionism and Avoidance
Avoiding tasks we regard as unpleasant, boring, or intimidating is a pattern known as procrastination. Perfectionism is another pattern. The interplay between the two makes intervention a bit tricky. Available here and by RSS on August 21.
A dog playing catch with a discAnd on August 28: Playing at Work
Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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: Lessons in Leadership
On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership 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. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. 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 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.