It’s nice when a team works together
There are some occasions when you get to work in a really good team. Your manager has a clear set of goals and a rough idea how to get there. The working environment is nice and everyone just gets on. Those around you have a variety of skills and experience and everyone realises that if they do their job well then those around them will do the same. Stuff gets done and it gets done quickly and effectively.
You have that wonderful moment when the project finishes on time and under budget and everyone in the team turns round, looks at each other, and knows they did their bit. Just before everyone piles down the pub and has a good old drinking session together.
It can happen, it does happen, just not very often.
The Reality of Human Nature
There are some people out there who just don’t get on. It might be a clash of personalities, a difference of opinion or just two people competing over the same promotion opportunity. Whatever the reason it is rarely plain sailing and you can usually expect some form of conflict to arise at a team, section or departmental level.
You would hope that grown up adults in positions of professional responsibility would be capable of pulling together, putting aside past differences and just getting on with achieving the goal. Hate to break it to you, they just don’t.
What actually happens is that whole divisions can become polarised, usually around established cliques that have a shared vested interest. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets, and in some cases entire companies can grind to a halt while the two sides battle it out in some Game of Thrones style civil war. Little petty victories scoring points, innocent victims getting stabbed and entire careers being wiped out in the blink of an eye.
Understanding a faction
Have a look around your office and see what cliques exist. You can usually spot them as they will conjugate to have a chat or go out for lunch as a group. Listen to who complains about whom, watch who gets included in important discussions and who gets left out, observe which groups share the communal coffee retrieval duties.
In many cases it’s quite banal. The girls tend to hang around together to talk about shopping and kids while the boys all get in a group to talk dirty and rant about the football. None of this is too serious but the moment you add in a bit of stress and pressure it can suddenly become enough to blow the roof off.
It may be the case that your department is under treat of outsourcing or just an all out cull. It might be that someone senior has an eye on a soon to be vacant position. It might also be the case that certain professions or skilled specialists have a strange notion that they are superior to another differently skilled group. Whatever the reason, the moment these cliques start to bind together for self defence then factions will form.
A faction is a grouping of people who look out for each other, no matter what. Usually the leaders are the most senior within the corporate structure and the junior members start being seen as “belonging” to that particular manager or another. It’s more than just basic friendship as the careers of the shared faction are now bound together. If a member of the faction is fired or leaves then the faction becomes weaker, if a member gets promoted it gets stronger. It’s a strange mix of unspoken alliances and patronage that mean that those who stick together and play by the rules will benefit and those who do not suffer the consequences.
Now it is important to stress than no-one will ever publically acknowledge that this is going on. Everyone secretly knows who is allied to a particular faction and what their particular position will be on the issues facing the department. In meetings everyone will act perfectly politely and rationally, giving reasonable justifications for their decisions. Secretly, once they have returned to their desk and regrouped with their faction buddies, the knives will come out.
Often it borders on a strange form of nepotism. People wholly unsuited to a particular role will be moved there just because of their particular allegiance or loyalty. Like a giant game of corporate chess, pieces will be moved in to strategic positions just to improve the faction’s chance of defeating the opposing group. Everyone else scratches their head and wonders exactly how the hell that happened but is powerless to intercede.
Joining a faction
It might seem that this strange world of allegiances and feudal servitude is not really for you. Unfortunately you might not have a say in the matter.
The manager who hired you might have done so because your personality fits well with the particular faction he is a member of and you now find that you have been automatically enrolled without your agreement. Whether it is gossipy girls in short skirts and too much makeup or manchildren obsessed with drunken golf weekends and the naked female form it is not unknown to find yourself instantly pigeon holed just because you read the person sitting in front of you correctly and came across that way in the interview.
You arrive on your first day expecting a nice easy job and now you find yourself in the middle of war zone.
Likewise always understand what you are getting yourself in to. It might be the nice manager who takes you under his wing and teaches you new things or the girls that invite you out to that staff get together. Sometimes you can be joining a faction without ever realising it.
You can make a conscious decision to join a particular faction. Help out a particular manager by going out of your way to fix something or repeatedly back him up in a set of meetings and you will find yourself having that cosy little chat over coffee at an out of the way break area well away from prying eyes.
Should I, shouldn’t I
Understand that joining a particular faction has it’s dangers but also its benefits.
If the faction degrades because people leave or get taken out then you can find yourself in the undignified position of having to move on. You did your job well and were an asset to the team but because your allegiances lie with someone who is just about to be crucified you find yourself in a similar position.
The alternative to this position is to be on a winning faction. The faction leaders who you have supported loyally have just been promoted and are now in the process of executing those that had the temerity to stand against them. One of those poor victim’s well placed job now has your name on it.
It may just be safer to stay away from all these political manoeuvres but that will mean that others around you will be moving up the ladder when you should probably have been the one to progress. They had someone backing them whereas you had to do it solo. Don’t be surprised when you miss out. Those who do not have a faction may find themselves in the wilderness, not under threat but equally not going anywhere either.
If it does come to it and there are redundancies then it is usually the employees with no faction that end up getting booted first. Each faction will desperately fight to hold on to its retainers and you may find yourself being discarded simply because there was no-one fighting your corner.
The pointlessness of it all
It might seem like some form of feudal Japanese clan or Mafia inspired family and that is not far from the truth. No-one is going to expect you to cut off your thumb or commit honourable suicide but your career is at stake as well as your ability to provide for you and your dependants. Fun it is not.
What always surprises people is the pointlessness of it all. When people could be getting together and furthering both the business and their own career they don’t, preferring to spend much of their energy occupied with petty point scoring or sabotage. Personally I have lost count the amount of times that I have seen people turn away from offering well needed help just because the person who is asking belongs to a competing clan. It is a crime that capable and competent people end up being discarded to be replaced by half-wits just because of their political loyalty. Likewise every department always seems to have a few members of staff who can get away with doing nothing just because they provide useful political support to a person who will never discipline them.
Every business has some form of factional split between those that work for it. If you are lucky it is nothing more than a bit of friendly banter and separate staff nights out. In the larger organisations the factional conflict will almost certainly be a lot more serious with minor skirmishes erupting in to outright war with bloody consequences.
Understand that this world exists and that you have no chance of changing it, even if they make you CEO. Human nature means that it cannot be avoided and the reality is that many of the people who engage in this pointless and often damaging behaviour often do not even realise they are doing it.
As always in corporate life, be aware of what is going on around you and watch you don’t get caught in the crossfire. Unfortunately being really good at your job is no defense against a knife in the back, not when there are factions involved.