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Thought Thursdays
Factionalism – The leadership challenge


Intrigued, we watched the aggressive warm up to the ANC National Conference. At the heart of the political debate in South Africa, and on everyone's lips, was – and still is – the term factionalism. Finally, we know which faction has achieved dominance. The outcome of the conference has given us some idea about what South Africa, post Zuma, will look like. In a bid to end the fracturing effect of factionalism, the new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, in various public statements, has called for unity. In his speech at Davos last week he put spotlight on this issue.

 "We, in South Africa, know what a fractured world is. We come from a fractured country/fractured past, which was fractured by the past policies of apartheid and has resulted in the poverty, inequality, and unemployment that we face today.... The first thing that I think all of us as South Africans have acknowledged is that we are living in a country, which has a fractured past, a currently fractured present and therefore, it falls on all of us to do something about this."

In 2013, Forte described factionalism as "groups of people formed around a leader who reject the status quo and actively work against established authority within a society". We know that this type of factionalism is extreme and can destroy organisations. Factionalism of this nature is a poor reflection on organisational leadership. Why? Because leaders are appointed to build great organisations, and to work together to root out extreme and destructive factionalism. If they are not doing so, it becomes clear that self-interest, as opposed to organisational interest, dominates.

The public response to factionalism and the popular call in the corporate world are for employees not to be political. You often hear employees claim: "I don't play politics". Most often, if you accuse individuals or groups of employees of being political, they will strongly deny it. But is this real? Can our organisations function in an ideal, non-political domain, and what is the consequence if we do this?

In a time when innovation, creativity and continuous improvement are essential attributes, surely some level of competitiveness between individuals is crucial. Is it not when we are pushing each other and pushing the teams around us beyond our comfort zones that we perform optimally? The reality is, though, that unless carefully managed, the more competitive the environment, the higher the risk of destructive politics, and ultimately factionalism. This continuum can be illustrated as follows:

organizational political spectrum.png 

What differentiates the two sides of this continuum is motive, and particularly the motives of leaders. Where the leadership of an organisation actively promotes the organisation's interests above its own, the organisation will follow. This is the hidden ingredient of a high-performing work culture. Where leaders allow or encourage employees or constituents to pursue own or factional interest, the organisation is in grave danger, and the leadership of the organisation should be held to account.

 Michael Jarrett recently provided a simple tool to help us unravel the complexity of organisational politics and its underlying interests. This tool is more powerful than one might imagine:

4 metaphors organizational politics.png 

Every organisation has a range of formal individual role players (rocks) and organisational political structures (high ground) which, if they function well, drive our processes and systems. Assessing, monitoring and adjusting their effectiveness is the role of management at various levels in the organisation.  

Behind the scenes, however, there are also informal role players and informal structures. If these informal structures exert a negative influence and are allowed to thrive, they can significantly undermine organisational potential.

Organisational leaders need to be aware of these informal political dynamics, understand them clearly, and ensure that they are supported by them. Leadership is about influencing these dynamics towards organisational interest.

I have recently facilitated the use of this tool by an HR director, who unpacked the complex political dynamics of a multinational organisational into individual and organisational-level role players as well as the formal and informal power dynamics which underlie the company's political energy. Using this analysis, she developed an innovative stakeholder strategy to shift the thinking around BBBEE significantly.  

The point is that organisations are political, and, as leaders, we need to be politically awake. As we see in the organisational aspect of the political landscape, this can go either way. There is a dangerous level at which interests, and organisational competitiveness shifts from external focus (the customer) to internal focuses (my interest or faction). This can ultimately lead to extremely destructive factionalism – the type of factionalism which dominates our political landscape at the moment. Think of how much political energy w being expended on political factionalism in 2017, rather than moving the economy forward or resolving the educational or unemployment crises.

The competitive organisation will only remain competitive if the full energy which exists within the organisation is externally focused – focused on competitiveness and focused on being innovative and creative. Such externally focused organisations carry the mark of great leadership.

Dr Charles du Toit teaches on USB’s postgraduate diploma in leadership and is part of USB-ED’s virtual faculty. He leads a new niche Leadership and HR consultancy focused on assisting individuals and companies to develop their leadership brands. 

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