Workplace Politics and Type III Errors
by Rick Brenner
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 (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 problemcontent-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. Top 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
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See also Workplace Politics and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 28: The Limits of Status Reports: Part II
- We are not completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits. Available here and by RSS on January 28
- And on February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
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