Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 13;   March 28, 2012: Workplace Politics and Integrity

Workplace Politics and Integrity


Some see workplace politics and integrity as inherently opposed. One can participate in politics, or one can have integrity — not both. This belief is a dangerous delusion.
Abraham Lincoln as a young man about to become a candidate for U.S. Senate

Abraham Lincoln as a young man about to become a candidate for U.S. Senate. It was in the context of this election campaign that the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, between Lincoln and the incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, took place. In these debates, Douglas took a generally pro-slavery position. Lincoln's position was not that of an abolitionist — he advocated for halting the extension of slavery to new territories.

During the debates, Douglas repeatedly accused Lincoln of advocating for full equality of blacks and whites, including not only political rights, but what was then called "amalgamation" — intermarriage between the races. Lincoln responded by saying: "Certainly the Negro is not our equal in color — perhaps not in many other respects; still, in the right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the equal of every other man. In pointing out that more has been given to you, you cannot be justified in taking away the little which has been given to him. If God gave him but little, that little let him enjoy." And: "I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that because I do not want a black woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife."

Note that Lincoln doesn't directly confront the racist charges of Douglas, nor does he advocate for abolition. In our time, political debate — such as it is — includes what we call negative attacks. These attacks are often based on critiques of the opponent's integrity using a standard of integrity that is all-or-nothing. In all probability, Lincoln would have failed to meet that standard. Lincoln's approach to the task of moral advancement is pragmatic. He tries to accomplish what is actually achievable at the moment. His failure to reach for the ultimate goal can be criticized for a lack of moral purity, but it did undoubtedly advance the cause. Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress. Photo taken February 28, 1857, by Alexander Hesler (1823-1895).

I'm often asked about how to participate in workplace politics without sacrificing one's integrity. The question itself reveals part of the problem, because it contains within it two examples of a logical fallacy called false dichotomy. With regard to politics, the confusion relates to the concept of participation; with regard to integrity, the confusion relates to the definition of integrity itself.

The basic question is this: How can I participate in workplace politics without compromising my integrity?

To begin to sort out the confusion, let's define both workplace politics and integrity. For this discussion, we take workplace politics to be what happens when we contend with each other for control or dominance, or when we work with others to resolve specific issues. We take integrity to be the alignment of word and deed with values and principles.

The definition of politics exposes the first example of false dichotomy. It is the belief that we can choose not to participate in workplace politics. That is, the question assumes that we either participate, or we don't. In reality, we cannot choose not to participate in workplace politics. Anyone employed in an organization is participating in its politics to some extent. For example, if you decide not to play an active role, you are then still a witness. Because what witnesses see and think is important to the more active participants, even witnesses play a role.

The basic question above mistakenly assumes that it's possible not to participate in workplace politics. We can choose how we participate, but we cannot choose whether we participate. Some roles are more active than others, but if you're inside the organization, you're inside its politics.

Now consider Integrity. Most of us believe that if our words, deeds, values, and principles are not in alignment, then we lack integrity. A single statement, act, principle, or value, no matter how minor, violates one's integrity if it is inconsistent with one's other words, deeds, principles, or values. Indeed, some people believe that a single such violation — no matter how incidental, or how long ago — is enough to destroy a person's integrity utterly.

This exposes the second example of false dichotomy, because perfect alignment of words, deeds, values, and principles — 100% of the time — is impossible. As human beings, we cannot choose whether we Most of us believe that
if our words, deeds,
values, and principles
are not in alignment,
then we lack integrity
will violate our integrity; we can only choose how and — to some extent — how often. Since absolute integrity is unachievable, a concept of degrees of integrity is more useful. For example, "She has a lot of integrity."

The problem underlying the basic question arises when we believe first we can totally avoid political participation, and second that integrity is absolute and all-or-nothing. Out here in Reality, though, both political participation and integrity are matters of degree. Reality is a whole lot messier than our theories. Go to top Top  Next issue: Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why  Next Issue

For more about the false dichotomy, see "Think in Living Color," Point Lookout for June 26, 2002. More about logical fallacies

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

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People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on March 21.
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Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant demands for attention and admiration. Available here and by RSS on March 28.

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