Culture Clash


Workplace politicians
can be an asset

With her double major in public relations and marketing, Masako Horoiwa interviewed well and was offered a job at the convention center in Providence, R.I.

Originally from Tokyo, she had attended Michigan State University under an international exchange of scholars program. She thought that her job prospects in the United States would be better than in Japan, and she was pleased when she was offered the convention center position. After a few weeks at work, she had lunch with her supervisor, Steve Hudson. A colleague, Grace Morris, came by their table for a short chat. After she left, Steve said, "Grace is a good office politician. If you can get to know her I think it will benefit both of you." Having read of recent ethics investigations of politicians in both Tokyo and Providence, Masako was unclear about Steve's use of the term, "office politician."

Good office politicians are an important asset in the workplace. They have good networks both inside and outside the organization. A marketing manager, for instance, will know accountants, human resource specialists and financial officers, all of whom can offer various forms of help on important projects. Good office politicians will also know people outside the organization, such as lawyers, professors and physicians. In marketing conventions, for example, it is very useful to know lots of professionals who can mention a specific convention city to their associations' conference planners.

Good politicians can form alliances among people who do not care for each other and who do not normally communicate with each other. They can identify issues on which people might agree and choose not to spend time on multiple areas of disagreement. They can identify issues on which people can say, "It will be more useful to collaborate with members of this other group than to ignore them." This means that politicians are good at communicating answers to the question, "What's in it for me?" when they talk to various groups whose members are often at odds with each other.

These activities assure that they will be in the presence of people who will shout at each other during the time necessary to hash out differences and to identity areas of possible collaboration. Good politicians remain calm, listen carefully to all points of view, and are models of pleasantness and cooperation. Most people have attended meetings where opinions are voiced loudly and with a harsh tone of voice. Who communicates effectiveness and political skillfulness? Is it the shouters, or is it the people who remain calm and collected? When people remain calm, they can focus their energies on identifying issues around which coalitions might be formed.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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