Politics in Startups vs. Big Companies

05/31/2011

I’ve heard folks say they like startups better than big companies because there are no politics at startups. When people that tell me that there aren’t any politics at their company (regardless of the size) I think they are either:

  1. New employees that are still in the honeymoon phase of their job where everything looks like a rainbow-covered unicorn
  2. Lying
  3. The source of all politics at the company (sometimes known as “the founder”)

In my experience both environments have lots of corporate politics, but the 2 political landscapes look very different.

I define politics as activities that people engage in at work for their own personal gain rather than to achieve a specific business goal. This can range from telling your boss you like her horrible new shoes hoping she will give you a raise, to sabotaging a coworker with the hopes that he will get fired and you can be his replacement. Even flat organizations have folks with more power than others (meaning people who make decisions about hiring, firing and compensation) and both the powerful and non-powerful people will sometimes make decisions based on factors other than the good of the company. They are human beings after all.

Big Company Politics

At one large company I worked at, a very talented co-worker had her career as an executive derailed when she was passed over for a promotion (in that particular company, those passed over once were never promoted again). Her downfall was the result of a competition between two executives 3 levels above her. I learned that my success in part depended on my perceived alignment with people many levels above me and I needed to manage that perception to get promoted. In large companies, keeping track of who has power over what and whom consumes a good deal of employee energy. The term “matrixed organization” was invented to describe this.

Small Company Politics

Similarly at a startup I worked at I saw a talented, much loved co-worker get fired when the founder felt his authority was being challenged during a disagreement about the strategy. Everyone who worked there learned a lesson – don’t challenge the founder or you might get fired.

At small companies there are usually a handful of people who control/influence hiring, firing, promotions and compensation and they sometimes have weird and wonderful personal agendas or hot buttons. A mentor of mine who worked for a series of very successful yet volatile founders once described succeeding in a startup as “learning how to take a punch in the face.” I disagree with that as a general rule but that said, I’ve ducked a few punches.  And just because you’re the founder don’t think you get off easy. Outside investors are human too and I’ve seen founders pushed out for purely political reasons.

Big vs. Small: the Politics are Different (but Both can be Deadly)

At big companies the politics may seem more daunting because it’s harder to figure out who has power and what you might do to influence it. In startups it’s usually not too hard to figure out who the people are and what their hot buttons might be. Both require a certain amount of political savvy to be successful and in both environments you will at some point be required to do things that are not specifically for the good of the company but very much for the good of your career.

There are many good reasons to join a startup and an equal number of good reasons to join a large company. You might decide you’re better at one style of politics than you are at another. Just don’t tell me there are no politics at a startup. There are, and the outcomes can be just as deadly as they are in a big company.