The Brother-In-Law Syndrome

Change your definition of "dealership politics" and become more politically savvy.

Cover your ears. Mothers, shield your children. Quick move everyone to the basement. In this article we are going to cover (fade up dramatic impending doom music) "the brother in-law syndrome."

What’s that you ask?

It’s when the dealer principal’s brother-in-law is made the general manager although he knows nothing about the business. It’s also known as dealership politics. Okay quick, before reading any further, stop and think of words or examples you might use to describe dealership politics.

What did you come up with?

If you were to ask most dealership people what comes to mind when you bring up dealership politics, you get responses like:

  • That’s the reason one of our techs gets all the easy jobs?
  • Oh you mean when we do whatever crazy promotion the dealer principal’s wife wants to do.
  • Does it have anything to do with my sales manager taking credit for all of my good ideas?

Other descriptors often come out as well. Backstabbing, underhanded, manipulative … as you can tell these are not exactly stellar character references or heartwarming stories of dealership life. So when you ask further do you like to engage in dealership politics, most people will give you an emphatic no!

But when in conversation I ask the same group of dealership people if they would like to become more politically savvy, in almost every case the response is a resounding yes.

Political Savvy

So what is the idea of political savvy? This is a concept created by Joel Deluca, Ph.D. He’s written the book on organizational politics. I met Dr. Deluca several years ago and am one of a handful of people in the country authorized to deliver his Political Savvy workshops.

Of all of the literature we’ve reviewed on organizational politics, his book is the only one we’ve found that doesn’t look at politics negatively or as a weapon to be wielded. And it’s this repeated view of negative politics that makes us comment the way we do.

Something Fishy

Typically a person’s mindset regarding how an organization works is created after repeated exposure. This is reminiscent of the famous pike fish experiments regarding behavior.

For those of you unfamiliar with this experiment, here’s how it worked. It seems a couple of mischievous scientists found a rather large fish tank and placed several northern pike (think freshwater barracuda) into the tank. They herded the pike to one side of the tank and then in the other side they dropped guppies; the closest thing to Oreo cookies for northern pike.

You don’t have to be clairvoyant to figure out what happened next. That’s right, the pike devoured all of the guppies. Here’s where the scientists got crafty. They once again herded the pike to one end of the tank and then slid a glass divider in the tank creating two distinct areas.

Then guess what they put in the pike-free side? That’s right, more guppies. Well the pike thinking that they were getting more food, twisted the wick and wham! They smacked their heads right up against the glass. Wham! They did it again. Wham! They hit it again (Hey, I said they were ferocious, not smart).

Finally, after repeated head bashing, the pike stopped going after the guppies. After all they have taught themselves that they couldn’t get them. Then guess what those ill-behaved scientists did? They removed the glass. Here was the pikes’ chance they would finally be able to consume the guppies.

With the guppies swimming right in front of their noses the pike did nothing. And they did nothing for so long several pike even starved to death! With food swimming easily within reach of their capable teeth, they did nothing. Why? The memory of them hitting their heads against the glass and being denied was far too powerful to overcome.

Escaping The Pike School Of Thought

The obvious tie-in is that sometimes in our dealerships we hit our heads against the glass. We feel we didn’t get credit for our accomplishments, so why try? Others took credit for our ideas so why give more? Promotions go to those who are connected, not to those who are the most able.

This is where we need to break through the glass of this mindset and think about things differently.

Don’t Call Your Mother!

Here’s a great example of changing how to think and interact: A radio talk show psychologist was fielding a call. The unhappy caller needing advice asked, "Every time something good in my life happens I call my mother who immediately tells me I don’t deserve the promotion, the pay raise, the compliment or whatever good thing that’s happened. It’s been going on for years, and I get depressed for days afterwards. What should I do?"

The psychologist’s advice was succinct. "When something good happens don’t call your mother!"

Your dealership works the way it does ultimately by how we think and how we interact. Only by changing how we think and changing how we interact can we move forward.

If you think about one definition of politics that comes from Ben Franklin, who said politics is "How interests and influence play out in an institution."

Every dealership is comprised of people who have interests. Goals, needs and desires are a few of them, and every dealership is comprised of people who for many reasons have differing levels of influence in your store’s hierarchy.

If you think about Franklin’s definition it is really neutral. Not positive or negative. A great parallel is a knife. It can be used for good or ill, it just depends on who is using it. Influence in an organization is the same way. It all depends on who and how the influence is being used.

Ethically Building Critical Mass

Dr. Deluca’s concept of political savvy really takes Ben Franklin’s concept just a bit further (which is interesting as both are from Philadelphia). Deluca’s definition of political savvy is: "Ethically building a critical mass of support for an idea you care about."

It’s instructive to break down each segment of this definition.

Ethically: First and foremost to have the greatest, long-term impact in an organization you must deal with things from an ethical foundation. You must primarily have the dealership’s interest in mind. It can be good for you too, but it must primarily be good for the store overall.

Building: This refers to actively working with others in the dealership. It’s much easier to work alone to develop an idea, but chances are it won’t be as good of an idea or as well received.

Critical Mass: A critical mass is when you have enough to create movement (okay you scientists out there may have a more precise definition but humor me for a moment).

Support: In this context we mean you have those in the dealership who are willing to talk more about the idea, who are willing to put mental energy into making the idea work.

An Idea You Care About: This could be the most important aspect of starting your path to becoming more politically savvy. Whatever you are trying to create or innovate in your dealership (a new marketing idea, process, policy, etc.), if it is significant, chances are it won’t happen overnight. You will have to be in it for the long haul. You’ll need energy fueled by passion, and if it isn’t important to you, why should it be important to others?

That’s A Wrap

So far in this piece we’ve talked about why and how dealership politics often get referred to negatively. We’ve talked about how this creates mindsets and how powerful (and limiting) a mindset can be. We explored the fact that the key to creating change in your dealership is really by changing how we think and how we interact. We introduced you to the work of Dr. Joel Deluca and his concept of political savvy, ethically building a critical mass of support for an idea you care about.

Next time we will talk about why 80% of people aren’t savvy. We’ll also give you more guides to thinking and interacting differently so that you can ethically build support for new ideas in your store. This is crucial to your career success. It’s been said if you can help enough others get what they want, you will ultimately get what you want.

Dealership politics is typically a hush-hush topic, reserved for after-hours discussions, typically over adult beverages. It needn’t be. Working with people who understand politics as a reality in any dealership you can do more good for the dealership and your customers.

So if dealership politics are negative words for you, try replacing them. Don’t engage in dealership politics rather strive to become more politically savvy. You’ll be glad you did. Don’t miss next month’s installment to find out how.

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