Politics in Startups vs. Big Companies

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.

30 thoughts on “Politics in Startups vs. Big Companies”

  1. This is so true. I’ve also worked in both startup and at bigger companies (after we were acquired). Personally I found the startup stuff a lot easier to manage because most of the political stuff was more out in the open so it was easier to deal with. I found the big company politics to be way more unproductive and soul sucking. It’s a big reason why I have stuck to smaller companies ever since.

    1. Hey Sanjay,
      Thanks for the comment. I’ve worked at a couple of big companies (a couple of times I can in through acquisitions). My experience ranged from not so bad (a 9,000 person company) to downright horrible (at a company with hundreds of thousands of employees). Politics is a factor everywhere but in the case of the really big company I worked at, I quit because I simply didn’t think I could be successful there without decades of experience dealing with it.
      April

  2. You had me at rainbow colored unicorns. I might smell opportunity, is there an app to track political alliances at big companies? Hmm…
    Secondly, I wonder if things would be different if a founder only hired independent contractors? Maybe you’d avoid the politics, but would you miss the synchronization & energy that comes from a team of committed people?

    1. Hi Steve,
      LOL – I actually think an app that tracked that would be very useful!
      I don’t think the contractor thing would solve it. I’ve found contractors can be worse that regular employees because they don’t care as much if the company fails or succeeds, as long as they get paid. It’s good that they can be above company politics but they still bring their own agendas to their work.
      April

      1. I can imagine an app like that would also be susceptible to sabotage and rumor-starting by rival camps within the organization itself. sounds exciting, but how to monetize it? maybe players bet money on who will win, and app takes a cut of each bet 🙂

  3. I spent over a decade in startups, then moved to a larger company. I didn’t realize it until a year or two in, but I vastly prefer big company politics over small. In my experience, there’s less at stake in any individual interaction at a big company: the politics are more diffuse, and less concentrated in each individual I interact with. This means I have many more low-stakes interactions I’d consider “political” every day, rather than the fewer-but-higher-stakes interactions I experienced in startup. So: the overall anxiety/drama level is lower. Plus: there isn’t that nagging we’re-going-out-of-business feeling every month. These two factors combine to make me more relaxed and productive in my actual (technical) job.

    I can see how my situation (constant, low-grade, diffuse political interactions interleaved with everything else I do) would drive some people nuts, but I find I’m better at (and vastly prefer) slowly, incrementally steering the political machinery of a large organization than I was at taking the proverbial punches in the face I had to deal with in the startup universe.

    1. Thanks so much for the great comment Dan.
      In my opinion you hit the nail on the head about some of the differences. It’s so true that the level of drama at a startup can be extremely high (oh the stories I have about startup drama) and you are right that there is frequently an overall feeling of anxiety related to how the business is or isn’t performing.
      I think your points for why you might prefer big company politics are great.
      April

    2. hmm, i think that is par for the course of a startup, the emotional rollercoaster of highs & low, feeling euphoric vs feeling like everything is crashing, but I wouldn’t associate those experiences as company politics, unless those scenarios were artifically made up by a founder or manager to get people to work harder, longer, without pay, etc. I can also imagine that after spending over a decade in startups, you might get burned out in that environment, and wish to transition to a more stable position.

      1. You are right – a lot of the up and down isn’t politics at all. But in an environment where there is a lot of up and down, the politics tends to be a bit more fraught and intense. The intensity of a startup is exactly why some people love it and other people burn out I think.
        My career has swung from startups to big companies and back again. There are great reasons to work at both but I missed the energy level of a smaller company when I was at a big one. That said, there were a couple of the small ones where the energy level was a bit much 😉

  4. Anyone who thinks politics don’t exist in startups hasn’t paused to reflect on the fact that most startups are founded by folks with big-co backgrounds, then staffed as they grow with talent pulled from established companies.

    Those people don’t suddenly change their stripes when they join the startup.

    1. Thanks Aaron,
      I wonder if that is true. If I look back at the handful of startups I’ve worked at, there was a split between folks that has big company backgrounds and folks that had failed spectacularly at big companies and were driven to start their own thing by those failures. But I agree – people take their habits with them wherever they go.
      April

    2. > I define politics as activities that people engage in at work for their own personal gain rather than to achieve a specific business goal.

      Wherever there are people, politics will occur. It doesn’t really matter if they come from big companies. Personal gain is part of life. Some people will also say robots and machines play politics by breaking down at the worst of times. 😉

  5. Great post, and your comment about the two levels up power play being crucial (as well as out of your control) strikes home.

    I have never been in a startup, but every organization I have been in has its own brand of politics. In my role as Product Manager, I am often ping-ponged between factions, or have to adjust when a political wind shift occurs a few levels up.

    Sadly, I have aligned myself with execs who have later proven poisonous, and limited my growth at one organization (it just took me three years to realize the damage and escape).

    Thanks for sharing, and spot on as usual!

    1. Thanks Geoffrey,
      I think Product Management is a really political role – probably almost as bad as marketing except I think marketers are at much greater risk of getting fired if they end up on the wrong end of things.
      April

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *