I once had a boss who informed me there was no such thing as
company politics. At the time, I decided that depended on whether
you were the person wielding power or the one influenced by it.
For most people, self-serving antics, sabotaging behaviors,
information hoarding, and artful manipulation fall under a company
politics label. Add veiled threats, perpetuated mistruths,
finger-pointing, and coercion and you've described a disengaging
culture fraught with fear - fear that you'll step on a career
grenade, lose your job, be labeled a troublemaker, or relegated to
the non-promotable category Or fear you'll say the wrong thing,
step in project quicksand, find no support, or be kept out of the
loop. These soul-depleting cultures trample self-esteem, negate
initiative, encourage survival behavior, diminish motivation, and
run counter to engagement strategies.
But after spending 20 years in management, I've realized it doesn't
have to be like that. Training and development professionals can
get ahead and coach others on how to get ahead without following a
destructive path. An ethical and empowering approach, using four
personal foundation concepts will keep you away from dark-side
politics, increase your political savvy, and get you noticed for
the right reasons.
It's about intentions
Politics can be served with negative or positive impact. Samuel B.
Bacharach, a Cornell University professor, puts it this way in
Get Them on Your Side: "Politics is simply the way we
influence others to achieve our goals. As long as those goals are
positive, and not achieved at the expense of others, the politics
of getting them accomplished is neither manipulative nor negative.
Dictators may be political, but saints might be, too."
Politics might mean assisting other departments, supporting company
initiatives, cooperating with those in charge, sharing information,
and helping others achieve results. Strategic alignments,
interdepartmental collaboration, and volunteering for additional
work assignments can be politics, too.
It's the intention behind the actions that determines whether
politics creates fear or fuels uncommon results. What's your
motive? You can serve your brand of politics from well-intentioned
thoughts or manipulative self-interest. Each motive creates a
different outcome. Ask yourself, "What are my intentions?" By
serving your politics with well-meaning intentions, you create a
positive work environment and raise the bar for others to follow.
It's about a bigger game
A peer manager, Jon, taught me a lesson about politics I haven't
forgotten. "Could we meet before Friday's meeting to talk it
through?" he called to ask. We were department heads, and Friday's
meeting was with decision makers to discuss pluses, minuses,
timetables, and resources needed for three options under
Over lunch a few days prior to the meeting, Jon and I discovered
our alignment. Option 1 required mandatory overtime, organizational
changes, and significant resources to implement. I felt it would
have a negative impact, reducing morale and productivity and
affecting long-term profits. Jon expressed a stronger viewpoint
about its deficiencies and why we needed to work together to
eliminate it from consideration.
By Friday, I had research, statistics, and arguments against Option
1. Walking to the meeting, Jon again expressed his position and the
desire to speak with one voice. What happened next took me by
surprise as Jon began to debate me, advocating for the
option he claimed to deplore. Three weeks later, Jon was promoted
to the project leader.
At the time, I was nave to maneuvering, politicking, and
velvet-glove punches. I wasn't thinking about the sentiments of
higher-ups as a factor in my presentation. I wanted to provide
sound input. But Jon adjusted as he read the tea leaves. He saw an
opportunity and took advantage of it, even though he didn't agree
with the position he aligned himself with. There were more
important things for Jon, like gaining favor with those decision
Funny thing about that. Two promotions and four years later, Jon
was fired. People like Jon may win in the short term, but they're
playing the wrong game. They put their interests above the
company's, their needs above the team, their end results above how
they got them. To people like Jon the only goal is a personal win.
But for people practicing positive politics, the approach differs.
They understand work is not a single-player game. They consider
long-term impact, big picture results, and how to grow the pie for
everyone. It's not a personal game for them. They work for the
bigger vision, believing it's only when we're all winning that we
truly all win.
It's about relationships
Relationships sustain us and get us through. It's relationships
that build pockets of excellence where ideas and engagement thrive,
no matter the outside culture. Relationships build winning
workplaces where people can do their best work. And it's authentic
trust that builds these relationships.
Politically savvy people understand the importance of trust in
achieving results at work. They also understand, contrary to
popular thinking, that you don't get trust by earning it; you get
it by giving it.
Think of trust not as a light switch, but as a dimmer switch. When
the dimmer switch is on low there's a little light. Giving trust is
like that. You start on low. Early in a new work relationship, you
might say, "Run it by me first." Then, as you give more trust, it's
more like, "Keep me posted on what you're doing." Followed by a
higher trust level, "Let me know if you get into trouble."
Authentic trust is fueled by accountability on the other side.
A practice of authentic trust is a practice of relationship
building. That vision enables you to make the right long-term
decisions. By making the relationship primary, tasks and outcomes
take care of themselves. So do negative politics.
It's about winning philosophies
People operating with a practice of positive politics get uncommon
results. How you serve your politics at work is a direct result of
how you show up (in the deepest sense) as a person. When you bring
the best of who you are to your work, it helps others do the same.
And when you transform a personal win philosophy into a collective
winning one, it enables uncommon results.
Winning philosophies drive these positive behaviors by creating
work groups, organizations, or communities where people thrive,
differences are embraced, and ideas explored. Here, people share
the why behind the what, ignite trust by giving it, and share their
knowledge willingly. These are the people most of us want to work
with, for, and around.
These four concepts provide the foundation for a personal practice
of positive politics. But there are many winning philosophies that
build upon this foundation. You'll find them where you see thriving
cultures, uncommon results, and high employee engagement.
Implications for your work
It takes courage to find and use your voice, bring your needed
wisdom to the workplace, and serve your politics well when others
aren't. It takes courage to be the catalyst for bringing uncommon
positive politics to your workplace.
The learning and development field has traditionally focused on
"outer work." That's the skills, knowledge, information, or
know-how to do what we need to do at work. It's time to add "inner
work" to achieve the kinds of organizations we'd all like to work
in - those filled with engaged people who make a difference and
positive politics that achieve uncommon results.
Nan S. Russell is the
author of Hitting Your Stride: Your Work, Your Way and
Nibble Your Way to Success: 56 Winning Tips for Taking Charge
of Your Career. She is the host of the weekly show "Work
Matters with Nan Russell" on webtalkradio.net, as well as a speaker
and consultant and president of MountainWorks Communications.
Russell spent more than 20 years in management, most recently with
QVC as a vice president. She has a BA from Stanford and an MA from
the University of Michigan.
2010 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.