Don’t Like Organizational Politics? Get Over It. September 25 2013

At the end of a Next Level Intensive workshop yesterday, I asked the participants for some ideas on topics they’d like to cover in future sessions or what they’d like to see me address in my blog. As people were leaving the room, one of the managers sidled up to me and said she’d really like to see a post on navigating organizational politics. That’s one that I have some strong opinions on so here we are. (And thanks for the request – you know who you are!)

Before I got on the plane, I looked up the root of the word politics on Wikipedia. Here’s the first line of the entry:

Politics (from Greek: politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens”) is the practice and theory of influencing other people on a civic or individual level.

To be honest, I already knew that the root was from the Greek for the citizenry. That leads to the first of two points about navigating organizational politics. If you want to have any kind of impact as a leader, you have to engage in the politics if for no other reason than organizations are made up of people who are, in the purest sense of the word, political beings.

When I’m out working with groups, I’ll often hear people say “I don’t do politics,” “I can’t stand the politics,” or something else closely related. If you feel that way but want to be effective in your organization, you need to get over it. Politics is literally a fact of life.

So what do you do if you hate the politics but still want to succeed? That question leads to the second point and the phrase in the Wikipedia definition that caught my attention. The phrase is “influencing other people.” That’s what politics is all about and it’s not a nasty, scuzzy thing to do. It’s a leadership skill.

How do you do it? There are lots of good ideas out there. I offered what I think are some good ones in a post last year on Three Ways to Increase Your Influence (The headlines are learn, listen and like.)

So, are you an org politics ninja? If so, please share your best tips with us. Still figuring it out? If so, what are your questions? Hate it, no matter what I say? Feel free to rant in a comment.

6 Responses to “Don’t Like Organizational Politics? Get Over It.”

  1. Dr. P. says:

    While I might agree to some extent, when I am forced to make a decision that I find to be morally wrong, or at least appears to be in some sort of "gray" area, due to the effect that it will have on my department's political standing, or my own political standing with my organization, then I do in fact, hate politics, and find it reprehensible.

    • Gary says:

      Agreed. As a manager in Quality Assurance in the food industry my "politics" are tested are a regular basis. I too find it reprehensible and stand my moral and ethical ground. I have actually left companies over this very thing before. I am just fine today from a "success" standpoint without playing into the "politics".

      I don't see politics as influence as the writer does. We all have to influence others with our ideas and views on things within the workplace. It is natural, but one should never compromise their morals and ethics for the sake of "success" through "politics".

  2. Here's the way I look at it: Everything we experience (especially "negatives") is just information. I was on a fabulous call yesterday with Christine Comaford (www.christinecomaford.com) who was addressing the issue of how neuroscience can help us lead, market, and sell more effectively. What she pointed out was that as human beings–and this applies to everyone in an organization–we're motivated by issues concerning safety, belonging, and mattering. These map onto the triune brain (reptilian: keep me safe; limbic: help me feel like I belong; and neocortex: do i matter? what does this mean to me?).

    She suggested–and I can see the logic in this, as well from personal experience–that people who perpetually engage in office politics likely don't feel safe, that they belong, or that they matter. I guess that to really know which of these is the biggest motivational influence would depend on the nature of their behavior. If they're always spreading rumors and gossiping, Christine suggested, that indicates safety issues. Creating silos, isolating people etc. indicates belonging issues, etc.

    Armed with this knowledge there is a practical way to put an end (or at the very least mitigate) office politics: give those people what they want. Make them feel safer (through words and actions), boost their sense of belonging, give voice and show that they matter.

    I no longer work in a large organization, being an external consultant, but I wish I'd known this years ago when I was surrounded by people who engaged in office politics to the detriment of the overall culture and our individual working experiences. Remember, it's all just "information" – often unconscious on the part of the perpetrator. Worth bearing neuroscience in mind, don't you think?

  3. Bill J. says:

    Great article. It took me 20 years of being stubborn to learn what this article sums up quickly, you have to work with other people and life is not as simple as identifying the problem, applying a solution and walking away. Look at the world as a whole. Change often comes in very small or minute increments. The same is true in most office structures. Its not that "a" solution does not work, rather most problems can be approached/solved in a multitude of ways. Those who can articulate their ideas and proposed solutions and garner support behind them are often the people who are looked upon as leaders. I agree with the earlier post about shades of gray and unethical or immoral behavior, but would change the dynamic to read more of a "the glass is half full". As responsible leaders in organizations, we should provide room for future leaders to grow. Office politics with guidance can be useful to this end. Ultimately, an organization is only as good as the people who work within it. If office politics takes away from the core mission of the organization, then the orginization will ultimately under-perform and possibly fail its customer base and investors.

    • victoree says:

      I agree along your lines, Bill. It took me years to understand that as long as you work among humans, they will have an opinion of you and you will have an opinion of them and we all view the world through the filter of our own ideas. It took me many more years to understand that if I wanted to survive and even thrive I had to participate or be considered "an outsider" and ignored or worse yet, thought to be an antagonist (but I only heard that in whispers out of earshot). It took me more years yet to "get it" about the relationship with money and the economy. You're right! Some people's ideas may be full of it; the people who present them may be prattling donkeys, but those very people will be looked at as leaders. A good idea is not a good idea if it is not known; expressed; spoken; offered. If the righteous are silent the evil will take over. Companies are social systems just like villages. We all have to learn how to "play" regardless how we feel about the game.

  4. Vincent Lubrano says:

    To use the root origin of a word that now means something far different from that root is a bit specious especially when espousing that you lead in this way. This is the accepted form that people think about when they hear the word “politics”(from Dictionary.com):

    “play politics,

    a. to engage in political intrigue, take advantage of a political situation or issue, resort to partisan politics, etc.; exploit a political system or political relationships.

    b. to deal with people in an opportunistic, manipulative, or devious way, as for job advancement.”

    This is the form that people are thinking of when they say they avoid “I don’t do politics” not that they don’t think they need to be influential- qiute the contrary they want to be influential in a way that benefits the organiation not themselves.While it is true that a true leader needs to influence, it would not be beneficial to do it manner of the present and accepted meaning of politics.

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