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Lembit Opik

Leadenhall Consulting and former MP

Associate Director

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Lembit Opik: How to navigate office politics

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I’ll let you into a bit of a secret, off the record, as they say: office politics exists.  

In fact, it’s everywhere. I once asked my friend and former boss at Procter & Gamble, Graham Cowley, what the smallest organisation to be influenced by politics was.  
 
He replied without a moment’s hesitation: ‘A marriage.’ Was Cowley right? And if so, just how prevalent is politics really? Can it be avoided? And, if not, what should be done about it?
 
Firstly, it is clear that office politics exists as soon as two or more people interact. But it’s all about the definition: in the words of Polly Labarre, author of ‘The New Face of Office Politics,’ politics is “simply how power gets worked out on a day-to-day basis”. 
 
Secondly, anyone who’s ever tried to persuade anyone else of anything has indulged in politics. It can’t be avoided. A striking aspect of autism is an individual’s inability to display political behaviour, for instance. 
 
This inability to cajole and interplay in a mainstream way is a defining characteristic that stands out for its absence far more than it is noticed in those who use such techniques every day. 
 
Thirdly, there’s a great deal that we can do about office politics if we regard it as a potential driver of change rather than something to be denied – or even suppressed. To pretend that it’s not there is like denying the existence of love or electricity, both of which are invisible until they create life-changing sparks.
 
Although all too rarely practiced in this context, the starting point from an HR perspective should be openness. But encouraging an organisation to understand that office politics exists – and to apply itself to managing the situation positively – can smooth the path to enable individuals and teams to work together more effectively.
 
Jungle politics
 
That is why it is hugely valuable to obtain ‘buy-in’ and gain acceptance that it is a topic worthy of focus. By contrast, when politics is portrayed as ‘dirty work,’ we’re discounting something that happens whether we admit it or not.
 
Therefore, wouldn’t it be far better to say: “We’re all human so let’s see how we can use our human-ness to make super contributions in line with what drives us and in relation to how we behave towards each other.” 
 
This is the leadership style that iconic individuals such as the late Stephen R. Covey believed in when he wrote his original ‘Seven habits of highly effective people’.
 
A good recent example of the failure to manage office politics effectively occurred in the field of… politics, however.
Conservative whips decided to suspend maverick MP, Nadine Dorries, for her offence of having entered the ‘I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here!’ jungle reality show in Australia.
 
Leaving aside the nuances of why they took such action, the whips undoubtedly acted imprudently because, despite national interest in the situation, her involvement in the show was primarily a constituency-based matter and, therefore, something that was between Dorries and her constituents. 
 
But following her suspension, the whole Tory party establishment by default became stakeholders in desiring her failure, leading to a perverse situation in which they had to hope for the speedy exit of one of their own from a programme with six times more viewers than Question Time! 
 
By failing to consider the politics of the situation, the party created a very political situation indeed, and one in which it was virtually powerless to control the outcome. 
 
In order to help the Tory whips avoid such gaffes in future though, they might perhaps benefit from a free one-day course that we’ve set up called ‘managing mavericks’. The idea is to harness and get the best out of the free-thinkers and rebels who generally introduce a bit of vim and verve into the proceedings.
 
The structures of power
 
Understanding the most politically effective way to keep such people loyal and in the fold balances the natural tendency of organisations to focus on familiar norms rather than allow individuals to ‘push the envelope’, thus keeping things fresh.
 
Another advantage of understanding an organisation’s political landscape, however, is that it becomes easier to navigate it. On the one hand, it is important that people understand its formal power structures – those ‘above the waterline.’ 
 
On the other, they also need to get its informal structures – ‘those submerged rocks’ that aren’t shown in the management tree but can do the most damage.
 
As an analogy, the Captain of the ill-fated Costa Concordia cruise ship could see the shoreline perfectly well. It was what he didn’t see that did for his ship – and for the lives of dozens of his passengers. 
 
That said, it’s surprising how many people aren’t even aware of the formal decision-making processes within their organisation, let alone its informal power structures. 
 
This weakness is as present in the politic arena as it is in the business world. But the remedy is the same in both instances – an honest acceptance of reality rather than a self-deluding adherence to an idyll.
 
Having identified the structures of power – or politics, the next step is to ensure that your organisation has the ability to manage the processes of power too. 
 
This is about communicating effectively and ensuring that those whom you and others need to influence are given their information in a style that suits their own individual way of thinking. For instance, do they like hard data, reports or bullet points or do they prefer face-to-face briefings?
 
Being open and honest
 
Adopting this approach is good politics because staff will be encouraged to think more empathically about the people that they ultimately hope to win over to their idea, which should reduce tension and internal conflicts.
 
In terms of processes, meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that integrity and openness are important factors in the long-term health of an organisation (I’ll return to this subject in a future article).
 
So let those with low standards practice the dark arts. Encouraging the entire workforce to be open and honest about their aims and objectives, and holding frank discussions with people on a face-to-face basis, increases the chance that they will put organisational goals above personal interest.  
 
While problems are still bound to occur sometimes, if reward structures are geared towards collective success, their incidence will be much reduced.
 
There are also plenty of relationship models that are relevant here. Eric Berne’s theory of ‘transactional analysis’, which exhorts us to aspire to move into ‘adult’ mode as opposed to the emotionally tempting but operationally compromising ‘parent’ or ‘child’ mode, is an excellent example.
 
The idea is that, being the voice of reason is always better than living in the past – or the future.
 
But committing explicitly to the use of objectives-based procedures also tends to reduce the scope for heated, unproductive interactions. Goal-setting makes it hard for a ‘wrecker’ to cause trouble as their strategy is unlikely to gain enough purchase to succeed.  
 
Moreover, by asking what motivates them and what they are trying to achieve, it becomes harder for them to sustain their rebellious thoughts, not least because it becomes clear that they are not working for the common good– except in those rare cases where revolution is actually desirable.
 
Leading by example
 
Therefore, once office politics are brought out into the open in a non-confrontational way, fights tend to be replaced with debates.
 
So how can you best embed this approach into the organisation? Through your reputation. Being known as an effective, honest and straight-talking leader helps others to realise that these are the qualities that their employer will reward. 
 
This is why it is important to work with the ‘top team’ in order to inculcate awareness of this situation and ensure that the firm is managed ethically. Unless leaders ‘lead by example’, there is no hope of others following suit.
 
But there is also a strong case for equipping employees with the skills to navigate office politics effectively, although interventions of this type have to be both un-patronising and credible in the context of how leaders behave. 
 
What this means is that it is possible for organisations to move towards adopting this kind of culture as long as staff believe that the move is sincerely desired by the top brass.
 
If handled badly, however, office politics create headaches and can even lead to internal splits as organisational silos compete for power and forget about the wider company goals. If conducted effectively though, office politics can drive initiative, ambition and diversity.
 
For instance, had the Tory whips thought more carefully about jungle politics, they would never had let themselves get into the cursed position of wishing for the failure of Nadine Dorries. The ultimate irony is that, for weeks, she has been the highest profile MP in Britain.
 
What kind of organisation would be stupid enough to shun such an opportunity for positive publicity? Only one that fails to understand the ‘politics’ of the situation, it seems…
 

Lembit Opik is an associate director of Leadenhall Consulting, former Liberal Democrat MP and one-time HR, training and development manager at Procter & Gamble.

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Lembit Opik

Associate Director

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