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Sue Binks

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Organisational politics: dark art or just the way to get things done?


In almost every programme I run that mentions influencing, stakeholders or engagement, the conversation turns to politics. The usual response is one of discomfort, dislike or confusion. Occasionally you do get a more mature, perhaps seasoned campaigner, who is sanguine about the whole arena of political influencing, and just accepts that robust debate is all part of decision making in organisations.

But do we know what politics in organisations really is? It seems that the consensus is that it is about competing agendas which leave many managers feeling bruised, conflicted and stressed.

So let’s take a step back.

People come together in organisations in order to achieve better outcomes than if we were all working individually. It reminds me of a saying “When you are on your own and you have a problem you have one problem, the moment there are two of you trying to solve the problem, you have two problems.”

When you are on your own and you have a problem you have one problem, the moment there are two of you trying to solve the problem, you have two problems.

This is especially so in the complex and ambiguous world of work we live in. For anything but the simplest scenarios, it is challenging to get agreement on how to define the problem, let alone decide on the many potential solutions. This is not going to go away, and nor should it.

So what needs to change is our attitude to complexity and disagreement.

Difference is good when it comes to solving complex problems. Without it we will only have partial perspectives and can go badly wrong very quickly. So why do we get hung up when there are different perspectives on how to achieve organisational goals?

That’s all politics really is, different ideas about how the organisation goes about achieving its purpose. The Roffey definition of constructive politics is “Aligning your agenda, with the agendas of others, for the good of the organisation” (Holbeche et al. 2002)

At the heart of this is managers having the emotional maturity to see the bigger picture and not have their sense of self-esteem bound up with being ‘right’, or having their idea or perspective ‘win’. In my experience, managers can get so caught up in the task that they forget to look at the wider context of what the organisation is trying to achieve.

It takes a lot of confidence to change your mind in the face of conflict if you can see that it would be for the greater good. The reality is, that often unconscious insecurities can drive more ego-driven behaviour than we would like to admit. If these behaviours are coming from higher up an organisation, it can easily feel disempowering and like you are squeezed in the middle.

So what can you do, even if you are able to take a step back and focus on the good of the organisation?

Map the terrain:

It is important to keep a focus on the strategic intent of the organisation, so that you can have as wide an understanding of what might be influencing different people’s agendas as possible. What may seem self-serving to you, might actually be taking into account some unforeseen issue.

This also goes for keeping up to date with formal and informal sources of information. Do you know who has influence? Do you know what’s important to key players? Do you know who seems to have the organisation at the heart of what they do? Who has their own team or department agenda at heart?

Build relationships:

If you want to have influence, it’s vital that you have relationships across the organisation, again to get a broad perspective, but also to build relationship capital. It’s sometimes called generous networking; how can you collaborate and actively support others, so that they are more disposed to support you too?


The foundations of this are built in emotional intelligence. Do you have enough self-awareness to know when you’ve become too attached to an idea or a way of doing something? Can you recognise that in others and work with empathy and compassion to steer the conversation to more productive ground?

Can you facilitate conversations so that all parties feel heard and that what’s really important gets aired and honoured? It may not be comfortable to challenge peers or bosses who seem to be focused on themselves rather than the organisation, but genuinely open inquiry as to what is driving their position is vital.

Build credibility and personal power:

Perhaps an extension of influence, or rather an even deeper foundation for it is personal power. It takes a great deal of maturity to cultivate presence and power that isn’t solely based on what you know or what you have achieved. When we can work from a centred place, we are less focused on control and more on clarity and perspective; less worried about whether we are approved of and more concerned with genuine human connection; less insecure and more truly confident in our own ability to act in the world.

Act with integrity:

If you are able to build your sense of presence and personal power, it’s a lot easier to keep your principles and values part of your everyday decision making. This is where being clear about how what you want is aligned with what others want, for the good of the organisation is key. With self-awareness and a good understanding of where others are coming from, it is easier to put your ideas across in a way that they are most likely to get taken into account.

So politics is a perfectly rational response to complexity. Where it gets messy and uncomfortable is when it gets tied up with there being ‘right’ answers or arguments that need to be won. So let’s just get curious and have good quality conversations so long as the outcomes are aimed at promoting the purpose of the organisation. 

One Response

  1. Your take on politics is
    Your take on politics is refreshing and useful. We also need to deal with the intentional negative politics and see it as a persistent part of the culture. Power for certainty for example. Very interesting I look forward to seeing you develop this positive approach more. If you do please let us know about it, [email protected].

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