It certainly has a bad name, but politics is a fact of life in the business world and, rather than being ignored or denied, maybe it is time to celebrate politics and learn to play the game, says Blaire Palmer.
We live in a time when it is acceptable, if not required, to dismiss politics as an unworthy game played by people with questionable values. So it is not a surprise when those embarking on a corporate career state that they will never participate in politics and would rather lower their ambitions than be forced to become a political animal. I have certainly worked with managers who say that, if leadership requires them to play politics, they would rather stay where they are than take the next job up.
This is due more to a misconception about what politics is and the high visibility of what I call ‘bad politics’ than a true appreciation of what it takes to succeed in your profession. And perhaps it is time for politics to be rebranded or reclaimed.
Can you guess what word is most commonly associated with office politics? That’s right, Machiavellian. Politics is seen to be about deception and manipulation. And yet all politics really means is the process by which a group of people make decisions. That’s something we want to encourage in our organisations.
‘Good politics’ is an art requiring a combination of emotional intelligence, influencing skills, a strong sense of purpose and an understanding of the rules of the workplace. What goes at work would not always be acceptable outside of work but we sometimes forget that we play by these rules every day without any sense of internal conflict.
For instance, when you negotiate your new salary, do you ask for what you really need or do you ask for more to provide room for negotiation? When you tell a team member when you need her report, do you tell her when you actually need it or ask for it a few days before the final deadline in order to leave some space for delays and your consideration of the contents? When you speak in front of a group of peers do you openly express your doubts about your abilities or present a confident façade? Chances are, most of us opt for the second scenario in these situations.
You could argue that all of these behaviours are political, in that they all involve some manipulation of other people or of a situation, yet they are accepted as part of the rules of work with little complaint. Those who don’t abide by these rules are often seen as weak, naïve or unprofessional.
Indeed, we sometimes know we are being manipulated and don’t mind. When a new boss takes the team out for drinks at the end of the first week, we know what he is trying to do, don’t we? He is trying to build bonds, to fit in, to show he is a good guy. And yet most of us play along because these are the rules of the game. And if his intention is genuine we will probably appreciate the effort even if it is all rather stilted and uncomfortable.
A genuine and semi-transparent intention is part of the key to successful ‘good politics’. If we understand the motives of a political leader, we are less likely to see her efforts as Machiavellian and this is true even if we don’t agree with those motives. But where the stated intentions are different to the true intentions, trust is quickly destroyed. If we are told redundancies are necessary to keep the business alive and then discover that the redundancies were made in order to fund bonuses for the company directors, we will certainly feel manipulated and deceived.
Part of the reason politics have become so common in our workplaces is that the days of a command and control leadership style have gone. In the past leaders could have told us what to do and we would have done it. These days we need to be persuaded, we need to ‘buy-in’, we need to have answers to our questions. In response, leaders need to develop the skills to manage the message where there are conflicting interests and desires. You could say we have brought this political environment upon ourselves.
As HR professionals, we need to help our organisations understand and appreciate the differences between good and bad politics. Shifting from bad to good politics is often about learning to trust others. People rarely play bad politics because they enjoy being the villain. They are simply seeking to achieve what they see as the right outcome. This outcome may be highly selfish but usually they believe the outcome is good for the business, for their own team and, additionally, good for themselves. It is the style rather than the motivation which is at fault. When leaders learn to trust they can be more open about what they want and why they want it, knowing that those around them are robust and mature enough to take the truth.
So openness and ongoing communication about the bad news as well as the good news can disrupt the bad politics of an organisation. In addition, politics can be spoken of in more positive terms. When organisations appreciate the role of politics and the fact that we all play elements of the game without question it loses its special status as ‘evil’.
Finally, organisations with a power vacuum often suffer most from political overload. As individuals scrabble to fill the void, almost any behaviour becomes acceptable. Ensure your top people have vision, communicate direction clearly and are confident enough to confront threats to their leadership without the need to resort to underhanded techniques. When those at the top model strong, admirable values, the culture is transformed as those behaviours start to trickle down through the whole business.
Blaire Palmer is an executive coach and author. Her new book, The Recipe for Success – What Successful People Do and How You Can Do It Too, is out now (publ A&C Black) and available from good bookshops and Amazon.co.uk. For more information on her work visit her website at www.blairepalmer.com or her blog at www.letsbesuccessfulagain.com