The political season is in full swing, and the presidential election is right around the corner. But many of us face another kind of politics virtually every day, year in and year out -- office politics.
According to management and leadership consultants Louellen N. Essex, PhD, and Mitchell E. Kusy, PhD, if you think this refers to conniving and backstabbing to get ahead, or if you’ve vowed to "never play office politics," you are probably doing your career and your company a disservice.
In their book Manager’s Desktop Consultant: Just-in-Time Solutions To The Top People Problems That Keep You Up At Night (Davies-Black Publishing), Essex and Kusy say that understanding and successfully using organizational politics -- a term they prefer over "office politics" -- can help your team accomplish far more than you could on your own.
"Some people don’t like the term ‘power’ when they talk about organizational politics. But if you substitute the word ‘influence’ and think of how you are going to influence people instead of using your power with them, you can see how it can be very positive," says Kusy, a Fulbright scholar and professor in the PhD program in leadership and change at Antioch University.
"Organizational politics is about the kind of networks you have established and the kinds of relationships you have built that make a difference. For example, if you are representing your team and you need certain kinds of resources to get a job done, of course you need to know how you can influence the decision makers in your organization. And that is clearly playing politics. But people don’t perceive it as such."
Essex adds that deliberately working to "not play politics" is a big mistake for you and your organization. "Out of sight, out of mind. You have to be visible and known for high quality results to be effective, and that means you must do a little schmoozing and horn tooting of your own!"
So why does the idea of "office politics" often have such a negative connotation?
"This has occurred because some leaders have used politics to get ahead for their own personal gain. Often this has entailed creating an inner circle of people with power, excluding others, and handing out privileges and perks only to themselves," says Essex, a fellow of the Carlson School of Management’s Executive Education Center at the University of Minnesota. "Another reason is that some people have not known how to get into the game and have been resentful of not getting ahead. They have expected that others would just notice their talents and, when that didn't happen, they were surprised, hurt, and angry."
Changing your perspective and working to build relationships through organizational politics can alter not only your attitude but also your career, Essex adds.
A case in point: One of Essex’s clients was upset with her boss, who seemed to cut her and the department she managed out of the decision-making loop. "They were not getting the resources they needed, and she became angry and was bad-mouthing him to others. When she asked for my help, I suggested she become more strategic and ‘political,’" Essex says. "She began specific relationship-building activities with her boss, listened more carefully to his agenda for the division, and then aligned her proposals with what he was trying to accomplish."
The woman was able to demonstrate how a partnership with her would be beneficial to her boss and to the organization, and she began to deliver more specific results. "That showed her effectiveness. Soon, she began to respect him more. And as he delivered more praise and attention to her, their relationship dramatically improved," Essex says.
Understanding how success is measured in your business or community plays an important role in an organization’s politics, Kusy points out. "You also need to be aware of how much time is given to obtain results. So if you are working in a fast-paced organization where decisions are made on a dime, for example, and you take a long time to make a decision, then you aren’t very good at organizational politics. You need to work on accommodating the needs of your organization."
In their book, Kusy and Essex also discuss additional pointers to help you be more politically astute at work. For example, a manager who is savvy at office politics should be able to accurately describe the culture and core values of the organization, how work gets done, and how networks with key customers or stakeholders are established. "You also need to determine how much risk is tolerated in the organization and what the consequences are for failed attempts," Kusy says. "If you can put this information into practice, you’ll be pretty darn good at organizational politics."
Just like in the world of political parties, there are bound to be factions within an organization that disagree. So how do you navigate through the course of office politics when people take sides?
In Manager’s Desktop Consultant, Kusy and Essex point out the key is managing conflict -- not necessarily resolving it.
"This is a critical piece of organizational politics. For example, you can agree to disagree, or split the difference, or even give in. Is it best to harmonize with a group or individual in order to preserve relationships? Or do you battle? There are various styles of managing conflict, and the good political leader understands when to use one particular approach or another," says Kusy. "When I hear someone always uses the same style to manage conflict -- for example, if they are always in battle mode -- that’s a red flag that means the individual probably is not good at organizational politics. You have to know when to pick your battles, when to back off, and when to harmonize."
What are some ways to align yourself with certain factions in your organization without antagonizing other groups? "First, treat everyone with respect, no matter what faction they may be part of. Even if you disagree, show respect for the other person's point of view," Essex says." Second, be a good negotiator, and look for ways to get a win-win outcome or a reasonable compromise. And third, always be careful about strong alignments. Those who can bridge the gap between factions tend to do better if a political upheaval occurs."