Office politics is a reality that exists in every organisation, big or small, writes Bhavna Dalal as she shares a few tricks on how to deal with corporate politics
Picture this: Jay worked as a technical consultant for a financial software company’s taxation product team. For a new project, his team was forced to interact with the financial services team due to political pressure from senior management. As expected, the initial interactions were a bit contentious. The technical lead for the taxation team, Abhay, saw this as an opportunity to shine and mandated that he would be the point of contact for interacting with the financial serviced team. All communications were now required to be funneled through him.
This created a precarious situation for Jay. All his emails and documents were presented to the other team as if Abhay had produced them. Abhay was taking credit for everything Jay did. Abhay would edit out major chunks of essential technical advice beyond his level of competence, and he would keep coming back to Jay for more inputs on how to answer questions coming from the other team. This entire episode left Jay feeling angry, frustrated, and unmotivated.
The above is a classic example of office politics. Office politics is a reality that exists in every organisation, big or small: the larger the firm, the more complex the politics. There is more of everything — players, competition, agendas, information, and more to gain and lose. If you have enjoyed a good number of years of work experience, I’m sure you have experienced politicking in the workplace.
Companies with a great culture know how to create systems to minimise or mitigate politics. Indeed, productivity, employee engagement, and a company’s growth depend on how much politics exists. Leaders have a huge responsibility to recognise what causes politics and which systems, processes, or people initiate or encourage it in their company environment. Alternatively, employees must also understand their workplace’s political machinery to bring about success for themselves and their team members.
As a leadership coach, I work with people managers from mid-level managers up to CXOs and board members from diverse industries. These folks are all brilliant, intelligent, and accomplished individuals. When I work with them on their leadership goals and challenges, I get to hear the real-life situations they have encountered. The only thing setting them back is their collective belief in office politics. I listen to statements like, “I don’t like office politics, and I don’t want to go there at all.” “I cannot get to this position because it requires me to be political, and I am not a political person,” etc.. They hold themselves back from greatness because of their limited perception of office politics. In their minds, office politics is a dirty word that they are better off not handling. Understanding and cruising through an organisation’s power dynamics is the key differentiator between successful and extremely successful people.
What is office politics, after all?
It is all about power, influence, and relationships, the power entanglements between coworkers trying to get ahead. These struggles for advancement are usually based on what you are after and whom you form alliances with. Some people are drawn into it intentionally, many accidentally and most unknowingly.
Definitely, through years of work experience, people do learn to deal with this beast more effectively. But why leave such a critical skill to chance? Why not address it head-on by understanding the power dynamics early on in your career and moving ahead victoriously in your leadership journey.
There are a few tell-tale signs of environments being intensely political. If you encounter these signs, often you know the chances of getting stuck in the dirty swamp of politics are high. Beware when you encounter the following patterns:
- There is a lack of transparency in communications. People are not direct and don’t mean what they say. There exists an unspoken system within the organisation that needs to be worked.
- Often poor performers are neither fired nor reprimanded. Superstar employees quit because they don’t want to play the game and don’t see any future growth.
- The majority of the people are unwilling to acknowledge and celebrate their team member’s successes. Other’s growth invokes negative emotions such as discomfort, resentment, or jealousy! They view it as being left behind.
- Fear and limitations of opportunities drive most conversations, decisions, and behaviours.
- There is a constant underlying sense of competition amongst individuals for roles, visibility, or growth.
- Trust in leadership is weak.
- Most individual performance rewards are not in alignment with those of the organisation’s wins.
- People’s need for opportunity or recognition makes them nervous and fearful of making mistakes and taking risks.
- Most employees have little knowledge of and visibility into the company’s decision-making. There is a significant distance between junior-level employees and executives; too many closed-door meetings with exclusive information are not shared with the rest of the organisation.
- There is a lack of ownership amongst people. The general tendency is to shirk responsibility when possible. Instead of stepping up and taking on tasks outside their area, people can quickly assign blame to someone else.
Tips and Tricks
Below are a few tricks on dealing with corporate politics:
Observe and listen: Most people jump into things from the intention of action and contribution. Whether it is a meeting, a project, or a new role, everyone wants to perform well, and so they start doing things. Instead, be in an observation and listening mode before you choose to take action. This will help you identify the influencers — they are the stakeholders that hold power to move things in the organisation. Understand their needs and mindsets.
Do you know how the power distribution in your organisation works? Who are the key decision-makers? What are their motivations?
Trust but not blindly: It is wonderful to find good friends in your colleagues; after all, you are spending many waking hours with them. Research proves that it can be extremely healthy to have friendships at work. Personal bonds at work are essential; however, there is a difference between personal and professional relationships. Knowing the limits and boundaries of these relationships is crucial.
It requires one to walk that tightrope between sharing and oversharing. Practices such as socialising outside of work are helping to advance careers and build networks and bonds. Be mindful — a drink too many can expose you and give people something to talk about or lead to even more severe consequences. The same rules apply to social media interactions with colleagues.
Be clear of your vision: We all have a vision for our lives, spoken or unspoken, explicit or implicit. A vision is how one commits to living their life, demonstrated by their choices, actions, words, and behaviors. What separates great leaders from the average one is their ability to crystallise their vision and then execute goals towards it. Being clear of your desired reality helps you stay out of the unnecessary messes and face with courage and conviction, the paths essential to actualise your dreams.
Communicate your vision: Once you know and own your vision, communicate it intelligently and smartly with your manager and team members. This may or may not mean sharing everything. Your vision may be to become the CFO of an organisation in a few years, identify the skills and experiences you need to get there, and communicate only those.
Stay informed, but avoid gossip: Keep in mind, no matter how tempting it might seem, hear gossip but don’t generate or propagate it. Being aware of what is going on around you is prudent, but make sure not to get sucked into it. Being viewed as a gossip undermines the trust people will have in you. Loose talk can get you in trouble or make you seem immature.
There is a significant difference between gossiping and staying informed. The former projects you as immature while the latter is a skill one must develop to succeed at work.
Information is powerful: Most successful politicians spend their energy managing up, down and sideways. They hustle and work their chain of command. Such people base their career on building alliances with the power brokers. They are astute enough to be present at all the right meetings, jump in, and take personal credit for other’s work and are information hoarders. Information is power, and power is politics. The one who has knowledge holds power. The clear sign of a political person is that they rarely share information.
Learn to read people: So many times, I have come across leaders misjudging situations and the intentions of people. The outspoken ones are edged to speak up the politically incorrect things like complaining about the health benefits or a new policy. People don’t flinch before showing enthusiasm for ideas and activities that may harm your career. As part of building Executive Presence, I often help leaders get educated on sensing and reading body language in others and utilising power stances for themselves. Reading people and situations is the number one talent to get ahead without getting in trouble.
Integrity and ethics always win: The general impression is that people that rise quickly often have to do unethical things to get there. The negative consequences of acting out of your value system or integrity will catch up with you. There is no escaping that. Sometimes things may take a little longer but stay the course and don’t succumb to wrongdoings and temptations.
Good Politics Versus Bad Politics
My book Checkmate Office Politics discusses the distinction between good politics and bad politics. Practicing good or healthy politics enables people to further personal and team interests fairly and justly. Staying alert and aware of the ‘bad’ politics helps to avoid needless suffering and being taken advantage of. To look at politics through a positive lens, one must first understand the difference between good and bad politics or healthy and unhealthy politics.
Healthy Politics: Healthy politics always attempts to empower individuals. An effective politician builds a strong network at all levels inside and outside of an organisation. They are familiar with the pulse of employees at all levels. They have a crisp and clear understanding of the success parameters in their organisation. Healthy politics requires sharing information and encouraging others to do the same. Good politics believes unity is Strength. Good politicking fuels the promotion of innovation and problem-solving. It advocates respect and inclusiveness for all, irrespective of their role and position. There is a goal of improving systems instituting permanent solutions to problems. In the above example of Jay and Abhay, Abhay was doing a good thing by streamlining the communication through a narrow channel to avoid confusion, however he could have given credit to Jay highlighting his contributions in his interactions to avoid the bad politics.
Unhealthy Politics: The most significant sign of harmful politics is the personal gains of a handful of people. Unhealthy politics leads to a divide and rule philosophy. It promotes authority and compliance and creates a distance among people based on these differences. Bad politics deviate attention away from the real issues.
As individuals working in the business world, when you feel powerless and out of control in situations where you believe you are at the receiving end of political manoeuvers of coworkers, it is essential to remember that there are several techniques you can apply to succeed. You have a choice. The choice may not always be an easy one. However, it is usually a choice between staying in your comfort zone or getting uncomfortable but evolving into a better leader.
The writer is a leadership coach and an author. She has just published Checkmate Office Politics: Build a Positive Power Equation at Work with SAGE India