The very mention of organisational politics often results in people diving for cover while making every effort to avoid a topic that is often viewed with distaste and even fear. We have all had our own personal experiences of politics at play in the workplace. Some may have been positive while others may have significantly impacted the work we do, our personal growth and even our credibility and reputation. I remember being caught up in politics many years back and being negatively impacted by the change due to my naivety and lack of political acumen. Despite my best efforts, I was outmanoeuvred and outplayed and this had a detrimental impact on my sense of self-worth at that time. I came to fear and despise the very notion of politics in the workplace and swore that I would do my best to avoid playing politics at all costs.
Years later, after having worked in the consulting space across different client sites and projects, I came to realise that organisational politics was a reality from which I simply could not escape. There was no one single environment that appeared to be immune from 'the dance'. And the only way to navigate, deliver and thrive, was to re-examine my perception of the game. Cheryl Conner, former contributor to Forbes recalled a colleague once telling her that "You don't like it [organisational politics] because you're not good at it. So you've made it out to be 'wrong'" (2013). Let's face it... no one ever really wants to admit that they are not good at something. It is much easier to profess the 'high road' and avoid politics all together! However, the reality is that you are always in the game... even spectators participate. But as a spectator, you inadvertently play to lose. And no client would willingly want a change professional or consultant on their team who is not driving for a win-win outcome.
The good news is that learning the art of organisational politics is something within all our reach, provided we can make our peace with it first. Here are my top tips for finding your political zen:
Alter your perspective
Let's face it... politics of any shape or form has really gotten a bad rap over the years. But the reality is that it can also be a powerful tool for good. By reframing one's perspective, we have an opportunity to utilise politics in a positive manner within our organisations and across our respective change initiatives. Harvard Business Review defines Organisational Politics as 'A variety of activities associated with the use of influence tactics to improve personal or organisational interests' (Jarret, 2017). One can then appreciate that influence, a crucial tool for all change professionals and leaders, goes hand in hand with politics. We cannot shun politics if we want to drive successful change. Playing the game does not mean that you have to play dirty. By understanding the different political tools and techniques better, you can choose how best to navigate a change or organisational terrain while still maintaining your integrity and driving for a win-win for all.
As change professionals, we need to be conscious of our role that we play in driving and fuelling politics. This is not something that is necessarily malicious as according to the Being First Team, "Some of the most powerful forces occurring in change are both pre-existing political dynamics and those created when you implement change" (2017). By virtue of us being agents for change, we often stir up the proverbial hornet's nest. Impacted stakeholders may be threatened by the change, or the change may negatively impact their current status quo. Leaders hustle for valued power bases and fights erupt over competition for scarce resources. Tools such as Leadership Alignment Surveys and Change Impact Assessments are valuable instruments to help with identifying areas impacted by the change, thereby anticipating an associated political (overt or covert) backlash. This in turn can inform one's Resistance Management and Sponsor Involvement strategies.
Linking in with mindfulness is the need to examine our own personal drivers and motives. As change professionals and leaders, are our actions and intentions always aligned to what is best for the organisation or change? Have we gotten caught up in the powerplay between the different camps? Are we really being neutral? What role have you played in stoking the fire? Are your actions and alliances damaging the ultimate vision of the project? To answer these questions honestly may require that we take a step back and conduct an honest, frank, perhaps even brutal appraisal of our actions to date. From there we are challenged to come up with solutions to address any identified issues that we have found. Ask yourself the following questions:
What behaviours need to change?
What conversations need to be had?
What do you need to do differently to maintain your neutrality?
What stakeholders do you need to get to know better?
Is there another perspective that you are choosing not to see?
Are any apologies in order?
Only once you have truly acknowledged and owned your role in the current status quo can you take positive steps to shift your political game forward in a positive manner.
Friend or foe paradox?
Following on from your personal enquiry above, you may have started to question the value and integrity of some of your current alliances. Is that difficult stakeholder really out to get you? Are they just being obstructive because they want you or your change to fail? Are there perhaps other factors at play that you simply haven't taken the time to try and understand? Amy Gallo speaks about the value of disagreement in the workplace in a Harvard Business Review contribution, arguing that our inherent desire to avoid conflict and seek agreement is in fact more harmful and damaging than good, especially in the workplace (2018). Perhaps the age-old adage, 'keep your friends close and enemies closer' is actually the strategy that we should be adopting when driving organisational change. What are their real concerns and are these valid? What have you chosen not to see or acknowledge? Is there a need to re-examine aspects of the change and are there opportunities that have not even been considered that will drive a successful change for all parties?
Another aspect that needs to be examined relates to your current circle of friends / allies. Have you become a victim to the 'ally echo chamber'? Are you all just reinforcing the same self-serving story because it is easy and convenient... and because none of you want to admit you are possibly wrong? And lastly, are you sure that you are not being used as a pawn to further someone else's political agenda? These are some hard questions you need to answer and hopefully through this exercise have a clearer view of what is really going on and what you need to do to change.
My last tip is that you have to realise that the game will play out with or without you. The Being First Team warn of the damage that can be wrought on a change initiative by turning a blind eye on political dynamics (2017). Just because you choose to be a spectator, does not mean the game will stop. And as spectators, we are left powerless to initiate any real change. By sitting in the stands, you inadvertently advocate for or enable whatever final outcome there is, good or bad.
In addition to this, those of us providing change management consulting services do not always have the luxury of picking and choosing where we want to work and on what projects. Sometimes we have to go where the money is and that means being exposed to a host of different organisational political environments. This requires that we have an advanced political acumen in our personal change toolboxes.
In closing, I would like to quote Maya Angelo who said that "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." We may not like organisational politics but by finding peace with this inevitable dynamic, we are better positioned to navigate this often difficult and stressful terrain. It may not be easy, and we may not always achieve the outcomes we hope for, but we at least regain our power and influence that is needed to try and effect change. Some of our greatest and most inspirational leaders were political masterminds. Individuals such as Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela would have never been able to achieve the change that they did without being great political players. There are also a host of fantastic thought-leaders and content available to us all, through platforms such as Forbes and Harvard Business Review, that provide a wealth of knowledge and practical steps that you can take to become better at the game. Here's to finding your zen and becoming a better change professional and leader!
Being First Team. (2017). The Impact of Political Dynamics During Change. Retrieved from: https://blog.beingfirst.com/the-impact-of-political-dynamics-company-politics-on-organizational-culture
Connor, C. (2013). Office Politics: Must You Play? A Handbook For Survival/Success. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2013/04/14/office-politics-must-you-play-a-handbook-for-survivalsuccess/#3d7f999b4e30
Gallo, A. (2018). Why We Should Be Disagreeing More at Work. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2018/01/why-we-should-be-disagreeing-more-at-work
Jarret, M. (2017). The 4 Types of Organizational Politics. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2017/04/the-4-types-of-organizational-politics
Warrel, M. (2014). World Cup Wisdom: Play To Win Rather Than To Avoid Losing. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/margiewarrell/2014/07/13/world-cup-wisdom-play-to-win-not-to-lose/#196c2a3a4a2b