It really does not matter whether you like it or not. Politcs is a part of life in any organisation, big or small. As a leader you have to recognise this fact and accept that you need to learn how to understand and operate in this arena. I have experienced many unpleasant experiences because I have been quite naive about it. So I have been particullarly interested on the subject over the years. Out of need, of course!
What kind of political landscape do you find in your company? One of these three, maybe?
Highly political. In these type of organizations there is plenty of gossip and rumours. Some strong sense of competition among individuals and groups. It can happen overtly or in disguise. Upsetting any relevant individuals in the ‘inner circle’ might not be the best idea. Rules and standars may be well defined, but often not applied consistently.
Moderate political. Often organizations growing quickly and undergoing a great deal of change. Lots of important decisions need to be taken and challenged. People are rewarding according to individual merits and managers may feel the need to come up with their own ways to get things done.
Minor political. In organisations or departments where everybody knows and loves everybody. Not so common! Managers follow company’s rules and sort out all conflicts through good will and discussion. There is a high level of trust and respect between workmates and a strong sense of camaraderie.
How would you define your own organisation? One of them, two or all three scenarios? It could very well be the case! Now let me share one of my learnings about how you may be managing with politics:
The ideal scenario, being politically astute. You develop high awareness of what is going on in the company, department, or team. You understand that politics is something you have to live with and operate in this environment comfortably. But you do it while maintaining your credibility and integrity with everyone around. Doable, but not so easy. Why? To do it in an ethical way you have to be inclusive, haven’t you? And you need to constantly check you act in harmony with the organisational values. You have to recognize and honestly care about others’ needs and wants.
Or you may be the one who manipulates the system, highly involved, getting whatever you want by using relationships to your advantage. When was the last time you came across someone like that? They are the political operators. Oh, they are a handful. A right pain in the neck. Self-interested, they will pursue their individuals goals and will do anything to place themselves where they feel they belong. No matter the cost in lives. They will take no prisoners. They are very successful in the short and medium term, they may climb the ladder fairly quickly. Since they are very good with people, and seem to be very authentic, you find out too late they acted in their own interest. But they are so destructive in the long term. The fall in their case is even bigger.
How can you identify them? Well, they become unhealthily quickly very good friends with people in influential positions. They love the attack and blame game. When caught in an unethical endeavour they will deny everything. They will be very economic with information, and use it in doses to their advantage. Trying to make it look like they agree with others is also a common trait! And of course taking credit for other people’s creation.
It was shocking to find out that my issue was that I was quite trusting and open, and unaware of organisational politics in the beginning of my career in multinational companies such as DANZAS or DHL. Only to find out often too late about those ‘GoT’ games (Games of Thrones). That is being politically naive, of course. Trusting your colleagues and partners to be honest and hoping they are focusing on the same goals. One may find out later how someone has simply played an unfair game and taking credit for something that was not entirely their own merit. If you are a politically naive manager like I was, you might be focusing in creating a healthy productive environment for everybody. You may be underplaying your own achievements to strengthen your team or your company. Still others may think you are stupid! Rings any bells? The good news is a politically naive manager can evolve into a politically astute one, without compromising on core values such as integrity.
As my career in business moved on, I decided I wanted nothing to do with organisational politics. I did what I could to avoid getting involved. You could say I tried to become politically virtuous. It seemed to me that politics was unethical and out of line. Have you been there? Back in the day as a manager I just wanted to understand the rules and get on with my job. Open communication, straight talking, telling things as they were. Did not work for me either. Trouble is that both politically astutes and political operators will overtake easily. It does not matter so much how hard one has worked, competence levels, and merits. Do you remember leaving a company because of its highly political environment?
So, what’s the big learning, the master key? For me, it is awareness and willingness. And more awareness! You have to force yourself to identify behaviours and traits. And you have to keep on questioning why people act when and how they do it.
Then you have to be willing to adapt your communication style to their motivation and political style. Some people who claim strongly disliking political behaviours are expert political operators. So adapt quickly! As they say, be strong on the problem and soft on the person. Be willing to bring about the positive.
Do not become overconfident! Put the leather on the street. Get to know the people you operate with. And when you think you know them, keep on talking and LISTENING carefully to what they DO. Also recognise others better and more often. Reward trust and build on mutual respect.
I am far from being a guru on the subject of politics, but I’ve got a few business scars to show for it. And they tell the story of how NOT to deal with organisational politics. What can you share about your own experience?