Office politics – a force for good

Really?  You must be joking!

If this is your response to office politics, this posting is for you.

If you loathe office politics, you’re not alone

Listen, I have to put my hand up, too – I’m not a great fan of office politics.

You know the kind of thing…

…You watch colleagues get promoted ahead of you who are all show and no substance.  You know how they do it.  You watch them cosy up to the people who make the decisions and you can see that it works.  Maybe you even want your own (overdue) promotion… but you can’t bring yourself to follow suit.

…You’ve seen how your colleagues lay claim to successes when the credit really should go to someone else.  You know that a radical game-changing idea has come from someone who has gone without acknowledgement or someone else has taken all the credit for the hard slog it took to bring an important project to a fruitful conclusion.  And still they take the credit.

…You watch your colleagues promote an idea around the business and you know – you just know – that the real agenda is tucked away from sight.  The lack of honesty on the part of the person doing the promoting, the naivety of your most senior colleagues in not seeing through the propaganda – well, you’re finding it hard to swallow.

…Maybe you even listen to one of your colleague’s self propaganda and you wonder, “Does he really believe his description of himself or is it just the story he’s trying to sell around the business?”  You can’t believe how many people are taken in when you find it so easy to see the huge gap between the way your colleague describes himself and the way he behaves in practice.

You’re struggling with office politics, which fill you with loathing.  At the same time, you can see just how much politics plays a role in the every day life of your organisation.

A political epiphany

Over the years, and despite my own inherent suspicion of the office politicians, I’ve had the opportunity to observe how the ability to navigate office politics is an important skill as a leader in an organisation.  If you already have this skill, you probably haven’t read this far.  If you don’t have this skill, or you’re sceptical about the idea that politics can be a force for good, you probably need a bit of convincing.  For this reason, I want to share with you an example of one person’s “political epiphany” – it’s a simple story of one person who discovered that, after all, politics can be a force for good.

Sally (let’s call her Sally) was a talented graduate entrant in her company who liked to play with a straight bat.  As she rose to a junior management position, she became increasingly aware that she was working to a director who was poorly equipped for the role and she felt frustrated that her company did not seem to be addressing the issue.  She raised the issue with her colleagues in HR but got no joy and, after a while, realised that – whatever she thought of her senior management – she was beginning to get a reputation as a whinger.

Sally could have let the issue go.  However, she was particularly concerned about the impact of her director’s inadequacies on a project she felt really passionate about.  She decided to take the issue to her mentor.  Her mentor knew her preference for playing with a straight bat and asked her, “What’s most important to you?  Is it the inadequacies of your director and the failure of senior management to address them?  Or is it finding ways to make progress on your project?”  Initially, Sally found it hard to separate the two.

In her discussion with her mentor, Sally began to realise that there were, indeed, two forces at play.  On the one hand, she found it hard to accept what looked like inaction on the part of senior management who were failing to address something that was clearly a problem.  Her own values of openness and honesty were such that she struggled to accept the possibility that senior management preferred to work their way round the problem rather than to name it honestly.  On the other hand, she also recognised that it was the impact on the project that was most frustrating for her – at least for the time being.  With the help of her mentor, she began to see that whilst she had limited scope to address the short-comings of senior management, there were things she could do to move the project forward – if only she were more willing to play the political game.

In service of a larger cause

Years later, Sally pointed to this experience as the one that made her a total convert to office politics.

Because she was passionate about her project, she started to experience a real sense of achievement each time she did something to successfully circumnavigate the limitations of her line manager.  What’s more, because she realised she had gained the reputation for whingeing, she started to look for ways forward that could cause no offence.  She didn’t want anyone to think that the progress on her project was being achieved by side-lining her boss.

One thing made it possible for Sally to put aside her loathing of office politics – her passion for her project and what she knew it could do for her organisation.  With the help of her mentor, she began to see how she could use a political approach to move the project forward.  She began to see how, sometimes, you can’t achieve the things you feel most passionate about without becoming familiar with the political landscape, accepting it – and starting to find ways round the obstacles that are in your way.

Once she had this insight, Sally became a master politician – and started to enjoy it.  Having realised that she could use her political savvy in service of those things she found most worthwhile, she started to apply her creative thinking to this area of her work.

Finding your political epiphany

If you think I’m going to tell you how to navigate the politics of your office – or family, or local Am Dram society, whatever…  well, I’m about to disappoint you.  Instead, I’m going to invite you to go make yourself a cup of tea, or coffee, find a quite corner for 5 minutes and ask yourself this:

What are the things that really matter to you?  What areas of your life do you feel most passionate about?  And which of these are so important to you that you’re willing to let go of your revulsion for office politics and your views about how things ought to be and embrace things the way they are – in order to find ways to move towards the outcomes you most desire?

You may find your motivation at work – but you may not.  Perhaps there’s something away from your work place that you’re really fired up about right now.  It doesn’t matter where your political epiphany happens.  It just matters that it does.

Why?  Your political epiphany helps you to become much more effective in achieving results with ease.  What’s more, your political epiphany helps you to realise what matters most to you.

Whether you’ve had your political epiphany years ago or haven’t had it yet I’d love to read your comments on this subject via the comment box below.

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