At one point or another, most working people encounter a leadership decision or an action that seems to make no reasonable sense. After some head-scratching, and possibly discussion with friends, one might ultimately attribute those events to the somewhat nebulous term “politics.” And that description will be accompanied by disbelief and rueful head-shaking.
In a perfect world, leadership decisions would be completely objective and not clouded by emotions or personal agendas. But as long as organizations are populated by Homo sapiens, pure rationality and impartiality aren’t always achievable. So what do you do when organizational politics inevitability affect your work life? For starters, it’s helpful to understand why politics are at play in the first place.
What’s Behind Organizational Politics?
In our experience, three important motivations trigger political thinking and action: issues of personal empires, reputations or wealth.
“Empire” issues can arise when an employee or leader wants to either grow or protect their personal spheres of control.
For example, an ambitious sales representative may want to expand her territory because she believes an additional territory has great potential. She may actively lobby with her boss to assign or re-assign the responsibility through a variety of tactics, such as building a logical case, bargaining, or even pleading for it.
Similarly, an executive may be dismayed to learn that his budget for a particular activity or project has been cut or eliminated entirely. Like the sales representative, he may try to discuss the matter with his manager. That conversation can take many forms, from complaints, to passionate disbelief and resentment, to a plea for reconsideration. Regardless of the exact appeal, his motivation is still the same: to preserve the empire that he has.
“Reputation” issues arise when individuals treasure others’ opinions of them above all else. They will work tirelessly to assure that they and their work are noticed by their leadership.
Imagine an ambitious early career employee at a company social event. He may go out of his way to introduce himself to a senior executive, or engage the executive in conversation about his ideas or talents, even if the executive is mystified by the person and the conversation.
On the flip side, people also energetically protect their reputations. If an employee becomes aware that a potentially questionable decision will get senior management’s attention, they might look for some tactic, possibly a very creative one, to limit the damage.
Reputational politics can entail indirect tactics, too. For instance, getting an article into Harvard Business Review, or achieving a major public service award can dramatically increase a person’s political capital. Likewise, carefully spreading a rumor or a story about someone else’s major job blunder or personal indiscretion can cause a reputation to plummet in value.
Wealth is traditionally tied closely with both Reputation and a person’s Empire. The executive with a slashed budget might quickly realize that his chances of receiving a cherished bonus have dwindled. He might fear that he is on a downward spiral of personal or organizational wealth. The odds are that he’ll actively seek a way to reverse the decision, or have the size of the cuts reduced. His specific appeal could be on a number of grounds such as personal pleas or logical arguments bolstered with carefully-chosen facts. As Mark Twain said, “There are lies, damned lies…and statistics.”
Of course, our aggressive sales rep is after something similar. By landing the juicy new sales territory, she hopes to rake in bigger commissions, lavish sales awards or possibly a larger salary next year.
All three motivations may be tied together. Someone who proudly displays their shiny new luxury car to their coworkers may be flaunting evidence of their obvious status and ability to live a rich lifestyle. Building an empire may naturally lead to a bigger reputation and greater wealth, as well.
How to respond to Organizational Politics
It takes some thought and diplomacy to understand and respond to a political situation that directly affects you. A caution: no matter how you may see and react to the issue, the person at the center probably sees it differently.
First, seek to understand
It’s important to avoid openly judging a decision or action. Instead, as some philosophers say, “First, seek to understand.” Then you can begin the work of showing how the decision affects you, and hopefully finding a resolution.
Start by weighing what you already know about the political actor. Maybe that person has had a meteoric career trajectory. Or maybe they are seen as the capable organizational veteran and hero. They may run the largest division in the organization. That knowledge may give you some clues about what lies behind the situation.
Give it sufficient thought and use your understanding as a starting point. Likewise, consider your experience with person. Has something like this happened before? Did past attempts to address it yield something positive? Or, did they simply make the situation worse?
Examine your own feelings
Are you feeling especially critical of the person? Will it be difficult to even approach the issue? If so, you may want to either let some time pass or decide it’s best to let the matter go, no matter how frustrating. Confidential conversation with a friend who knows you and will understand the situation may provide you with a valuable perspective.
Above all, don’t react emotionally no matter how justified it seems. Two parties with strong feelings who confront each other rarely lead to a happy ending.
Get the background story – and listen carefully
If it’s possible, find a way to hear the entire story from the “perpetrator” or someone close to them. Take an open, curious approach. Ask that individual if they’re willing to explain what happened and why. If that’s successful, you may come away with a deeper understanding of the reasons, whether they are out in the open or showing between the lines of the story.
Also listen to the emotional tone of the story. In all likelihood, the person will have strong and visible feelings about what happened and what it meant for them. Whether or not you agree, it’s personal and important to them. Bear that firmly in mind.
Concisely paraphrase or summarize your understanding of the situation for the person after you hear their version. That will help them know that you were listening. If you feel it’s appropriate to sympathize, do. You may not completely agree, but most of us want to feel we’re understood. Your reaction may be no deeper and heartfelt than “That’s too bad” or “That’s good.” But the other person will probably appreciate it.
Show the impact
The next step is to move the conversation forward. If the “politician” seems ready to listen, briefly and calmly tell your story. How does the move affect you? What will it cause you to do, or keep you from doing? And, more importantly, what impact will that have on the big picture?
Test whether the other person recognizes the problem. And, gently, ask for their ideas and help about how to correct it. Ideally, the solution will have benefits for other people or for your entire organization. For example, maybe the individual seriously upset the head of another department in their own anger and frustration. It may get in the way of you or your colleagues being able to work together. If that’s important, there may be a way to make the situation better.
Some political outcomes may lack a remedy. Others may be completely beyond your control and unlikely to change. Even if that’s the case, trying to address the issue constructively may offer you some consolation.
The Bottom Line
Organizational politics are grounded in personal goals and feelings. They are inescapable. Even if you completely disagree with what someone in power did or said, that deed has already been done. Try to understand why something political happened. There might be a way to make the situation better. Even if there isn’t, the thought you put into what happened and why can prepare you better for the next time.