How to be a good corporate politician
Company politics is about reconciling different stakeholder interests. David
Butcher and Martin Clarke look at how to encourage employees to play the game
honourably and how to win a few points yourself
Imagine the impact of a corporate briefing that goes something like this:
"We, the board, recognise that this company is a loose federation of
competing interest groups through which we negotiate to move forward towards a
common strategy. So if you see some good alternatives, feel free to challenge
what is being proposed by us, or by anyone else. Bear in mind that you may well
get some opposition, so it will be important to lobby the right people and
build some alliances to make your agenda count"
Unlikely? Yes, of course it is. Surely briefings from the board are about
corporate mission and vision.
Yet in many senior managers’ experience, the coming together of
organisational opinion makers through alliances and coalitions is exactly how
strategy is created, or more exactly, given the inevitable differences in
vested interests at senior levels, how else could it happen?
Somehow, however, despite all the talk in the past few years about the
stakeholder organisation, the urge for corporate unity can blind us to the
value and inevitability of diverse interests. This is not surprising in so far
as partisan interest is traditionally the stuff of politics, the organisational
variety of which often means dirty deals and backstabbing. It is the enemy of a
unified organisation. But that misses the big point about politics. For in its
positive sense, political work, whether parliamentary or organisational, is all
about reconciling different stakeholder interests. Managers who understand this
know that it is the essence of their job.
Many trainers and training managers appreciate the significance of politics.
They encounter opposing agendas every day, positioning their causes in the
budget round, in executive meetings and development committees. Yet their
experience rarely seems to translate into organisational insight that can
directly help managers understand the centrality of politics to managing. For
while managers, too, perceive their work to be all about the management of
conflicting interests, they do not usually think of politics as the legitimate
process of reconciling these different agendas.
A major reason for this developmental gap is that organisations can easily
take for granted the motivations that truly drive managerial behaviour. Why do
managers do what they do, and how much are they driven by organisational goals
rather than self-interest? These are inconvenient questions in a managerial
culture still firmly adhering to ‘rational’ values. For in the ‘rational’
mindset, organisational goals are supposed to take priority, and managers work
on objectives that support these goals, exercising their power in the interests
of the wider organisation. But as every manager knows, problems arise when they
are faced with accountability for a collective outcome when their colleagues
are motivated by different priorities.
The more trying these problems become, the greater the test of managerial
motivations. Take the case of Carlo who works for a small furniture
In Carlo’s new role as operations manager, he was asked to contribute to
business strategy, working more with senior colleagues in the organisation.
However, he quickly found that they had different agendas to him, and gradually
this started to weigh him down. He failed to persuade them to give greater
priority to manufacturing issues that seemed to him to be holding back the
business. In consequence, he lost interest in working with them and focused on his
own direct responsibilities. That is where his effort should be going anyway,
he reasoned, and set out to drive through improvements he could control.
Over the next few months he came to know every aspect of what was happening
in production, and would constantly be involved with the detailed work of his
staff. He did not see that he was interfering, since his motives were to
improve the effectiveness of his operation. Inevitably there was a back
reaction from both his own staff and colleagues at the business level and he
was met with a string of further problems. He found himself working 60 hours a
week but not moving operations forward.
Managers faced with diverse agendas find themselves in similar situations.
Bewildered and frustrated, the obvious reaction is to absorb themselves in
operational detail, engage in destructive political games, or simply sulk. But
the constructive alternative can transform their understanding of managing.
Politically fluent managers are guided by a different set of assumptions
about organisations. They understand how the rational mindset can saturate
management attention and diminish the value of individual motivations in
getting results. Above all, they recognise the need to shape their own goals for
the organisation, and that achieving them requires the principled use of
whatever power they possess. For when power is used for purely selfish ends,
personal goals are justifiably perceived as divisive. The more transparent the
abuse of that power, the greater the risk to those who misuse it – own goals
become just that – own goals.
Inevitably, in the cut and thrust of business, principles can be opaque;
after all it is possible to produce an organisational justification for almost
any kind of action. But politicians are able to create a meaningful
justification for their actions built on a clear understanding of the agendas
of others and how these relate to key business issues. Consider Kate,
organisation development director in a financial services firm:
The culture of Kate’s company reflected a priority towards the sales
divisions, such that other functions in the business saw themselves as reactive
operations that added less value. Consequently, the role of Kate’s function had
mainly been to provide basic training. She began to realise that this amounted
to little more than an order chasing business strategy that looked increasingly
limited and dangerous for the long term. So as well as doing training she
started to invest energy in organisational development initiatives that cut
across the culture.
Having identified those managers she thought could deliver results, she
spent a large amount of her own time helping them achieve significant
improvements in their areas of the business. What then started to happen is
best described in her own words: "I get a real buzz working with these
managers. We are working on some big strategic issues that are sending out
shock waves across the company. It’s a small but powerful network and I think
we are really getting somewhere. We have to negotiate all sorts of political
minefields and because I have encouraged them down this route I feel a real
commitment toward them." And her conclusion? As she put it: "Because
we are working somewhat against the conventional ethos of the firm I have to
spend a lot of time networking, making sure I put a positive spin on our work.
It’s too easy to get squeezed out if senior management don’t think you’re ‘one
Kate believes she still has much to do but finds it easier to achieve her
own aims because she is seen as a key player who asks questions about important
issues. She has developed visibility and credibility with a group of
Kate and Carlo illustrate very different motivations for working through the
diversity of stakeholder interests inherent in organisations. Carlo worked from
a rational perspective and was motivated to take responsibility for activities
that promoted organisational alignment. When faced with competing interests he
dealt with his frustration by focussing on those few activities where his
motivations could remain true. Kate, by contrast, worked from a political
mindset and was able to capitalise on the differing agendas she saw all around her.
She was motivated to move beyond the organisational hurdles and take
responsibility for activities that were outside of her area of control.
So what are the implications of accepting the centrality of politics to
managerial work? How can well-intentioned managers such as Carlo be more
effective in working in the stakeholder organisation?
Politically able managers recognise the fallacy of pursuing corporate goals
without acknowledging the prime importance of their self-interest. They are
quick to appraise projects and assignments that have little chance of success,
avoiding them in favour of more realistic alternatives. Like Kate, they are
likely to feel a responsibility toward a select group of like-minded people who
share a common cause, self-styled pockets of good practice that stimulate
change from sometimes lowly starting points. Such initiatives may run counter
to formal policy and those managers involved inevitably risk being taken for
mavericks. This leads them at times to use stealth to build their case, much as
Kate did in ensuring that senior management saw the ‘positive spin’ in her
For smart political managers, organisational change is not an activity
scheduled in for half a day a week. It is a ceaseless process. What the
politically inept describe as dead time, they regard as prime time.
Conversations in corridors and around coffee machines are all opportunities to
position ideas and understand others’ points of view. Networking inside and
outside the organisation becomes the motor of political fluency: a vehicle that
provides access to power, identifies key issues, and locates resistance.
Managers who fail to understand the idea of stakeholders and the
inevitability of politics are out of touch with the prevailing conditions in
most organisations. Unfortunately, they are plentiful, hanging on to the myth
of corporate rationality; or having abandoned it, frustrated by the lack of
advice on how to deal with the misappropriation of power they see around them.
The relative few who discover political mastery usually seem to learn the
hard way – by landing a senior role and finding it has little to do with
management as they thought they knew it.
It amounts to an interesting challenge for training professionals, who often
see the results of poorly managed stakeholder activity, and political ineptness
among their clients, right across the spectrum of the organisations they work
It is a double challenge. For not only do they have to find learning
processes to enable managers to become able politicians, but before they get to
grips with that, they may have to go through the process themselves.
Making the transition to a constructive political mindset may seem daunting.
It means ‘unlearning’ the rational model of management, and grasping very
different capabilities. It is usually a test of a managers commitment to
The key capabilities
– Power and politics – evaluating the complexity of influence
– Relationships – evaluating the different barriers to
– Political mechanisms – recognising the value of lobbying and
– Pockets of good practice – appreciating the value of
establishing worthy causes to stimulate organisation change
– Stakeholder knowledge – knowing the agendas and motivations
of key players
– Organisational knowledge – knowing the ‘who’ and ‘how’ behind
– Business knowledge – knowing the critical organisational
– Persuasive presentation – developing collaborative outcomes
through personal enthusiasm, logic and the disclosure of motives
– Productive challenge – causing others to analyse their
– Reading others – a continual observation and evaluation of
motives and actions
– Balanced motives – clarity about personal and organisational
– Managerial irreverence – a healthy scepticism about the
conventions of what is possible