politics has a bad name but you ignore it at your peril. Jane Lewis reports on
the latest thinking on how to play the power game and win
public appetite for power and politics has never looked more jaded. Forget
about all that brouhaha in Florida ñ the real story of the US presidential
election was that half the country’s electorate failed to show up at all. And
the situation in the UK is little better if the low turnouts at
last autumn’s parliamentary by-elections are anything to go by.
doubt psephologists (those who scientifically study elections) are already
pouring over the complex social and political causes of such wide spread voter
apathy. But some commentators believe the issue is more straight forward. They
argue that political impulse in individuals has not ceased or diminished ñ it
has just been redirected into new channels.
are only interested in things in which they feel involved and over which they
feel they could exert influence," says organisational psychologist Colin
Selby of Selby Millsmith, and for many people that means the work place.
up to power
has become a truism that business is the new politics on a macro scale ñ you
only have to look at the power wielded by multinational companies, often at the
expense of nation states. "The economic power of some organisations is so
huge that they’re punching well above their weight in political issues. There’s
a sense that big national and multinational players now have more power than
governments," says Linda Holbeche, director of research at Roffey Park.
she also observes a similar shift in energy at the micro level. "People
are looking much more at personal strategies of power, and how they might use
these to further their own careers," she says.
the arrival of a new breed of executive coach dedicated to persuading
individuals to think more deeply about their political role within
organisations, as well as offering practical advice about how to boost their
"personal power-base" and practice "intra-psychic politics".
The terminology might sound as if it’s come straight out of a Thunderbirds
episode, but the intent behind it is serious. As Dr Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, an
emerging expert in the field, points out, "A lot of people don’t realise
how important it is to own up to power."
claims she only stumbled on the issue by chance. "I’m a macro person ñ my
usual role is to troubleshoot big business change at a broad level."
she couldn’t help wondering why some clearly gifted business practitioners
remained stuck in a particular job, while others consistently achieved dazzling
heights. In almost every case it was a kind of political awareness that had
made the difference. Those who reached the top of organisations had done so by
"effective use of socialised power". They had networked, built teams,
and actively sought to make a personal impact on the organisation. The
conclusion she reached was that in business, as in life, you don’t get what
you’re worth so much as what you can negotiate.
common trait among those disappointed with their careers was the assumption
that ability, performance and self-belief would speak for themselves, that
virtue would be rewarded without any further effort on their part. This
attitude of ‘I’m so good, why should I bother to tell anyone?’ is a cardinal
sin, she says, and claims to have achieved "fantastic results" simply
by getting people to learn to use power effectively.
beings are essentially political animals. But Dr Cheung-Judge argues that by
the time many people get to the work place their desire to practice politics
has frequently faded. Some people don’t believe they have any power, others
don’t want to play the power game, either because they’ve had a bad experience,
or because they perceive the use of power per se to be unethical. "Power
tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," wrote the first
Baron Acton in the 1880s. He might have been forgotten, but his epithet is
still firmly wedged in public consciousness and sums up a common attitude.
the phrase "office politics" is loaded with negative connotations,
implying a struggle for personal power at the expense of wider corporate aims.
As such, it has become the most widely cited informal explanation for any
failed project or botched initiative within companies. No wonder so many
well-meaning employees are keen to distance themselves from the concept, if not
the actual reality of politics. According to a survey conducted by the careers
web site MMXI, most don’t believe that the practice will do them any good ñ
only 39 of the 1,000 people canvassed cited office politics as an important
tool for reaching the top. Yet some 420 of these believed luck plays an
experts agree that the biggest political mistake of all is to assume that
organisational politics doesn’t exist. "Conflict and power are inherent in
organisations. As a manager you either use power and politics effectively, or
you’re subjected to them," claims Cheung-Judge. "You have to be
political to protect yourself," adds Andrew DuBrin, professor of
management at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
contention that, "there are still a lot of devious people in organisations
and people that are operating out of self-interest," just about sums up
this new approach to office politics, which could be styled the Good Guys Fight
Back school of thought. New breed trainers are urging recruits to see
themselves as virtuous power-brokers, building up influence and wielding power
ethically for the good of the organisation, as well as for their own
theory, at least, is that what goes around comes around: if you dish the dirt
on a colleague, or betray your boss to superiors, your actions are likely to
rebound on you. A classic example of the theory in practice was on our screens
last summer, according to Brian Baxter of organisational psychologists Kiddy
& Partners. "It’s the Nasty Nick syndrome ñ but that kind of person
isn’t going to survive."
you don’t have character ethics any power play is not sustainable, because
people see through you," concurs Cheung-Judge. "Without character
ethics, personality politics will be hollow."
is it equally hollow to assume that something as intangible as political nous
can be encapsulated into a series of axiomatic do’s and don’ts about how to
behave at work? Certainly some of the advice coming out of the US appears
strangely clumsy, if not naive. Among the more extreme strictures are
instructions "to avoid all contact, both social or formal, with
unproductive individuals," and "to deploy constructive gossip".
the question of what exactly constitutes constructive gossip, the experts get
into a bit of a muddle. "Good gossip would be sharing information that’s a
little bit titillating, but wouldn’t damage anyone," explains Dubrin.
"Something interesting like, ‘I’ve heard Sheila is in line for a mammoth
promotion to another division,’ not, ‘She’s pregnant and she doesn’t know who
the father is’". Well, now we know.
a very real danger of losing sight of the main point amid all the guff which is
how you go about incorporating your own political instincts and self-knowledge
into a viable career strategy. Consultant John Eldred of Transition One
Associates is responsible for coining the phrase "intra-psychic
politics" to describe his approach to the issue. But the definition of
what this means in practice is far more user-friendly. "It involves
knowing who you are, what your goals are and how to handle yourself in the
midst of conflict. That kind of knowledge helps you decide which battles are
many ways the process is about identifying and formalising what you already
know and probably practice intuitively. If you know there is someone hostile to
you in your department, it comes as second nature to take steps to trump their
influence by allying with a third party. A good question to ask is: who will be
my champion if things get difficult? Eldred takes the matter further by
encouraging students to create two lists, the first entitled: what do I need to
get on? The second: what can I help others with?
approach is similar ñ she encourages students "to start trading
favours" with peers. She claims the notion that you have to concentrate on
forging relationships with more senior people to get on is misguided. "I
always get people to list a number of critical colleagues without whom a job
would not get done. They often find that those they rely on most are sideways
people, not upwards people. So they shouldn’t worry about sucking up [to those
in authority]. We can get hooked into people’s approval and that becomes a key
driver. But that’s not what I’m talking about. You’ve got to have a strategy to
get yourself noticed."
Holbeche at Roffey Park, the successful practice of politics at work is, above
all, an exercise in accumulating and demonstrating personal capital. "You
should see it as building up your own stock. Build your visibility, but with
care. Don’t make yourself a natural target, but build up your profile so people
want to attach themselves to you."
useful exercise in personal power, adds Colin Selby, is to check out your
market worth on a regular basis. "I used to try and get a job offer each
year. This was partly so that I didn’t feel completely under the power and
control of my employer, but also so that I could be sure that my
view of the market was accurate. Any person that doesn’t do this
is not likely to be a force within an organisation."
the most successful political operators are also those with an instinctive
awareness of where the real power in their organisations lies, and that
involves much more than checking one’s own market worth. "You need to keep
your ear to the ground," claims Kiddy. "You need to be alert to
what’s happening around you. Look at the sources of power in your office and
ask yourself where does it come from?" If that means hanging around by the
coffee machine, or even shivering on the steps with the smokers, then so be it.
The important thing is that you need to be able to anticipate events to give
yourself the best chance of making the best of them.
Holbeche concludes: "What goes on in an organisation frequently defies all
logic. There’s no such thing as fairness, so people do need to tune into what’s
going on from a political point of view. It’s a question of putting into
practice some fairly basic skills that would once have been the preserve of
go-getters. The important thing to realise now is these are a basic stock in
trade of anyone who wants to make a buzz."
we look at three typical enough scenarios and how to tackle them.
middle manager is psyched out by the boss
love your work and are, in general, very happy with your company, but your life
is being made miserable by your boss. His behaviour towards you is fractious
and unpredictable and you are rarely given the opportunity to show off your
talents. In fact you suspect that some of the tasks you have been set are
intended to undermine you ñ you have twice taken the rap for failed projects
that you believed were ill-advised in the first place. You have a potential
ally in a former boss who hired you, but who has since been promoted and is now
out of daily contact.
boss’s behaviour indicates a strong degree of insecurity about his own
position, and he clearly perceives you to be a threat. You can take some
comfort from the fact that he is exacerbating his own position by behaving so
unprofessionally. But the situation is untenable. By allowing it to continue
you risk credibility with colleagues. More damagingly, you may begin to
question your own self-worth and judgement.
your respective power-bases: your boss’ own standing with his peers and seniors
will have a major influence on the way you act. Is he justified in his
insecurities, or is he a valued member of the team? Does he command affection
from others, if not from you? Sniff out opinion.
his general position in the company is strong, your best course of action is to
avoid an open battle ñ you must try and win him over to your side instead.
Build up his confidence by doing obvious favours. Pay the occasional
compliment. Suggest schemes that would reflect creditably on him. Make it clear
you are not after his job and demonstrate respect for what he does without
lapsing into apology language. On no account attempt to contact your former
boss behind his back.
on the other hand, you detect an overall weak position ñ strike hard. Take heed
of Machiavelli: "Men should either be treated generously or destroyed
because they take revenge for slight injuries ñ for heavy ones they cannot."
by shoring up your own power-base: are there others who would testify to your
skills and professionalism? Do you have a reputation as a good company player?
Identify and align yourself with other power-brokers in the work place; make
sure whoever you ally with is on good terms with senior management. Broaden
your spread of influence by making contacts with other departments. Renew
informal links with your former boss.
are now in a position to challenge. Take the opportunity the next time your
boss makes an unreasonable demand.
co-director threatens to reveal damaging personal information
and Anna are both senior directors in a private company and used to be friends
ñ at least you used to go to the pub together. You once confided a personal
dilemma that would have severe repercussions on your professional and private
life if disclosed. You and Anna have since fallen out dramatically over the
direction the company should take and your working relationship is strained.
You now perceive her to be on the make at the expense of the rest of the
organisation. You both know a parting of the ways is inevitable. Anna is
holding out for an exorbitant severance payment and has hinted she will reveal
your secret if she doesn’t get it. You know that the amount in question will be
hard to justify to your fellow directors.
are certainly between a rock and a hard place and clearly have a ruthless
adversary. The main question is whether you will find it necessary to sink to
her level in order to combat her.
temptation will be to pay Anna off and so see the back of her as quickly as
possible. You can then invent a plausible explanation for your co-directors at
leisure. But this is a dangerous gamble and might encourage her to raise
demands, or return to dog your career at a later date. Significantly, it would
also mean that you too have now compromised your professional ethics. That
gives her a double hold over you.
choice therefore is either to reveal the situation in full to your
co-directors, or to try to call Anna’s bluff. A third option ñ confiding in a
trusted ally ñ is ultimately flawed. Either that person will be powerless to
help, or you risk inviting them to compromise their own professional ethics to
come to your aid. If you cannot count on your colleagues’ discretion and
understanding, your best course of action is to return to Anna with a revised
figure and dare her to do her worst. She might well reflect that you could also
reveal some unsavoury facts about her.
future set clear boundaries as to what you will and won’t discuss with
colleagues. Don’t tell stories about your personal life that could be used
against you later.
authority is being put to the test by an ambitious underling
James first came into the department you had a good working relationship. You
began to delegate some of your work to him and found the process paid off. He
was an effective problem-solver, with good ideas, and you believed the pair of
you had struck up a degree of trust. Recently, however, you have noticed a
change in James’ behaviour. He is less communicative; you have become aware
that he has withheld certain important pieces of information from you. Worse,
your boss has mysteriously got wind of an incident that reflects badly on you,
when you believed you had quietly settled it.
is clearly attempting to sideline your role in the organisation in favour of
striking up his own working relationship with your superiors. He knows the best
means of achieving this is by undermining you personally.
fact that you are in this situation at all is ample proof that you have not
been paying enough attention to the arts of office politics. James’ betrayal
demonstrates that you have failed to convince him that you are a personal force
to be reckoned with. But even more damaging is the fact that your boss appears
to be colluding with him, albeit tacitly, indicating that you have also been
failing to manage upwards effectively.
first step, therefore, is to consolidate your own position by tackling the
situation with your superior head-on. Be frank about your concerns about James.
And be prepared to ram home the worth of your own contribution to the company
and if that means listing achievements, then do it. Try and extract from your
boss the undertaking that he or she will not allow James to report upwards
without first consulting you.
might pay to take a less open approach when dealing with James himself: you
don’t want to further weaken yourself by admitting his behaviour has been
threatening. Simply remind him that you are his superior and he is therefore
accountable to you.
reason for his attack on your authority might be that you have not been
assiduous enough in maintaining contacts around the organisation: people who
don’t network are isolated beings ñ and are therefore often seen as
non-essential in the informal office system and consequently easy targets for
the ambitious. Remember the next time you turn down an invitation to for a
post-work drink that in business the gap between being viewed as non-essential
informally, and redundant formally, is often a narrow one.