How things get done
We’ve all heard about workplace politics. What are they? Are they good or bad? Can we prevent them or should we get involved? Let’s spend some time exploring them.
Work, as in life, is filled with many independent actors in a complex system. Each actor is motivated by differing interests, passions and values. Each is working independently towards the greater good of the company, and politics are what arise from the continual negotiation, persuasion and debate of ideas.
The term workplace politics has often been used to describe purely negative situations such as those being taken advantage of, proverbial backstabbing, or people being poorly treated and taken advantage of. I would say that is a subset of workplace politics: it can potentially happen, and it does, but it’s not the wave that you should be looking to ride. You can use politics for good.
Politics in the workplace are always going to happen. You can’t choose to not engage with them, because if you do not, then you will find that your career suffers as a result, especially as you spend more time in management. Instead, the art is to understand these politics to see how you can navigate them and use them to your advantage whilst at the same time being an open and transparent individual. Ego, power, unwritten rules and implicit culture unmask themselves at higher levels of an organization, and you need to be able to harness them with a clean reputation.
Let’s dig deeper into what they mean.
How do politics arise?
Politics typically arise because of tension between different types of social structures:
- The org chart. The most obvious place where politics can occur. Debate between you and your boss about your own interests, or conflict between your and your direct reports. This also manifests in individuals reaching down or up through the org chart in order to spread their influence.
- Close-knit informal groups. There will always be groups of people who are close to each other and protect each other through friendship, camaraderie or shared interests. They have no formal power structure in the org chart, but they lobby and work together.
- Influential people. Singular influential people, who may have much more say than others because of their tenure, celebrity or bargaining power can make situations political or difficult to navigate because of the difficulty of building consensus without them.
As you spend more time in a managerial role, you will see how decision-making is rarely an easy task. You have to navigate the structures and people demonstrated above in order to make sure that things move forward in a constructive manner.
Like in real politics, all political situations and negotiations involve an element of risk. How should you conduct yourself? After all, getting politics wrong can be humiliating: you can find yourself looking very stupid, uninformed or unpopular in opinion. Getting involved in the wrong type of politics can be harmful, so you need to be able to protect yourself from the kinds of interactions that are toxic and only exist for those involved to be cliquey, spiteful and malicious. However, getting politics right builds your authority, influence and ability to get things done, opening up further doors in your career.
Positive politic patterns
Let’s explore ways that you should use politics to your advantage.
Learning teams and networks
Who makes decisions in your organization? Who is influential? Who are the close groups of individuals that think similarly, and who are the rival factions? Identifying this up front allows you to navigate sensibly through the political landscape and gives you the best chance of knowing who to go to in order to build consensus on particular issues, and who to approach differently or even avoid.
Take note of the different teams and divisions. What are their priorities? What motivates them? What do they care about and what are they knowledgable about? Which individuals have sizable influence and why? Is it because of their tenure or their technical prowess? By mapping out the organization and learning how it currently works, you can identify which groups and individuals you can collaborate with on different issues with the least amount of friction.
Winning hearts and minds
Remember that in order to have influence and to make an impact, you will need to win hearts and minds rather than just telling people what to do. Being a manager and therefore having authority to issue instructions and directives does not function well when the only delivery mechanism is executive order. You need to be able to make sure that the people you are leading really buy into what you want to propose; whether that is a critical decision on a project, a decision not to hire somebody, or a refusal to take some architectural work in a particular direction.
You need to be able to understand what motivates and drives people and to have the confidence to explain to them why their work matters as well as just what it is. Those that aren’t immediately receptive are those that you should spend time with in order to reinforce your view.
As companies grow in size, projects and initiatives move forward through collective effort, rather than just the force of will of an individual. When working, you will need to understand that consensus – at least as much as you can get – is important. In small companies and start-ups you can just take the proverbial bull by the horns and do whatever you want alone with little repercussions, but larger companies are different.
You can start small and informal. Let’s use an example. If your team wants to do something dramatically different to the codebase for their next project, then it is important to take as many people as you can along for the journey at the same time. It’s likely that your team won’t be the first that have thought of doing something like you’re proposing, so start by having some informal conversations with those that are senior, influential and close to the matters at hand.
Assuming that informal conversations have been successful, then you can announce more widely that you’d like to try a proof of concept pull request, or even just write an idea paper for circulation. It’s important that those you initially talked to are able to sponsor your efforts and offer their support, and that any work that you propose is just that: a proposal. Build consensus by making others feel like they always have the opportunity to contribute to what you are suggesting rather than it appearing to be a mandate. It will unlock the ability to make wider reaching decisions.
Being your best self consistently
Appearances and interactions are very important. You need to be your best self in a consistent manner in order to ensure that you are able to engage correctly in workplace politics and represent your teams correctly and respectfully.
Always be open, transparent, respectfully critical and absolutely clear on where you stand. Have the confidence to be open to being proved wrong and to be fine if you are. Be open to disagree and commit to initiatives. Never push agendas for the sake of serving only one’s self. Fundamentally your means of conduct comes down to the Golden Rule: treat others how you would wish to be treated yourself, and set the bar high.
Additionally, remember that when you become a manager, whether it is right or not, your position in the org chart grants you more power and you must wield this power respectfully and wisely. In the game of politics you must make sure that your relationships with particular staff are never seen to be favorable or unfavorable for personal reasons, otherwise you can be seen to be cliquey or nepotistic and this will make you less trustworthy. This may require some difficult conversations between those you are friends with externally about how you can conduct yourself in the office, but you will thank yourself in the long run. You need to engage equally and fairly with all.
Building a network of peers
Previously we have talked about building a network of peers from different areas of the business in order to share information, get feedback and sound out your ideas. In workplace politics, your network of peers is important as it allows you to be more broadly informed about how the wider business feels about your own initiatives and priorities, and it also gives you a chance to trial ideas before taking them any further, allowing you to initially operate in a safe, cross-disciplinary setting.
Negative politic patterns
In contrast to the positives, there are many negative ways that you can engage in workplace politics that will at best result in conflict and at worst have a negative impact on your career.
Misuse of executive order
Whilst your seniority may allow you to just tell people what to do, without winning hearts and minds, you will erode your respect and ultimately your influence. I like to imagine each manager having an energy bar, like in a video game, that is depleted when a controversial override on a decision is made, or an unpopular direct order issued. You must use them tactically and sparingly. The bar replenishes when you move forward with your team in a congruent manner where they are motivated to go on the same journey as you.
I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of going over someone’s head to their manager because it’s quicker and easier than going via the chain of command. I’m sure many of us also saw how much trouble Jimmy McNulty used to get into in The Wire for doing so (warning: very strong language).
Now, there may be times that this is quick, easy and convenient. However, the person being left out in the middle feels awful. There are things going on in their team or division that they are none-the-wiser about. Sometimes you may have a good relationship with your manager’s manager or even be friends outside of work, but you need to make sure that you go via the proper channels and bring your own manager along for the ride.
The same is also true for those who run a large organization with many layers of management. If you are going directly to the direct reports of your own direct reports about issues that should really involve the person in-between, then you are meddling and it shows disrespect for the person being left out. Could you not delegate this to them? Why not? Could you not coach them to do so?
I’m sure that this goes without saying. If you wish to be influential and effective as a manager, then you need to engage with others in a professional manner. This may be in contrast to your exact personality outside of work, but you owe it to all that you interact with to be open, honest, transparent and without motive. You need to operate for the greater good in order to be taken seriously.
Those who are unprofessional erode the trust that the organization has in them, and in higher levels of the org chart where trust is of utmost importance, those who cannot demonstrate it will find themselves unable of moving into these roles.
If you think that the best way to demonstrate how good your idea or initiative is by just doing it without anyone knowing, then it is likely to cause much more conflict down the line than if you had built consensus in the first place. Going rogue is similar to building up technical debt: it gets worse the longer that it continues and it is harder to back out from.
For example, if you thought the best way to make big architectural change in the codebase was to just do it silently rather than taking everyone else along for the ride, then you may find yourself unpopular when those controversial code changes end up being forced through because of an impending deadline for a feature, or even worse, blocking the whole deliverable.
If you are unable to build consensus, then maybe your idea or initiative is not as good as you originally thought it was.
Using politics for personal gain
The last negative area should come as no surprise: you should not use workplace politics for malicious personal gain. Bending ears to force through your recommended candidate so that you get the referral bonus is a terrible thing to do. Using your influence to force others into situations they do not want to be in for your own gain is also abhorrent. Abusing your position to make others feel small, powerless or marginalized is the worst form of politicking and will always catch up with you. Just don’t.
Workplace politics are very real and when understood and harnessed for the power of good, they give you the ability to move an organization forward in a positive manner. When used poorly or for malicious reasons, you can begin to build a snowball of mistrust that will always come back to bite you, and will limit your career. Engage wisely.