Organization Politics – Dealing with Politics

This is a post in the series about Organization Politics. In the first post Organization Politics – Truth or Myth, we presented some examples of situations which might be termed ‘political’ and proceeded to analyze these situations in more detail in the next post Organization Politics – Anatomy of Office Politics. In this post, we will discuss why we need to deal with ‘politics’ as we see around us at workplace and learn a way to do so.

Let me reiterate a point I made in the last post: Every political situation is a decision-making situation.

So why should you even deal with politics? Why not just walk away and look for situations where politics doesn’t exist?

Deal with Politics – Why

There are a few reasons why walking away is not the best strategy all the time:

  • Every political situation is a great learning opportunity. Walking away means walking away from a lesson life is giving you. It is like bunking classes in the college for the hardest (and usually smartest) prof – you regret it later, and you have to still learn it, and usually in a much harder way.
  • Every workplace decision impacts your career. It is much easier to control your career growth when you can influence the decisions at workplace than when you are just the recipient/observer of the decisions being made by others.
  • Situations that get branded ‘political’ are very common. If you walk away from these common situations, you end up being a novice at workplace, someone who shirks responsibility, and will lose your credibility to lead and manage the organization.

Last point is worth repeating: in my opinion, many of us use politics is an ‘excuse’ to shy away from tough situations rather than build a career the hard way. This is what distinguishes a great career from a mediocre one. Anyone who wants to grow their career must be willing to engage in situations that others (or you) may brand ‘political’.

The picture above illustrates the engagement vs. outcome scenarios when you face a political situation. When you have low level of engagement, you just react to the decisions made. When the outcome is favorable, it probably works out fine for you. However, when it is unfavorable, it becomes frustrating and career-limiting, esp. because you didn’t have any say in it. This can give rise to ‘it was politically motivated’ thought. When you have high level of engagement, you feel more in control. Outcome may still be adverse, but still the participation provides better understanding (and it is like any other unsuccessful project you work on) of the decision. When the outcome is favorable, it provides confidence in one’s ability to influence outcomes. Irrespective of outcome, high level of engagement ensures better learning experience and prepares you for successes down the road as you engage more.

Deal with Politics – How

3 steps need to be taken to handle political situation (or any other decision-making situation) effectively.

Increase Awareness

It is important to understand context, as well as stakeholders, involved in a situation. Understanding an organization’s context means knowing about culture, process, and people related to the situation at hand. For example, in situation #2 presented in first post about quality process, it is very important to know how organization (various divisions which need to collaborate) define and perceive quality, how they feel about process compliance, how have cross-functional teams succeeded (and failed) in the past, etc. Similarly, identifying and knowing stakeholders will mean understanding who all impact and get impacted by the decisions made in the given situation. For the stakeholders involved in decision-making process, it is important to know their goals, values and incentives that they stand for. Such understanding is crucial for the next step of analysis. This is really a data gathering step.

Analyze Goals, Values and Incentives

Once you have most of the data, it is time to analyze it to come up with a plan of action. Politics (and most complex organizational decisions) is primarily about stakeholders trying to maximize their personal incentives at the cost of others’ incentives and sometimes at the cost of organizational goals. It is possible (though hard and time-consuming) to come up with decisions which maximizes collective incentives and doesn’t jeopardize organizational goals. To do this, it is important to understand various goals and incentives at play in a given situation, and come up with various possible alternative options. It is also important to understand the values exhibited by the individuals involved in the situation. For example, if CTO is passionate about high quality of software the company must produce consistently, he may be willing to let go of some of his personal incentives, and will be pushing hard on others to do the same, if a decision is going to undermine the quality in some way. There may be similarly powerful personal values that need to be factored into possible alternative options.

Influence and Persuade

Once you decide to be part of the solution in the given situation, you need to display strong influencing and persuasion skills. A lot has been written on this topic – see Five Steps to Increase your Influence and the book Art of Woo. Once you have some plan of action (and multiple options for the decision), you need to be able to influence the stakeholders and persuade them to accept one of the proposals. While doing that (maybe using some of the skills and styles mentioned in the references above, or your personal style), it is important to keep the relative authority/power wielded by the stakeholders. Sometimes, knowing who to influence (or persuade) is more important than knowing how to. For example, if you can get the CTO who is passionate about quality to become the sponsor and champion for your quality process initiative, you will avoid many influencing sessions – the CTO will do that for you. Similarly, if you have CFO batting against your proposal, it is critical to persuade him first, even if it means modifying your proposal a little bit to get him to your side. Such trade-offs are good for the organization too, since a proposal vetted by a senior leader is much easier to execute (and hence the organization gets the return on its implementation quickly).

In the next (and final) post, we will wrap-up by converting above details into a set of tactics that can be employed in various situations. Stay tuned!

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