Politics is the process by which we resolve diverse and sometimes conflicting interests. In the workplace we often think of politics as a negative — a corrupting process that hurts people and organizations. And sometimes, that's what happens.
But politics comes in many flavors — it need not be destructive. Constructive politics gives us a way to make decisions together that take into account the needs and goals of diverse groups. Practicing constructive politics is an art, and leaders can model the best practices. Here are some ideas to keep in mind when practicing politics.
- Both pragmatism and ideology have their places
- Ideologies provide guidance when we aren't sure which way to go. And sometimes, when we adhere to ideologies too closely, they limit our ability to account for uncertainty or for the views of others.
- Pragmatism creates the flexibility we need to take into account the uncertainty that prevails in most environments, and to enable us to adapt decisions to the goals of diverse constituencies.
- Favor inclusiveness over domination
- When groups become polarized, dominance of one faction over all others is one path to stability. Sadly, this kind of stability is vulnerable in changing environments.
- To achieve a more durable stability, seek solutions based on inclusive alliances.
- Shorten your time horizon
- Constructive politics
helps us take account
of the needs of
- Taking the long view comes only at the expense of flexibility. In many cases the situation is so fluid that the future we were trying to accommodate never actually comes to pass, so the flexibility sacrifice we make today can be fruitless.
- By shortening your time horizon, you can recover flexibility, and that flexibility enables inclusiveness.
- Abandon behaviorism and revenge
- Some political operators choose tactics designed to "teach them a lesson." This is a behaviorist strategy, or sometimes it's driven by a desire for revenge. But because true learning is a voluntary activity, and "they" never enrolled in our "course," "they" rarely learn the lesson we had in mind.
- Hurting or terrorizing people isn't likely to convert anyone. At best, it begets compliance; at worst, destructive conflict. Neither outcome is a sound basis for an effective organization.
- Narrow your own goals
- Broad sets of goals tend to impose constraints that limit options. Narrowing your goals, which can feel like a loss, can often create new options that lead to outcomes you wouldn't have achieved otherwise.
- Focus on your must-haves, with "must" narrowly defined. Set aside for now the rest of your goals, and revisit them after your new alliance has had some successes.
Most important, when things turn toxic, get help. An impartial professional can usually suggest adjustments that would be rejected if one of the rival factions proposed them. Be careful though — this also applies to suggesting the need for help. Top Next Issue
For a connection between positive politics and retention, see "Retention," Point Lookout for February 7, 2007.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 27: Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
- In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
- And on October 4: Meeting Troubles: Culture
- Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.