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
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
For a connection between positive politics and retention, see "Retention," Point Lookout for February 7, 2007.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- The Costs of Threats
- Threatening as a way of influencing others might work in the short term. But a pattern of using threats
to gain compliance has long-term effects that can undermine your own efforts, corrode your relationships,
and create an atmosphere of fear.
- The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Obvious Waste
- Among the most futile and irrelevant actions ever taken in crisis is rearranging the deck chairs of
the Titanic, which, of course, never actually happened. But in the workplace, we engage in activities
just as futile and irrelevant, often outside our awareness. Recognition is the first step to prevention.
- Deep Trouble and Getting Deeper
- Here's a catalog of actions people take when the projects they're leading are in deep trouble, and they're
pretty sure there's no way out.
- Workplace Anti-Patterns
- We find patterns of counter-effective behavior — anti-patterns — in every part of life,
including the workplace. Why? What are their features?
- Is It Arrogance or Confidence?
- Confusing arrogance and confidence can cause real trouble — or lost opportunities. What exactly
is the difference between them?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
- And on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
- When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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.