Politics is not just about elections. For senior executive and junior administrator alike, the workplace is full of politics. People choosing what to say, how and when to say it and to whom. All with a specific outcome in mind. Alliances are forged. Supporters are rallied. It’s not just the management priorities in the business plan that decide which design gets the vote of confidence and which project is axed. But think positive, “politics” may seem a dirty word but the skills we’re talking about can be used for good as a well as bad. It’s all in how you play.
So what is office politics? Politics is the use of power towards a particular goal. Where that goal is to the benefit of the individual and the detriment of others, we tend to see it as devious, manipulating and negative. Additionally, because we often see power as going hand-in-hand with position, we tend to see the more senior people in the company as the ones who play politics.
However, there are many other types of power than the kind that resides in rank or position: there is knowledge (what you know), network (who you know), experience (length of service), physical (size, appearance) and personal (charisma) power. It’s safe to say that we all have some power in one or more of those categories. So if we all have power, it follows that we can all play office politics. But do we? Ask yourself: have I ever delayed or withheld bad news from the boss? Have I ever passed on a piece of information in order to influence opinion? Have I ever used my connections to find out something? The chances are, we’ve all played politics at some point or another.
However, skills that you perhaps used in these situations are not by themselves bad. In fact, when you break it down to skills, it already starts to sound more neutral. Influencing others… negotiation techniques… communicating with the audience in mind…. these are all key management competences, required by any executive and often the subject of personal development and coaching.
The key question to ask is: on those occasions, what were the intent and impact of our politicking? We need to be aware of the reasons behind our actions and how those actions may affect others. We can build our power by promotions, networking, gaining expertise, building a reputation, etc. We can understand our company’s political arena by studying the key players and their agendas and how they align – or not – with the company agenda. But when we come to use our power, if it is purely for our own ends and profit then we will be seen as playing politics. If it also benefits the business and the people in it, then our efforts will be viewed as more constructive.
Ultimately, whether you are seen as an ‘honest’ office politician or not becomes a matter of integrity. So think positive and play the game fairly.