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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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- When You're the Least of the Best: II
- Many professions have entry-level roles that combine education with practice. Although these "newbies"
have unique opportunities to learn from veterans, the role's relatively low status sometimes conflicts
with the self-image of the new practitioner. Comfort in the role makes learning its lessons easier.
- What You See Isn't Always What You Get
- We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever
you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your
interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold
responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- Grace Under Fire: II
- When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the
other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able
to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
- How to Deal with Holding Back
- When group members voluntarily restrict their contributions to group efforts, group success is threatened
and high performance becomes impossible. How can we reduce the incidence of holding back?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
- Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
- And on March 7: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: II
- Narcissistic behavior at work threatens the enterprise. People who behave narcissistically systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this Part II of the series we consider the narcissistic preoccupation with superiority fantasies. Available here and by RSS on March 7.
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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.