CXO

Office politics: Making the most of your environment

Knowing how to work the company's political environment can make or break one's career success. Here are some tips for making the best of your environment.

Oh yes, politics. In business, many regard it as something distasteful, even ugly. They see it as Machiavellian, often facilitating an environment that condones back stabbing, gossiping, and sucking up to the boss.

True enough in many situations; but it can have a good side as well.

Knowing how to work the company's political environment can make or break one's career success. It can facilitate the successful launch of a new initiative.

Unfortunately, there are rarely any formalized ways to get a good read on how things really work in your organization. I was discussing this recently with a new client, who, like many in large infrastructures, was finding it hard to navigate the right path. My first suggestion to him was to not bother going to the Operating Manual or the HR Departments Policy books. And that Mission Statement hanging on the wall in the reception area? Not likely.

These are all statements put together to show how things are supposed to work in an ideal world. They may bear little or no resemblance to what's needed in the day to day life of your company.

That said, in almost all organizations, there are a few tactics and approaches that can help anyone become more successful when working through levels of management and various departments. Here are some tips I've seen work effectively:

Mentors

Mentors are still the best way to get a handle on what's really going on in any organization. Doesn't matter if your mentor is not the same gender—it can actually be better for you if (s)he's not. Insider mentors can give you a fast understanding of the company's culture; but if they aren't available, the use of outsider mentors can give you new perspective on your style and how business works in general. (An outside mentor is someone who doesn't work in the same company; but has enough experience overall to be a great counsel.) I think everyone can benefit from having a confident with whom they can discuss the craziness of the day.

Open-ended questions

Ask a lot of questions to different people in different sides of the company. And then shut up. When you hear the perspectives of people in departments or operations other than yours, it helps you to see the world as they see it and understand what they deem important. It may be different than what the boss has told you. Ask peers, old timers at all levels, and superiors. Take notes. Don't interrupt, you don't need to show how smart or experienced you are--just learn.

Review constantly

Seek constant feedback from others. Talk about what just took place, that meeting you just attended, what the last message from corporate really said, how you did in a recent presentation, what is driving decisions and directives. If this means you have to go out after work to compare notes, do it. Many great managers fail because they believe that what's right is what is going to succeed. Not always.

Get buy-in

It's important to ensure that everyone who may be influenced by your programs or initiatives is aware of what's going to happen and feels like they've been involved or at least were able to weigh in with their opinions or recommendations. Ideally, they'll be supportive of what you're doing, but at the very least it may reduce friction which may derail your success. In the best situation, you may learn something which will ensure the success of the activity; but even in the worst case where others won't support you, at least you'll know who's against the program. When people in other arms of the company don't agree with you or your plan, they can bring a great project or career to its knees pretty quickly.

Over-communicate

Keep others apprised of what you are planning or working on. Organizations hate to be surprised and often, when they are, it creates a blueprint for failure--personal or project. In many companies this means having meetings with people you may not like or respect, but that's just life in the fast lane. If you think that withholding information will allow you to sneak something past them, think twice.

If others don't agree with you, they can quietly derail your plans even after a good start. And you won't even know what happened.

Credit where credit is due

Guys like to hog the credit, which gets old and can come back to bite them over time. I often see yesterday's stars trip and fall, then act surprised that there's no one around to help them get back on their feet. On the other hand, women can go too far the other way--giving the rest of the team so much credit that they don't get the respect from upper management they deserve for their ideas, work, and contributions. These women end up watching others, who are less deserving, get promoted past them. Credit those on your team who deserve it, but don't miss an opportunity to take credit for your work as well.

Style--It still counts

How you present to others can make a big difference in how it's perceived. Common sense you say? Maybe, but often we think our presentation (our appearance, our use of PowerPoint, our buzzwords and jargon) will be universally accepted. It might; but sometimes those in other departments or companies have preconceived opinions about you or your "kind."

Ever heard someone say something like:

"Oh you know those network admin people ... they've always got a reason why something can't be done they way we ask for it." Or perhaps:

"Well she's from home office; they're trained to say no to everything." And of course, there's this:

"Those guys at XYZ company think the world starts and stops with their software. Somebody needs to give them a new perspective."

So, get to know the audience you are dealing with--let them see you in a light that will help ensure understanding between you and better the chance of success.

In summary, politics will occur anytime there are three or more people in a conversation. Recognize that, and use a few of these tips to try to get yourself, your point of view, or your new ideas brought into play.

John McKee, a certified coach and author, is the host of the popular webradio show, Business Success Coaching, heard on www.WomensRadio.com. John's blog, Career Coach, appears weekly in TechRepublic and his newest book "Career Wisdom" is now available for sale. For more information go to: www.JohnMMcKee.com, www.BusinessSuccessCoach.net,or www.BusinessWomanWeb.com.

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

3 comments
gkteo
gkteo

Clear, concise and most realistic point of view.

mschlepphorst
mschlepphorst

I only hear the use of the word politics perjoratively as if it is always the negative or evil side of business. The reality is that all companies have political processes; they vary by degree of effectiveness. The act of governing and decision making is the very definition of politics. I think the biggest challenge in any organization is getting team members to recognize that absolutes are imaginary. Robin's point that irrationality depends on which side of the decision you stand on is too often true. Group human behavior is complex, just as the path a final decision can take. Robin refers to the "REAL ways thing get done in an organization, as contrasted with the presumed ways epitomized in mission statements and policies ..." shouldn't be interpreted as dismissive of mission statements or policies. My experience with "politically effective" organizations that embrace a mission statement with appropriate policies didn't result in Jim Jones koolaid clubs: It aligned, but not blindly. Organization do change over time, and Robin correctly points out the need to evaluate customs and beliefs. Understanding how those customs and beliefs arose will help the organization adapt to change. And effective politics is at the heart of effective change.

robin
robin

Excellent points about: (1) The need to make whatever you do work in your own organization's (political) environment, which I include in my project management seminars as an often-overlooked critical success factor, necessary but not sufficient for project success. (2) Distinguishing the REAL ways things get done in organizations, as contrasted with the presumed ways epitomized in mission statements and policies and procedures manuals. In my process improvement seminars, I emphasize that many/most initiatives fail because they aim to change the presumed process, which often isn't really happening, rather than the REAL process, which frequently is not even recognized and includes customs and beliefs, as well as procedures. (3) Asking and listening, in order first to understand and appreciate the various perspectives which come to be characterized as "politics." This mindset, including recognizing and reconciling conflicts, is most important for discovering the REAL, business requirements that provide value when accomplished. The techniques described are good starts, and a number of additional methods are available to help, especially the Problem Pyramid?. However, in my experience, people most often use the term "politics" to rationalize seemingly irrational decisions which they don't agree with. Note, equally irrational decisions that one agrees with are never characterized as "politics." Robin Goldsmith Author of Discovering REAL Business Requirements for Software Project Success

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