6 Steps to Success in any Organization
Erika Andersen, Founder/Partner
This election season has definitely given politics a bad reputation.
Or maybe I should say—a worse reputation. Many of us already had fairly negative associations with the idea of politics even before the current craziness. Over the years, when my colleagues and I have asked group participants to share their associations with the word “politics,” we most often hear responses like “sleazy,” “manipulative,” “ruthless,” “selfish” and “dishonest.” It’s not a pretty picture.
But what if we take the word “politics” out of the gutter in which it is currently residing, and think about its more normal and useful meaning. Because no matter what we think about what’s happening right now on the national stage, whenever any group of people is trying to get something done—from a kid’s baseball team to a Fortune 500 company; a rural PTA group to an international professional association; a family vacation to the Olympics—that endeavor is a web of relationships, influence and power. And at the simplest, most neutral level, politics is just the art of navigating that web successfully. That’s how you get things done, when you’re working with other people (as we almost always are).
And—like almost any other effort in life, you can do that navigation in an honest, high-integrity way that looks for the balance between what’s good for you and what’s good for others and the larger enterprise, or you can do it in a way that focuses only on you winning, and too bad for everyone else. I’m assuming that you’d prefer to be political in a way that supports both you and the greater good (and thus the title of the post); if not, you’re welcome to stop reading right now.
If you’re still with me, I’d like to encourage you to learn to be politically astute as a necessary career skill. And here’s how to do that without losing your soul in the process:
Decide what’s important to you. Remember, the reason you need to become politically skillful is it will give you a better chance of achieving whatever is important to you in the political landscapes within which you operate. So, first, it’s important to get clear about what you want to accomplish. For instance, let’s say you’re focusing on work. If you want to get a promotion, that’s going to require different navigation than if you want to figure out how to move laterally into another part of your organization. Or let’s say you’re focusing on a professional group to which you belong. Trying to convince your fellow members to have better meetings will require a different approach than trying to convince them to make you the executive director. In other words, figure out what you want to do, then you can work on how—again, in a high-integrity way—to make that happen.
Understand the environment. Once you’re clear on your own goals relative to your group, it’s time to understand your current place within the group. In every collection of humans—your job, a classroom, a shipwrecked crew on a desert island—there will be people who trust and agree with you (allies), people who are kind of on the fence about you—they may trust you but not agree with you, or agree with you but not trust you (fence-sitters), and people who neither trust nor agree with you, and won’t support whatever it is you want to do (adversaries). If you’re going to be successful in navigating any group, it’s critical to recognize this. I first learned this way of looking at the political landscape when I worked for Peter Block in the mid-1980s, at a time when he was writing his wonderful book The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills At Work. It really opened my eyes; I tend to be overly optimistic in most situations, and it was hugely helpful to approach my circumstances in this “fair witness” way—to make the effort to be accurate in assessing how others related to me.
I’d encourage you to do the same thing. If you want to be able to understand and navigate the political systems of which you’re a part, start by figuring out who—right now—are your allies, fence-sitters and adversaries. One simple way to get a sense of this is to ask yourself: who supports your efforts and helps you get things done (allies), who sits on the sidelines and neither helps nor blocks you (fence-sitters), and who inhibits you from accomplishing your goals (adversaries). It’s important to focus on people’s actual actions, vs. their words—some allies may aid you quietly and without fanfare, while some adversaries may tell you they only want to help…and then do things that make it harder for you to succeed. So be as objective as possible as you build your sense of the political map that surrounds you.
Get clear on the decision-maker. Once you know what you’re trying to accomplish, and who your allies, fence-sitters and adversaries are, your next important task is to figure out who is the actual decision-maker regarding the thing you want to accomplish. That is, who is the person who can say yes and make it happen when everyone else says no, or who can say no and keep it from happening when everyone else says yes. For instance, if you’re trying to get a promotion, your boss might be the decision-maker: his yes is the final yes. On the other hand, it might be your boss’ boss—her no can stop your boss’ yes, and her yes can overrule his no. Again, look at whatever facts you can find to get an accurate sense of this—it’s anti-helpful to succumb to hope or wishful thinking here.
Build mutual support. Now you know the key things: what you’re trying to accomplish; where everyone “lives” in relation to you; and who’s key to getting the decision you need. This is where you start navigating. And I’ll say it one more time: no sleaziness required. You can do this in a way that would make your mother proud. Start by making your allies even stronger allies—particularly those who are allies of your decision-maker, and the decision-maker him or herself, if you’re fortunate enough to have that person as your ally. How do you strengthen your ally relationships? By being an awesome ally. Find out what they’re trying to accomplish, and insofar as you agree with and can support their goals, do that. In fact, help them in whatever way you can. Generally speaking, the more you support someone else, the more they will be willing to support you.
Move neutrals to positives. Next, focus on your fence-sitters. If your decision-maker or people who are your decision-maker’s allies are fence-sitters, especially relative to what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s important to see if you can move them into your ally group. You can start by supporting them in the way you would an ally—helping them to achieve their goals whenever possible. It’s also important to figure out why they’re fence-sitters rather than allies, and then address that issue. Fence-sitters either don’t trust you or they don’t agree with you. If it’s a trust problem, ask yourself what you may have done to give them the sense that you’re not to be trusted. (Have you said you’d do something that affected them and not followed through? Have you shared sensitive information without their permission? Have you disagreed with them in a public setting?) If you identify something, think about what you could do to make amends—and how you can demonstrate your trustworthiness to them in future. If it’s an agreement problem, think about how you could show them how agreeing with you is in their interest. For example, let’s say you think your boss is a fence-sitter when it comes to your promotion, and you know she’s a strong ally of her boss, who is the decision-maker in this case. Think about how your promotion could benefit your boss. Could you, for instance, take responsibility for something she now does that she doesn’t much like doing? Could it be a feather in her cap to have you as the the youngest director in the company working for her? Moving important fence-sitters into the ally column can really increase your chances of success.
Minimize the negatives. Finally, the element of politics that most of us don’t even want to acknowledge: our adversaries. Most people instinctively approach adversaries in one of two ways, neither of which is helpful. We either try to make them allies, or we try to destroy them. The first is unlikely to work—remember, they neither trust nor agree with you, and trying to get them in your corner is likely to be a waste of time, and may even make it easier for them to trip you up. Trying to destroy them is unworthy of you, and is likely to backfire—they’ll probably hit back even harder. This is the time to follow Michelle Obama’s now-famous precept: "when they go low, you go high." Focus your energy on minimizing the negative impact of your adversaries. For instance, if your manager is the decision-maker regarding your promotion, and you know that one of your peers is an adversary and is likely to be saying bad things about you to your boss, make sure that your allies who have your boss’ ear are telling her the real story. If you know that an adversary is likely to try to throw you under the bus at a meeting, make sure that you have a professional, positive, solution-oriented response prepared.
I hope this gives you a sense of how to make your way through the web of power and influence that we call politics in order to achieve your goals, while still building strong relationships and a positive culture. And most important, being able to look at yourself in the mirror and feel proud of the person looking back at you.