Wherever you go, there it is: politics at work. Ever wonder how to get rid of it? Well, you can’t. But you can learn how to play the game without losing
By Barbara Quinn
Illustration: Maurice Vellekoop
The vice-president of human resources was sitting at a fine restaurant with her Canadian colleagues, enjoying a relaxed evening with the visiting host, a senior executive of the large clothing company they all worked for. The wine flowed, the rack of lamb was juicy and amidst the tinkling of silverware against china that served as the background to the light-hearted banter came the question she will never forget.
“Tell me honestly: what do you think?”
The hosting CEO had just told her the company was trying to change its culture and was now interested in hearing her feedback. A relative newbie to the organization, she naively waded in with her observations about factory piecework and how perhaps it was incompatible with the company’s values. Like someone hitting the pause button, the table went deadly silent. All eyes turned to stare at the woman who had just poked at one of the core sacred cows of the company’s culture — at what was supposed to be a friendly social gathering. Fortunately, her straightforward answer wasn’t career limiting; in fact, she went on to lead a team that explored options to piecework. But the incident provided a valuable lesson: think carefully before taking on issues that are political with a capital P.
Most people have found themselves on the wrong side of politics at one time or another in their careers. Whether you like the idea or not, politics matter; the higher up the ladder you move, the more you need to master the art form, as power concentrates at the top of the hierarchy. Launi Skinner, CEO of First West Credit Union in Langley, BC, and former president of US stores, Starbucks Coffee Corp., acknowledges that learning how to nurture relationships with powerful people accelerated her career. “The more people know you, the more they are loyal to you,” she says. “But I have also learned that the respect of my peers is as important as that of my boss.”
Many human resources consultants wish others would learn this lesson. How often have you seen an executive’s power evaporate the moment his or her sponsor leaves the building? People have actually been known to make bets on how long a former golden girl or boy will last once his or her halo protector has gone. One manager said, “Today is the happiest day of my entire career” when a colleague had been terminated, someone who apparently had spent years condescending to the employees and coworkers, “the little peers.” Although power is largely derived by association, if you lack the appropriate skills and reputation, it will eventually catch up to you. One of the primary lessons in managing politics is to earn credibility in your own right and not rely solely on the good graces of the boss.
Without credibility, you will appear insincere, and everyone sees through a phony. One human resources consultant found endless amusement watching the antics of an ambitious executive while she was facilitating his team at a three-day offsite planning session. Every time the boss uttered a word, the keener made sure to show his admiration by murmuring “brilliant idea” or some other flattering insight. At lunch three days running, he managed to jockey into position right beside the boss — no easy feat, considering the dining-room table sat 14. One day, he had to bob and weave in the doorway of the dining room as the boss kept sitting down then changing his mind.
This ambitious executive is the type of person who gives politics a bad name. He demonstrated how not to play politics, when in fact you can be incredibly political but still have integrity.
As Skinner points out, “You have to learn to play politics well enough but still feel good about your values.” That means having the courage to take a stand when a decision is in direct opposition to your principles, even if it means disagreeing with your boss. “I once found myself on the opposite side of a decision that did not sit well with me,” Skinner says. “[It was] not an ethical issue, but it was profoundly important to me. In the end, I had to part ways with the organization because I had to stand up for my values.”
Some people think they can avoid office politics by keeping their heads down and just doing their job, but you do this at your own peril, says Courtney Pratt, chairman of human resources consultants Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions in Toronto. You may not like politics but it’s a reality. It’s best to understand how power works and find mutual solutions rather than go head-on into a win-or-lose battle. “Sometimes you will decide to fight the power structure,” says Pratt, “knowing that if you lose, you will either have to live with it or leave the organization.”
No wonder politics is not for the faint of heart. Even a simple change of boss can turn the wheel of fortune. Consider the once-promising executive who had shot up quickly, then lost it when he failed to land the top marketing job. He watched one of his peers emerge as his new boss. The executive began to pout during meetings, openly criticize and find fault with anything his boss said and slowly lost his well-earned credibility. His company gave him an ultimatum: fix his attitude or enjoy a career elsewhere. To his credit, he had the guts to open himself to tough feedback. By listening and changing his ways, he was able to restore the luster of his reputation.
Being open to outside opinions is key to maintaining and even increasing your power. “We need to be willing to regularly invite feedback from straight shooters who will give us an honest opinion, even if it’s painful,” says Mario Paron, regional managing partner, region east at KPMG in Hamilton and former chief human resources officer at the firm. People who feel blindsided by politics are those who don’t invite this kind of feedback; it takes a strong sense of self-awareness and the ability to shrink one’s ego. Those afraid to ask for feedback are often afraid of losing power when in fact they gain power by taking charge. One human resources mentor said, “If you want power, just take it. Don’t wait for anyone else to give it to you.” Taking power means taking charge of your destiny, not waiting for events to unfold around you.
Start by seeking advice from trusted colleagues outside your organization to get some perspective on whether you can turn the politics around and how you might do that. Before consulting anyone inside your organization, including the HR department or your boss, be clear on your intent: do you want to stay and give it a go or do you feel it is time to move on? If you want to stay, it’s time for a heart-to-heart talk with your boss to enlist his or her support in helping you regain your power and influence. While it may feel risky, it is actually the most positive thing you can do. Why? Because people will admire and respect you for it.
However, if staying does not seem worthwhile, there is another option: negotiating a severance package. Whenever politics have gotten so bad that an employee feels miserable toward his or her boss or employer, the feeling is often mutual. There may be openness on the boss’ or company’s part to work out a deal. If you decide a package is your best bet, invest an hour with a lawyer; he or she can help determine your options and the best strategies for proceeding with the negotiation. Remember to act as a consummate professional with your parting employer: be respectful and neutral, with no visible axe to grind. Your reputation is worth it.
Despite our best efforts, most of us will admit to improving our political skills after a bracing development experience in humility — there is nothing like it for a lasting lesson in the give and take of power. The key to successfully managing politics is realizing that we cannot always control what happens, but we can control how we choose to handle the politics.
Barbara Quinn is a writer and consultant with 22cpartners in Toronto