The Challenge of Politics

“Human nature is like water. It takes the shape of its container.” – Wallace Stevens

My entire career I have worked for a large corporation. So the question of office politics is not new on my mind. However, “Organizational Savvy and Politics” has recently become one of the focus competencies on my development plan. Thus, it is time to take it seriously – do some research, read the theory on the subject, reflect on personal experiences, etc. – in hopes to be able to apply it all in practice.

If you are like me, you are totally confused as to what exactly is politics. I am talking about corporate politics – the games that people play at the office. So let’s start with the basics. The dictionary definition of workplace politics is “the use of power and social networking within an organization to achieve changes that benefit the organization or individuals within it.” […] “It is also a tool to assess the operational capacity and to balance diverse views of interested parties.”

Two books that I have recently read shed light on what the reality of corporate politics really is. First one – “Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t” by Jeffrey Pfeffer. Another one – “HBR Guide to Office Politics” by Karen Dillon. Both are brilliant in their own dimension and – since I have been flailing about the entire concept of politics – both were eye-opening for me. While Jeff’s perspective is more high-level, HBR Guild drills down to some more granular aspects of power.

Here are some of the things what you learn from Jeffrey Pfeffer:

  • Identifying personal qualities that bring influence
  • Determining the business unit within the organization that controls most power
  • Building efficient and effective social networks
  • Acting and speaking with power
  • Building a reputation
  • Overcoming opposition and setbacks
  • Pricing the power

Here is what you learn by reading the HBR Guide (according to pages v-vi):

  • Building relationships with difficult people
  • Gaining allies and influencing others
  • Working through tough – but productive – conversations
  • Wrangling the resources you need
  • Moving up without ruffling feathers
  • Dealing with the boss’s pet
  • Coping with office bullies and cliques
  • Claiming credit when it’s due
  • Avoiding power games and petty rivalries
  • Collaborating with competitive peers

Notice some of the common themes? I think I finally figured out what the reality of corporate politics is actually all about.

Here is what I’ve learned about politics so far:

  1. Politics is about who you know.
  2. Politics is about who knows you.
  3. Politics is about who knows what you know.
  4. Politics is allowing what you know to be used to move forward an issue.
  5. Politics is using who you know to get things done.
  6. Politics is about who you appear to be.

Corporate politics is about relationships – the good, the bad, and every kind in between. In fact, corporate politics IS relationships. Relationships is what gives you the power. The power to obtain the resources when you need them. The power to get on the most coveted project that will improve your visibility. The power to become the person other people want or need you to be.

What does it mean? It means that we need to step up our networking game. Networking is what allows you to gain and cultivate the political relationships. Strategic networking is what will empower you to seize the power.

How do you define “corporate politics”?

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