Power, politics and positivity

When you hear the words “power” and “office politics” do you shudder and say “ewwwww”?

Unfortunately, these terms derive their bad connotation from self-centered workplace schmoozers interested only in their own careers. And, sometimes it takes awhile for those less-than-stellar traits to surface. Penelope Trunk, author of “The Brazen Careerist” writes:

People are hired for what they know and fired for who they are.

However, choosing not to play office politics can be a contributing factor in getting a pink slip or in not being promoted. How can that be?

Why applying the skills of office politics in a good way is a good thing

Office politics is a workplace reality. Here’s a simple rule of thumb about whether politics exist at your company.

First, count the number of employees at your organization. If that number is greater than two, then office politics is a factor.

In fact, anytime there are scarce resources, competing interests and ambiguity, office politics will exist. But that’s not always a bad thing.

Office politics is ”The Force” from the Star Wars movies: there’s a light (positive) side and a dark (negative) side. It gets its bad name from people who are manipulators, backstabbers and who play the “I win, you lose” game. However, when executed correctly from a win-win perspective, office politics relies on collaboration, sharing, relationships and networking.

Competent people do politics so competently that it looks like being nice. If you have political skill, you appear to not have it. ~Gerald Ferris, psychology and management professor at Florida State University

Opting out of office politics doesn’t serve your career well. Being an effective leader requires you to champion your agenda, be it getting assigned to a special project or getting a bigger budget, and that requires use of the positive side of office politics (collaboration, sharing, relationships and networking).

Using a win-win approach is a make-or-break skill for doing well at work. Research from the Chartered Management Institute found that 88 percent of managers claimed to have honed their knowledge of politics through workplace mistakes. It’s easy to avoid making blunders on the job by keeping a few simple practices in mind.

Win-win office politicking skills

Be open to hearing other points of view, even if you disagree. Allowing someone to voice their opinion and really listening to what they have to say strengthens a relationship. Working from a win-win viewpoint also helps to build allies.

Be a broker of ideas and information. Willingly share what you know. Giving (without focusing on what you may get in return) bolsters your reputation and facilitates building your network.

Pay attention. Understand who the informal leaders in your organization are — those individuals whose opinion is sought by others because it is so respected and not necessarily because of their job title. Tap into their knowledge and their circle of influence.

Always credit “we” not “me.”

Build connections. Having a strong, strategic network goes beyond passing out and collecting business cards. Build and maintain relationships that are mutually beneficial. Staying in touch can be simple: share articles or send congratulatory e-mails.

Be sincere, be authentic and smile. People like to work with those whom they genuinely like (the one competently playing the “light” side of office politics).


Influence and Intentions

This is the fourth and final post in the Playing Office Politics series - a collaborative endeavor between Jennifer V. Miller, Mike Henry Sr., Susan Mazza and myself. We hope you’ve enjoyed it!

Influence. Power. Leadership. Choice. Character. All potent concepts. All inextricably linked for leaders who want to play positive office politics.

Office Politics Research

In 2005, Gerald R. Ferris, Sherry L. Davidson, and Pamela L. Perrewe co-authored Political Skills at Work: Impact on Work Effectiveness, a book which was the culmination of more than 15 years of research into office politics. According to Gerald Ferris,

Politically skilled managers are masters of four behaviors: social astuteness, interpersonal influence, networking ability and apparent sincerity.

Influence impacts both our professional and personal relationships. When used on the win-win “light side of the force” (as opposed to I win-you lose manipulation), having influence can distinguish you as a great formal or informal leader. Influence is determined by one’s ability to make an appeal for action based on logic, emotion or a sense of cooperation, or some combination of all three.

Art by Paul Downey

Do You Have What It Takes?

Positive influence, i.e., the ability to get work  done with and through other people, is a critical skill for leaders to have in their toolkit.

Some outcomes fall within your realm of direct control, others won’t.  For those outcomes for which you don’t have total responsibility, a leader’s power influence can be invaluable to shaping results.

As a manager who empowers others, you will act as a colleague more than a boss, relying on influence, respect and relationships  to work with employees. ~Jamieson and O’Mara (1991).

To assess your influence skills, do a little self-audit:

• Can I get people to move, to act, to get things done?
• Am I capable of gaining support from others to drive outcomes?
• Can I inspire others to act?
• Do I have the ability to create meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships?
• Can I persuade other people to become my champion?
• Can I engage someone’s imagination?
• Do I get results through and with people?
• Is my word and/or my involvement sufficient to make something happen?
• Do I have the personal power to shape outcomes and cause things to happen?
• Do others actively seek out my counsel?

Truly excellent influencing skills require a healthy combination of interpersonal, communication, presentation and assertiveness techniques. It’s about adapting and modifying your personal style when you become aware of the affect you are having on other people, while still being true to yourself — and without manipulating others. Behavior and attitude change are what’s important, not changing who you are, how you feel and think, or what you do.

Amping Up Your Win-Win Influence

1) Be a perceptive observer. Know what is going on by watching, asking and validating your observations. Tune into the cultural dynamics. Learn how to comprehend social situations, e.g. what nonverbal communication is telling you or what elephant remains in the room.

2) Be a broker of ideas and information. Know your job, your organization and its culture inside and out — and educate others, share what you know. Establish allies and stakeholders who share a win-win interest in mutual outcomes.

3) Engage, involve and communicate. Freely share data and information. Invite and encourage participation. Actively listen to what people are saying. Pull people to your ideas then push those ideas through to other people

What's Your PQ?

4) Be self-aware. Understand how others perceive you. Know your strengths, your limitations and play to what you do best. Be there when people need you. Be persistent (in a good kind of way!). Say thank you. Help BEFORE someone asks (use those actively listening skills!)

5) Give, give, GIVE!  Never estimate someone’s desire to leave a mark — and help them to do so. 

6) Let go. If you have a hidden agenda for I win-you lose, influence is impossible. You must sincerely have the other’s best interest at heart if you hope to interact with them and affect their behaviors. As John Maxwell says, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

7) Don’t be a conversation or credit hog. Don’t force your ideas on people. Know what they want, watch their reactions and support them through conversation so they see the issue, the answer, the outcome, etc. for themselves. If they end up thinking it’s their idea, so much the better. Don’t let your ego stand in the way of positive win-win outcomes.

As you consider building positive win-win influence expertise, what other behaviors would you add to this list?


Sincerity and Office Politics

Today’s guest post, the third in the Playing Office Politics series, is from Mike Henry. Mike is the founder of the Lead Change Group. He’s passionate about energizing motivated people to make a positive difference. Connect with Mike via his Lead Change profileLinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

The secret to life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made. ~Groucho Marx

Sincerity and authenticity are leadership competencies that inspire trust.  Trust lubricates relationships and transactions. Trust makes it easier for people to work together.  Trust is necessary for togetherness and group identity.  Being authentic means I know what you’re “for.” If I am confident that another person is “for” the same things I’m “for,” I don’t have to spend energy managing the gap in our allegiance.  I have more energy to devote to the allegiance itself and its desired outcome.

Misleading Motives

When a person fakes authenticity or sincerity, they misrepresent their true motives and create a trust gap.  Faked authenticity and sincerity sabotage shared vision as they kill trust. They create an organization where trust is replaced by “politics;” (office politics, or little-league team politics, or homeowner’s association politics, or church politics, or “you-name-it” politics).

Wikipedia defines “politics” as a process by which groups of people make decisions.  The word originated from the Greek word polis which means city-state. The original idea rises from the ideas of republic and democracy, but over time the term has taken on negative connotations.  Many times office politics implies individuals trying to manipulate outcomes to favor a few rather than the whole. Office politics rise when objectives are not shared or clearly understood.  Lack of clarity on shared mission causes everyone to pursue their own definition of “right.” End-justifying activities such as posturing and manipulation become best-practices of the organization.

Unsuspecting co-workers drop their guard and award trust when it would otherwise be unjustified. Power initially transfers until true motives are discovered.  When trust is compromised and people withdraw, the dark side of office politics fill the trust void.

Restore Sincerity

What do you do when you recognize your group’s culture is one of distrust and politics?

  1. Commit to authenticity and transparency. Take the leadership role by developing sincere, team-focused motives and being transparent. (Someone has to go first!)
  2. Renew a shared vision – work to make sure everyone on your team is working for the same goal. If you’re not sure about a team member’s motives, maybe you need to help them find another team.
  3. Align motivations – Every sustainable relationship must be win-win. Align individual motives with the shared vision.
  4. Tear down walls – transparency is the only way to initially prove true authenticity and sincerity.  When people begin protecting themselves and masking true motives, credibility evaporates. Work to keep people open and honest.
  5. Encourage patience and grace – authenticity is proven over time.
  6. Celebrate progress – Repeatable success over time builds confidence.

What other steps can you recommend to readers who long for true sincerity (positive office politics) or a politics-free workplace?

Speak up and stamp out negative office politics, one organization at a time.


What’s Your Agenda?

Today’s guest post, second in the Playing Office Politics series, is by Susan Mazza of Clarus Consulting Service.  She is a motivational speaker, business consultant, coach and trainer specializing in Leading and Managing Change.

When an agenda has to do with a meeting or event, people appreciate and even expect one.  Yet when we refer to a person’s agenda the connotation is typically not very positive.

According to the Encarta Dictionary (North America) the definition of “agenda” is as follows: 1.  A list of things to do: a formal list of things to be done in a specific order, especially a list of things to be discussed at a meeting; 2.  Matters needing attention:  the various matters that somebody needs to deal with at a specific time; 3. Personal motivation:  An underlying personal viewpoint or bias.

So the first two definitions above typically evoke a positive reaction.  The third implies someone is up to something of a sinister nature and is typically the context in which the dark side of politics emerges.  Perhaps the underlying theme here is that agendas for the sake of the group are perceived as “good” and agendas for the sake of the individual are perceived as “bad”.   Here I want to focus on the third definition: personal motivation.

We ALL have agendas. You could say our ambitions, no matter how altruistic or noble they may be, are an agenda.  We also have many underlying personal viewpoints and biases.  Some we are aware of and some we are not.  And they inform everything we think, say and do.  So the fact that we have agendas is not inherently a problem.

There are two ways, however, this kind of agenda can be destructive.

The most obvious is when our motivation is perceived to be for purely personal gain and/or the gain of “us” at the expense of “them”. Those agenda’s are usually hidden.  When we have them we keep them close and may not even share them at all.  And when we interact with someone who has that kind of agenda, we can feel their affect on the dynamic of an interaction even though we don’t actually hear anyone speak them.  These are the agenda’s that feed the rumor mill and are labeled as “political” in the negative sense.

Perhaps the less obvious agendas that can be destructive are the ones we have, but we are either unaware of or fail to examine together. Not everyone will have the best interests of others in mind.  Yet most people have the best interests of some constituency in mind.  A group of intelligent individuals does necessarily make an intelligent organization.  Understanding the motivations and needs of all constituencies involved and affected by the conversations you are in and the work you are doing are essential to tapping that collective intelligence for the greater good.  Unless we openly discuss our beliefs and motivations we are likely to miss important factors in our strategies and decisions.

And, yes, there are some people with predominantly self serving motivations, and they are not likely to admit to them. Sometimes a culture even encourages self interest.  If that is the case the only thing to do may be to be honest about the reality of how the system is designed and move forward in a way that embraces what is, rather than trying to move forward with the proverbial blinders on.  More often than not the individuals with predominantly self serving motivations are among the minority.  At some point it is likely to cost them.  It is a waste of effort to try and change it and a waste of your breath to complain about it.  And if they get in the way of progress you will just need to find a way to deal with them.

I’ve talked about the dark side of agenda’s.  So when is an agenda a good thing?

When our personal motivations, aka our agendas, are the source of our leadership. What makes these particular personal motivations distinct is that they are shared by and contribute to others.

These motivations may not be directly about us, but they are certainly very personal.  And that is what gives them such power.  This kind of agenda is the source of movements that change the world and change us in the process.  They are the source of the stands we take.  And when we take a stand for something we make our agenda public.

Using an agenda in this way is actually an essential political tool.  When used well it provides the platform for leading effectively, although it would not be labeled “political” or likely to be interpreted as “political behavior”.  It would more likely be called leadership.

What is the bottom line when it comes to agenda’s?

  • Hidden agenda’s give politics a bad rap.  But when an agenda is discussed openly it informs our decisions and strategies.  When an agenda is expressed as a stand it sets direction, facilitates progress, and is interpreted as leadership.
  • When we promote an agenda to facilitate progress of a group rather than personal progress, we have the capacity to transform the way people work together for the success and satisfaction of us all.

So what is your most personal, most passionately held agenda?  Maybe it’s time to take a stand and make it known!


Networking Inside the Company Walls

Today’s guest post, the first in the Playing Office Politics series, is by Jennifer V. Miller, the Managing Partner of SkillSource, a training and consulting company that helps emerging leaders “master the people equation”. Her experience as a human resources generalist, training facilitator and corporate manager helps her develop the “people side” of those who want to maximize their influence. Connect with Jennifer at The People Equation blog, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

One of the four behaviors resident in people who “play politics” in a positive way (as identified by researchers at the University of Florida) is networking. Because I spend a lot of time giving keynotes on the topic of networking,  Jane reached out to me for my perspective on the topic.

Two Types of Networking

If you are in sales, or are job seeking, then it’s a no-brainer: networking should play a key part in your outreach strategy.  Connection-making if this sort is external networking.  See my blog posts here and here for tips on how to network outside your organization.

Even if your job rarely requires you to interact outside your company walls, you still need know how to network.  That’s where internal networking comes into play. Internal networking is when you reach out to colleagues within your organization, even if your job doesn’t require you to do so. It’s going beyond your normal scope of job responsibilities.   Being an internal networker means you are looking outside your immediate, day-to-day activities and thinking about how you can connect with and create value for others in your company. 

Many of the same principles apply for both external and internal networking, but there’s a nuance to the internal process that’s unique. Let’s explore why it’s important to distinguish between the two types of networking.

What Makes Internal Networking Different?

It comes down to mindset: people have expectations about what various job roles “should” be.  For example, people expect outside sales reps and job seekers to be making phone calls and attending industry functions. It’s seen as a required part of their daily work.  With internal networking, however, the mindset shifts. People are a bit more leery of employees and leaders who seek connections beyond their daily scope.  These activities are often perceived as “sucking up” or “playing politics”. The differentiator, as Jane points out in her introduction to positive office politics is that effective internal networkers are those who are always going for the win-win.  They create connections because they believe that reaching out to others will help all involved, including the company.

How Can I Improve My Internal Networking?

The first thing you need to do is a quick mental audit: what’s my mindset on internal networking? If you’re still stuck in the mentality of “networking is for kiss-ups” then the tips below won’t help.  Take a moment and remember a time when you successfully made a connection beyond your department boundaries.  Think about how you benefitted and the other person did too.  In the right frame of mind now?

Great. Here are some ideas:

  • Have a decent relationship with your boss? Ask her (or him) to give you a few ideas on other leaders who you should get to know in the company.  The purpose would be to broaden your business acumen and learn from another leader in the company. Who knows, maybe it will turn into an informal mentoring situation. Plus, it helps to know other business unit leaders if you want to switch job functions in the future.
  • Make a list of key players in your organization that you would like to get to know.  It’s OK if the list has only 3 people. If you’re not comfortable inviting them to meet, find a person who knows both of you and ask person to make an introduction. Arrange to have a coffee break or lunch with the purpose of getting to know what you both do for your jobs.
  • When people are promoted, receive an award, or otherwise achieve something, send congratulations. A quick congratulatory email to someone (even if you don’t know them well) will go a long way towards showing that you are paying attention beyond your cubicle’s four walls.
  • Been assigned to a cross-functional project team? If you’re unfamiliar with the work of the project team members, suggest that one of the initial project team meetings be an “infomercial” of sorts. Have each team member do a 2 minute recap of their role back at their desk. Not only will you learn more about your project team members, you’ll also quickly gather data that may head off miscommunications or misperceptions for the project.
  • Talk up other people’s accomplishments. When in department meetings, be sure to praise other teammates’ wins.  Do the same for people in other departments who have helped you out.  Word will spread that you’re a team player, one who’s not afraid to share credit.

Networking inside your company’s walls does not mean that you’ll garner a reputation for being a gamer. Rather, if you keep others’ interests in mind, you will be seen as someone who’s willing to lend a hand.  The well-connected person creates value for all.



Playing Office Politics

Office Politics. Ewwwwwwww, you say, thinking of those smarmy, lying, back-stabbing, kiss-up, brown-nosing, schmoozing manipulators who play the game by one rule and just one rule…I WIN, YOU LOSE. Right? Not surprising.

Art by Jill Stanek

In its very worst connotation, office politics represents influence and power gone awry. I anticipate that many of us have experienced bad office politics via a two-faced someone operating on the “dark side of the force” and have a favorite horror story to tell.

While it’s a lofty dream to hope that someday all leaders will play from a win-win perspective, that’s unfortunately not the reality in many workplaces. The plain truth is that office politics are here to stay; and, based on a fascinating study done by the University of Florida, can be played ‘nice.’

Nice? The study revealed that adept leaders do politics competently – and nicely – and are never accused of playing politics.

In 2005, University of Florida Professor Gerald R. Ferris, Research Scientist Sherry L. Davidson, and Professor Pamela L. Perrewe co-authored Political Skills at Work: Impact on Work Effectiveness, which was the culmination of more than 15 years of research into office politics.

Their findings?

If you have political skill, you appear not to have it,” says Gerald Ferris. “Truly skillful execution of the behaviors associated with politics is usually perceived as genuine, authentic, straightforward and effective. Politically skilled managers are masters of four behaviors: social astuteness, interpersonal influence, networking ability and apparent sincerity. Leaders who are not politically skilled come off as manipulative or self-serving.

Any time there are scarce resources, competing interests and ambiguity (sound like most work places?), office politics will exist. The key to success is playing with a win-win orientation versus an” I win-you lose” mindset.

Championing a cause, seeking budget for additional headcount, inspiring an up-and-comer on your team, persuading your boss to let you lead the special project – occur regularly in our jobs and require influence, relationships and social awareness to execute.

Office politics is the art of building relationships that will help you and your team accomplish more than you could on your own. ~Mitchell Kusy, Ph.D, Manager’s Desktop Consultant

A year ago, Mike Henry, Susan Mazza, Jennifer V. Miller and I partnered to produce a month-long four-part blog series addressing the competencies needed for leaders to play “Positive Office Politics.”

Given the ongoing relevance and reality of office politics, we’re repeating the four-part series this week beginning tomorrow.