Over the last month I’ve been talking to a lot of people about the political problems they face at work. This research was initiated to accompany a new online course I am developing, Mastering the Politics.
What I wanted to do is to make sure it is relevant and solves as many of the current problems people are facing as possible. What the research threw up was as fascinating as it was depressing.
So, without further ado, in reverse order, the most irritating political situations people are having to cope with at work are:
No. 10: Mixed Messages
You know the kind, where a senior stakeholder says one thing to you, and something completely different to someone else. This is either through negligence, indecision, or as a deliberate political act. Regardless, mayhem often ensues. Those who are good at politics recognise the risk and pre-empt it.
No. 9: Delaying by Committee
Rather than take the ethical, high integrity approach, pushing a decision to a committee is often a deliberate act of sabotage, pushing something inconvenient into the long grass while the political pieces are positioned ready to kill it. Noticing that this is possible, and then taking steps to stop it happening in the first place is what the best influencers do.
No. 8: Loud, Irrelevant Stakeholders
“You need to get everyone on-side.” A common assertion from your boss sets you up for all and sundry sticking their oar in. Sure, they want to feel important, valued and that they are making a contribution, but is it strictly necessary? Unlikely. Learning how to focus on the right people, and keep the rest out of your way takes skill.
No. 7: Avoiding Responsibility
Scared, weak and incompetent they may be, but if your key stakeholders are not stepping up to the plate and doing whatever they need to do in order to get results, you’ve got a problem on your hands. And, there are so many ways of doing this it is often very difficult to see it coming. If you can’t see it, you can’t pin them to the wall (metaphorically speaking of course)
No. 6: Playing Favourites
This can take many forms and is difficult to prove. However, giving the best opportunities to friends, protecting those they like, and handing all the rubbish to those they don’t is the priority for these people. And you are not the favourite, it feels totally unfair. The challenge is, how to make sure you don’t get de-prioritised!
No. 5: The Blame Game
Picking up the lead from avoiding responsibility, this is adding emotional fuel to the fire and causing distractions too. Those who lack the courage to take it on the chin fall back to this on autopilot. Getting into an argument and throwing blame back is not the answer. In my experience, a certain finesse is necessary to get the right result.
No. 4: Running Personal Agendas
Now this one I disagree with. Everyone has a personal agenda, even you. The problem comes when a) it runs counter to the best interests of the overall mission or purpose, or b) it runs counter to your agenda.
No. 3: Stakeholders at War: With Each Other
No everyone is out to get you, sometimes, they are trying to score against another political rival. As they square up to each other, getting in the way takes courage and skill, and a little luck too. Yet, until peace is made, relying on decisions that affect your work could cost you dear.
No. 2: Seniors Failing to Support
As if you didn’t have enough to do? Your boss, or sponsor, should be out there in the political wilds defending you and your work. How often does this happen, where they fail to stand up for you, allow important decisions to be overturned, and leave you struggling to swim against the stream. Understanding the risks, proactively managing them and making sure your boss knows exactly what to say and when, are all essential activities on this problematic situation.
No. 1: Saying One Thing: Doing Another
Why don’t people level with you? Are they afraid of being honest? Or, is someone else pulling their strings, influencing them to leave your work undone? Regardless of the reason, the uncertainty and unpredictability this leaves you with creates a big dent on trust, and an even bigger hit on your results.
The order I have placed these problems is simply one of frequency. The severity and impact will vary extremely depending on the situation and the consequences. Learning how to make sure these, and many more besides, do not get in the way of you delivering to your potential, should be a big priority for all talented and ambitious professionals.
Here, it is vital to be able to peel back the layers to expose what is going on beneath the surface, the good, the bad and the ugly. With careful analysis, it becomes possible to see what is motivating people, and how it affects what is happening. At that point, your level of accuracy rises, your stress lowers, and the path towards your goals becomes clear.
Dismantling Power Bases: Proceed With Caution
No, this is not a second coming of Niccolò Machiavelli. It is just that sometimes it is prudent to take action to remove powerful opposition – for all the right reasons.
When this is on the agenda with coaching clients, what we are doing is evolving a clear strategy and plan of action to substantially shift power towards them. This means that others will lose a significant amount of power when my client succeeds. Which means, the stakes are high.
Six Pillars of Political Mastery
Like it or not, politics is a key part of your work, especially at middle to high levels in large or complex organisations. There is simply no way of avoiding it.
Because your work was created by political ambition. At some point, someone thought it would serve their purpose if they created your role. What that purpose was, and how pure it was might be difficult to see.
In all probability, that person also had to overcome opposition to create your role, to win the budget, the approval and also, to maintain it.
All of these things require influence, or politics. The words are really the same, as are the actions. The main difference between them is the intent fuelling the action – and the harmful consequences tolerated…