How do you navigate organisational politics?

October 4, 2021

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘organisational politics’? My hunch is it’s back stabbing, pointless rivalries, sucking up to the boss, that kind of thing. I’m not going to pretend that that isn’t a feature of many workplaces. If you work somewhere with really dysfunctional politics, it pays to be alert, to work out who you can trust – and to do what.

But the reality is all organisations are political. Some of my clients tell me that they’re lucky to work in an organisation with “no politics”. What they mean is little or no dysfunctional politics – or possibly that the dysfunctional bits don’t affect them.  Politics can be defined as the activities related to decision making in groups or as power relations between individuals. If you have people trying to work together to get stuff done and allocate resources, there will always be politics. It just doesn’t have to be terrible.

Doing politics ethically

A lot of people are sniffy about organisational politics and disdainful or mistrustful of those who are good at handling it. I find this particularly in what you might call the ‘logic professions’ – engineering, finance, IT. They think a good idea will speak for itself. They’re often modest, straightforward people who don’t like to make a fuss about things. I sometimes find myself coaching them when they become frustrated by their lack of influence.

My clients often start out fearing that if they engage with organisational politics in any way, they’ll become the kind of people they despise – manipulative, egotistical, untrustworthy. I don’t believe this is inevitable. You just need to be sure to act with integrity and not cross the line. Dishonesty is likely to catch you out in the end. Intention also matters. Pushing an idea because you sincerely believe it’s the right thing for the organisation is different  from pushing it because it will enhance your career. If you’re lucky the two will align.

There are a number of passive ways you can get caught up in organisational politics, for example, if someone is trying to involve you in – or exclude you from – their initiative. But the most common active way to come up against political dynamics is when you’re trying to get something done or make a change, so that’s what I’ll focus on here.

If you see yourself as one of the good guys and want to be part of making the right stuff happen in your organisation, then you need some influence. For that you need to understand the political landscape.

Mapping the political landscape

Every organisation’s political landscape is unique. It’s influenced by its history, its size, its ownership structure and the people in it, particularly at the top. Certain ownership structures, such as professional partnerships, employee ownership trusts or co-operatives, create their own dynamics that are different from a traditional hierarchy. Family businesses, of course, have a whole other layer of power dynamics on top. Imagine how different it is getting something done in a mid-sized, multi-generational family business from an NHS trust. The same influencing strategies won’t work for both.

If you’re trying to put forward an idea, the key things you need to work out are:

  • How are decisions made around here?
  • Who has power – and to do what? Make decisions? Veto decisions? Dig their heels in to ensure decisions are never actually implemented?
  • Who has influence and with whom?
  • What else is going on in the organisation that might influence people’s thinking about this?

What’s the current climate like? Is there an appetite to spend money? Have people had too much change to take on something new? If the organisation is going through a crisis – facing major supply chain issues, for example – people’s attention will be elsewhere.

That gives you your context. Then think about your specific idea:

What are the political sensitivities here?

Let’s say you really think the organisation needs a new website. Consider how differently you’d need to broach the subject in these different scenarios:

  1. Developing the current website caused such stress and aggravation that people still wince at the memory.
  2. The current website was developed by the CEO’s budding web developer daughter. He is very proud of her – and it.
  3. The Marketing department is seen as the owner of the website. Their current focus is on social media. You’re not in the Marketing department.
  4. You envisage a new website that is technically more complex than your IT department could manage. They’re already seen as underperforming and this would highlight the issue. You’re quite friendly with the IT manager.
  5. Your idea for a new website would streamline processes and could threaten some admin jobs in another department.

Each of these situations (or, I guess, some nightmare scenario where they’re all true) requires handling with sensitivity. A very straightforward, non-political approach, e.g. writing a paper and circulating it or bringing it up out of the blue at a meeting, is not likely to be effective and, in some cases, could do more harm than good. You need to work out who you need to influence and how. For that it’s worth understanding how people decide whether to engage.

Five hurdles

When someone is making a decision about whether to get involved with your plans, you have five hurdles to get over, in a specific order:

1. Is it a threat?

If your idea is adopted – or even discussed publicly – will someone lose face (like the IT manager in scenario 4)? Will someone lose power, status or resources as a result? Would it cause a shedload of work or aggravation for someone? If so, you need to think about how you mitigate those risks because people are more likely to act in a dysfunctional, unhelpful way if they feel under threat. How can you present or implement your idea in a way that causes least damage?

2. Is it relevant? 

You might be selling the world’s fanciest lawnmower but my garden doesn’t have a lawn, so I’m not interested. In work, you often have to interest people in ideas which don’t appear to have anything to do with them. You have to get over this hurdle before they engage with the idea itself. So how can you make it relevant? How do you tie it to the bigger picture? What’s in it for them?

3. Is it credible – and are you?

Once people have realised this is something worth paying attention to, then they’ll look at whether the idea has merit. This is the bit we tend to put all our effort into – making a good and convincing argument. That’s important, of course, but it’s not the whole story. Like it or not, we judge the messenger as much as the message. So how credible is this message coming from you?

If your last idea turned out to be a disaster or your current project is running late, you may need to get someone on side whose credibility is higher than yours right now. If this isn’t your area of expertise, you might want to partner with someone who brings some technical or professional credibility.

And then there’s the simple question, do they like you? We are all more influenced by people we like. So be likeable. This isn’t about being obsequious. Most of us can tell when it’s fake. But if you build good relationships and are easy to work with, you’re likely to have a more receptive audience.

4. Is it worth it?

Obviously there’s a cost/benefit assessment involved here. But there’s so much more to this question than money. Is it worth people’s time? Can they give your idea valuable headspace when they have so many other things to think about? Would they be sticking their necks out and saying something controversial if they supported you?  How do you make it worthwhile for them?

5. Will they commit?

You’d think that once you’ve persuaded people that you have a good idea and that there’s something in it for them that’s worthwhile, you’d be home and dry. But then think of all the things in your own life that you kind of know would be worthwhile or good for you but you never get around to doing. You need to make sure that people understand what you need from them and get a commitment that they’ll do it. It helps to start small and build up.

If you want some further ideas about influencing people, you may find this previous article on the psychological levers of persuasion useful. And if you’d like a sounding board to help you think through these issues in the context of your organisation, do get in touch:

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

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One Comment

  1. April 3, 2022 at 10:56 pm - Reply

    Very nice write-up. I definitely appreciate this site. Thanks!

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