How to Play Clean Office Politics
Most people think that office politics is bad for business. Nothing could be further from the truth. Office politics are an integral part of getting things done, regardless of whether you're the CEO, a salesperson, or an intern working over the summer.
The word "politics" comes from the Greek politikos which means "of, for, or relating to citizens." Far from being something negative, it is the art and science of influencing people when there are more than two people involved.
This post describes a four-step approach to office politics that doesn't resort to tricks or deception (aka "dirty politics," which IS bad for business.)
Step 1 - Uncover and Understand Needs
Playing politics consists of balancing the needs of multiple people so that they can come together to make a decision. In business, there are four general types of needs:
- Personal needs reflect the personality of the individual and what that individual expects and wants out of the work experience, such as recognition, compensation, challenge, amusement, sexual fulfillment, and so forth.
- Career needs consist of the individual's plans to achieve those personal need by moving through different jobs and different companies. Career needs emerge out of personal needs. For example, a need to be in the limelight is a personal need; the need to become a "head programmer" in order to be in the limelight is a career need.
- Job needs consist of the resources that individuals require in order to advance their career needs and personal needs. For example, in order for the title of "head programmer" to be meaningful, there must be a staff of programmers to head.
- Organizational needs are the sum total of the job needs of the individuals within a group. For example, in order for there to be a "head programmer" and a staff of programmers to head, the organization might need a new computer and new software for the programmers to program.
Once you understand your own needs (on various levels) and the needs of other people involved, you're ready to play some politics.
Step 2 - Build Alliances
Office politics consists of making deals where you'll support the satisfying of the other person's needs in return for that person's support for satisfying your needs. In theory this is a simple concept, but in practice there are infinite variations. Kinda like sex.
For example, if you've got a colleague who wants to be "head programmer" and you want to be "manager of quality control," you'd tell the colleague: "I'll support the idea of you becoming 'head programmer' if you'll support the idea of me becoming 'manager of quality control.'"
As you can see, the keys to making an alliance work well are 1) figuring out what you want, and 2) figuring what the other person wants, and 3) agreeing to get there together. I'll refrain from the sex analogy this time.
Great care must be taken in the building of alliances. As a general rule, you want to work with people who can be trusted both to hold up their side of the deal, and also can be trusted to do the right thing by the rest of the firm.
For example, you probably don't want to make a deal that involves promoting a complete idiot to be "head programmer," at least, not if you want your firm to succeed. However, if all things considered it really doesn't matter all that much whether Jack or Jill gets the promotion, it's okay to make a deal with Jill that puts Jack out of the picture.
And so much the better if you're certain that Jill is the better choice.
Step 3 - Track Favors and Obligations
In addition to alliances, politics consist of the less formal trading of favors. It's a simple concept: you do a favor for somebody else and then, at a later date, you get to "call in" the favor by asking that person to do something for you.
And vice versa, naturally.
Playing office politics therefore requires that you keep close track of 1) whom you owe and about how much, and 2) who owes you and about how much.
Knowing the first keeps you from being blindsided by unexpected requests. Knowing the second allows you to assess how whether or not you've got the political power to achieve your goal, if politics is needed to achieve it.
It need hardly be said that trading favors is a great way to strengthen your alliances.
In addition, there's usually some negotiation involved in assessing the value of favors past versus the value of favors in the future. No biggie, just be aware that everyone has their own "tally book" that might not agree 100% with yours.
Step 4 - Line Up Your Ducks
All of this effort comes to fruition when it's decision-making time. Your goal is to make certain (as far as possible) that everybody is supporting the decision you prefer, through the use of your alliances and favor-trading.
For example, suppose your firm has a choice between two software vendors and you're certain that vendor "A" is the right choice, but you're aware that some of the misguided dunderheads you work with believe that vendor "B" is a better option.
When the big meeting to decide which vendor to hire takes place, you want as many people possible at the conference room table pre-disposed to agree with you that the company should go with vendor "A."
It could be argued that such decisions should be made based simply upon the merits of each vendor's product. Maybe so, but that's not the way the world works.
Office politics makes certain that the right decision gets made, even when it's maybe for the wrong reasons. And that's always better than making the wrong decision for the right reasons. Right?
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GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist
Geoffrey James is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is "Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts that You Need to Know."