Running a business would be so much easier if we didn't have to deal with office politics. Every business professional not only have to deal with their own office politics, but also with those in their customer offices, vendors, and partners.
Yet "Basic Office Politics" is one of those required college courses that, as far as I know, still doesn't exist. We all have to learn the hard way all the tactics to use and avoid to be productive within the complex network of power and status that exists within every business, large and small.
In my own case, it took me many years of trial and error to find some paths through the swamp.
Fortunately, today there are some good books around to get you started, including How to be an Even Better Manager by Michael Armstrong. His handbook on business skills has been the textbook for business professional through all its ten editions, and has been translated into 21 languages.
Here are his key points--and mine--on how to capitalize on office politics:
1. Identify the political players and stakeholders.
We all start out naively assuming that all business leaders make decisions based wholly on fact and merit. The first challenge is to develop your "political sensitivity"--observe and ask questions about how things are done in your business, where the power bases are, and who has hidden agendas.
2. Learn how to keep political players comfortable.
Every individual and leader has their comfort zone--behaviors, values, attitudes, fears, and drives that result in productive relationships. Actions outside these comfort zones will likely lead to feuds, hidden decisions, excessive arguing, counter-productive lobbying, and back-biting.
3. Build your cases to align with decision makers.
Before coming and launching a fully-fledged proposal at a committee or in a memorandum, it's smart to test opinion and find out how key people will react.
This enables you to anticipate counter-arguments and update your proposal to answer objections and to accommodate political realities.
4. Work the network of key people on decisions.
Facts and merit don't make decisions--people make decisions. Just as you do your homework on the facts, also it pays to do your homework by visiting the players in a given situation.
Effective management is the process of harmonizing individual interests with the goals of all business stakeholders.
5. Identify the gatekeepers and norms for action.
Focus your powers of persuasion on the right people, and the right issues.
Politically insensitive business people often try to steam-roll others with emotion, a barrage of facts, or a claim of high-level support. In fact, a political approach is often the best solution where clarity of goals is not absolute.
6. Support others as often as you ask for support.
Successful businesses are run by building relationships, and every relationship is a two-way street. If you are viewed as always demanding support, but never giving it, your effectiveness will be greatly reduced, even when you are right.
Always communicate the win-win element in every decision.
7. Be prepared to stand firm and lose some deals.
When your integrity and values are at stake, do not fold. Everyone needs to see that you do have strong principles, and are not merely compliant with the whims of a political power center.
Even the most powerful influencers don't win every battle, and need to show that they are still part of the team.
There are obviously occasions when a subtle or indirect appeal, rather than a direct attack will pay bigger dividends in highly-charged political situations.
It is never legitimate or appropriate to tread on other people's faces, or revert to buck-passing, memoranda wars, or back-stabbing.
In summary, whether you hate it, admire it, practice it, or avoid it, office politics is a fact of life in every company and organization.
Whether you learn it in school or in real life, office politics is not rocket science, but something that you need to master to assure your own success. Complaining about it won't help.