Navigating Corporate Politics: A Survivor’s Guide (Part 2)

Steve LudwigLife StuffLeave a Comment

a typewriter with the word "Diplomacy" types on a piece of paper.

Last week, we started to talk about how to survive office politics.

Our first tips were:

  • Reframe politics to diplomacy.
  • Develop strong relationships.
  • Distinguish between office politics and horrible behavior.
  • Know what you can control.
  • Get a coach or mentor.

Some of you noted that we left off drinking as a coping mechanism, and we are sorry that it won’t make Part 2 either. (So much for that Macallan sponsorship.)

In dealing with office politics, it’s mostly stuff they never cover in an MBA program and not great for spreadsheets. Yep, human dynamics. While Pathfinders are good at working across groups and solving problems, we all have things we can learn on how to manage office politics in more effective and productive ways.

Here are a few more tips.

Look at the Situation as an Anthropologist

That sounds like esoteric advice, but it’s really not.

It’s generally only after we leave an office environment (voluntarily or with enthusiastic encouragement from management) that we have the distance to see some of the dynamics that were taking place.

That’s where being an anthropologist comes in handy. By taking tools out of their kit, you can gain a better perspective while you are still there.

Be a student of your surroundings to better understand your office culture (think Jane Goodall or Sir David Attenborough but with people), which can be a major driver behind politics. Some questions to consider:

  • How is status shown/displayed? The flex for importance used to be a corner office. What is it in your organization? Who is on the “power” floor? Who gets to set the agenda? Who gets to drop into a video call and quickly leave?
  • Who gets promoted and why? Is it people from an Ivy League school, someone with a master’s degree, former athletes, a specific field of study (coding, law, etc.), golfers, or what?
  • What leadership styles are dominant?
  • Who gets the leaders’ time and why?
  • What rewards are most coveted?
  • Who has budget approval/authority? How does that impact others?
  • What are the secrets/taboo topics that everyone agreed to avoid and why?
  • What values and skills are seen as important, while others are “less” important? If you work at an engineering firm, guess what? Engineering is the most valued skill. Other skills are key to keep the company running, but they will not be seen as “mission critical.”
  • How are the rituals conducted (meetings, town halls, corporate retreats, etc.) and what purposes do they serve? How are cultural norms reinforced during these events? How do they communicate what and who is valued?
  • How do “important” people get treated differently? Is that communicated or just “known?” What are their perks? Why those?

Once you have some or most of those observations, you can look at the situation and see how it fits within that context.

“Of course, they would do it that way; it’s part of the culture.”

Which brings us to our next bit of advice.

Work with the Culture, Not Against It

Gloriously dying while charging the ramparts while presenting the brilliant “right way” or “right idea” feels great.

You told the truth to power, but if they are too stupid to realize it, it’s their loss. Your colleagues agree and admire you for fighting the good fight. You failed, but you got the huge payoff of self-righteousness.

We have seen versions of this play out across organizations. A lot. And, if we are honest, we have done this ourselves.

Being “right” is great. But, let’s be real, there doesn’t need to be a second Charge of the Light Brigade.

Wouldn’t you rather get stuff done?

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Peter Drucker famously observed. In dealing with office politics, working with the grain of your particular culture will save you time and brain damage and increase your chances of success.

Even if you know something needs to change, framing the issue within the existing values and cultural norms will dramatically increase your chances of success.

Telling everyone they are wrong isn’t a way to work office politics. It isn’t very diplomatic.

Know Your Triggers

Another lesson learned the hard way.

If you are activated by a person or situation (meaning having a response disproportionate—higher or lower—to the facts), stop and reflect.

Is your response directly tied to the situation you are in, or is something else bothering you?  This isn’t therapy; you don’t need to know the source of what is bothering you—just that there is likely something else going on in addition to the situation in front of you.

If a person or situation is really driving you bananas, stop. Does this interaction remind you of something, someone, or some other time? Sometimes, your response is tangled up in that other situation.

When you take a beat, you will have more agency and options over how you respond that isn’t tied to be activated.

Confront Your Fear of Loss

What do you have to lose? Nothing serious, just your income, status, and identity.

Most of us have Loss Aversion. That’s where the pain from a real or perceived loss is about twice as much as the joy of a gain. If you lose $100, it feels twice as bad as the joy you feel from finding $100.

Look for this at work, and you have a new understanding of office politics and risk aversion.

More importantly, knowing how this impacts you will help you have a calmer approach when office politics arise. And they always arise.

Know When to Pull the Rip Cord

Some office environments are toxic, with sludge oozing straight from the top.

Despite all the books, TED Talks, and consultants saying corporate culture needs to be great to make money and keep talent, plenty of firms are comfortably profitable and make spending the holidays with the Manson Family like a good idea in comparison.

These places are highly unlikely to change.

If you find yourself in that type of office environment, you are not dealing with office politics; you are playing in the corporate version of Mad Max.

Time to find greener pastures. Or, at the very least, be very clear on what you can and cannot expect from your workplace.

Remember: Politics is the Art of Getting Things Done

We can’t run a complex organization—or even a small business—by ourselves. How we interact with people and make decisions is, at its most basic, a political process. It’s neither good nor bad. It just is.

How we choose to engage with that process, which mental frameworks we use, and how we understand our unique corporate culture will go a long way in helping us successfully navigate the waters of office politics.

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