3.6. Working Effectively in a Political Environment
Now that we've taken a good look at power and influence, we can begin to see what politics is all about. People are complex beings and they often blend good and not-so-good intentions all in the same mix. In order to effectively navigate the politics in your company, you first have to understand sources of power and influence, which we just covered. Next, you need to develop strategies for maintaining (or increasing) your power in genuine ways that benefit the organization. Here's a good analogy: If you donate money to charity, do you take a tax deduction? If the answer is yes, does taking the tax deduction make the donation any less noble or good? Of course not. When the actions we take serve the company and our own self-interests, there is (generally speaking) no inherent problem just as there is no problem doing something noble (charitable donation) and taking the tax deduction (self-serving). At the risk of repetition, none of these concepts or actions is inherently good or bad; it's how they're used that determines their ultimate "goodness" or "badness." In this section, we're going to look at several strategies you might choose to use to navigate through the political waters. These are not the only methods, just a few to get you started.
3.6.1. Accept That Politics Exist
The first tool you'll need in working effectively is to accept that politics exist wherever there are two or more people working together. As mentioned, most of people's discomfort around power and influence stems from the abuse or misuse of power. At its worst, power is an end in itself. At its highest form, power can be used to create positive change in an organization. When we refer negatively to power and politics, we're typically discussing an environment in which political activity is devoted to the acquisition of personal power, which is a waste of time and resources that could be better applied toward accomplishing organizational goals.
However, when power and politics are applied toward accomplishing organizational goals, they produce much better results. When they are aligned with organizational goals, people tend to feel motivated, connected and energized. So, if you understand that power and politics themselves are not necessarily bad, you can learn how to use them to accomplish organizational goals. Forewarned is forearmed, so learning about how power and politics work in your organization will contribute to your ability to get things done. If you blithely refuse to admit that politics exist or that they impact your chances for success, you'll be far less effective than you might otherwise be.
3.6.2. Develop Positive Relationships
One of the easiest ways to survive corporate politics is to develop genuine, positive relationships with people inside and outside of your department. Have coffee or lunch with people outside your immediate circle. Greet the receptionist or the shipping/receiving clerk by name. Get to know others in your organization besides the ones you work with on a daily basis. Take time before or after meetings to engage in appropriate conversation with people you don't always come in contact with. Not only will you meet a few folks you might genuinely like, you'll build important relationships with people across your organization. Now, those of you who are naturally suspicious might be thinking, "That's not very sincereto get to know people so you can get something from them." That's true; it's not sincere if you do it for that reason. That's not what's being suggested. Get to know people and develop positive relationships because it's interesting, because it makes your job easier, because you'll enjoy going to work, and because it may also benefit you at some point in the future.
Another way IT folks can develop positive relationships is to take time to really understand what others in the company do. People love to talk about themselves and their jobs, so take time to listen. You might also gain genuine insight into that job or department that you can use when you implement a related IT project in the future. The more you understand what everyone in the company does, the better you can do your job, so taking time to develop relationships is a great starting point.
In any business relationship, there's always some give and take. Doing favors and helping out others in need can not only foster positive relationships, but can help you out in times of political turmoil. Of course, setting appropriate boundaries for favors is important, too. Some are small favors of convenience and have little residual impact other than the person "owes you one." Other favors are bigger and may have a negative impact on other departments or on the organization as a whole. If you favor one person or group over another and it has a negative impact on those that did not receive the special treatment, resentment will usually result. That's when you begin to tread dangerously close to our definition of negative politics. You need to be careful about how favors and special treatment may impact others. Finally, some favors cross all boundaries and are unethical or illegal. Don't even go there. That said, we do favors for each other everyday and this is part of the exchange/barter system that naturally helps things get done at work.
3.6.3. Develop Your Exchange
Understanding how you exchange information, resources, and influence in the organization can help you understand what you have to offer and what you have to gain through these kinds of mutually beneficial transactions. Most of us do this naturally, but doing so more consciously may lead to better results. For example, though not in your job description, you're really good at Microsoft Access and you assist a colleague in the purchasing department with creating a small database. Your expertise in Microsoft Access is part of the exchange. The next time you need purchasing to expedite a purchase order for an IT purchase, you will likely find that the purchaser is happy to do so because you helped him/her out previously.
It's also good to know what you will and will not exchange. For instance, though you might be really good with Microsoft Access, as director of IT for your company, it is probably not appropriate for you to develop a database for a purchaser. In this case, you might offer to have one of your staff develop the database so the purchaser still "owes" you, but it's not a direct trade. Again, we don't usually do things so that someone will owe uswe do it because we have the skills, time, or talent to help out and helping out others greases the wheels of the company. The residual effect is that the purchaser is more inclined to help out in the future and there's nothing wrong with that. Avoid using your balance of trade to strong-arm people into returning a favor that puts them in a bind. The exchange or barter can be powerful ways to get things done, but be aware that you can take this too far and put people in difficult situations by demanding they return a favor in a specific manner.
3.6.4. Listen Carefully
Listening is a skill that takes a bit of practice. You might hear the words, but are you really listening to the meaning? Along with words come tone of voice, speed, choice of words, choice of content (what to say and what not to say), positioning (also known as "spin"), and body language, to name just a few variables. Make a habit of listening to the speaker for words, content, and tone. You might be surprised by how much more information you glean about the political environment by listening in this manner. Sometimes it's not what someone says, but what she doesn't say that becomes important, especially in highly political organizations. This kind of listening takes practice because it requires that you look for what's not thereand sometimes there's no way to know that. However, if you simply spend more time really listening, you'll improve your listening skills and you'll know more than you might otherwise. Someone once said, "Listen twice as often as you speak," and in a political environment, you might want to bump it up to a three to one ratio.
3.6.5. Communicate More, Not Less
When things aren't going so well, we tend to want to either close ourselves in a room to think or take decisive action to resolve the problem. Regardless of what the situation calls for, make sure you communicate clearly, honestly, and effectively. Communicating too little allows rumors, half-truths, and flat-out lies to travel at the speed of light through the company. Communicating frequently, especially when there's a problem, will cut those rumors off at the knees and give you the opportunity to bring the truth into the light of day. While you might not be comfortable with the truth when things are going wrong (especially if it's your fault), it's always better than the alternative. Learning how to communicate bad news can also help. For instance, there are two ways you can notify people of a system problem. You can say, essentially, "The server is down and we don't yet know when it will be back up," or you can say, "We're working on the server that went down this morning at 10:00A.M. and we'll keep you informed of our progress in diagnosing and repairing the problem." Which one sounds better to you? They're both true, but one has a positive "spin" on it, which leaves people with a sense of confidence that the problem is being handled. The first example leaves a lot to be desired in terms of effective communication, but it's the most common type of communication people get when there are problems. IT people often prefer to go work on some code or rebuild a server to talking with people, so working on developing and improving this one skill can go a long way in helping you survive corporate politics.
3.6.6. Know What Not To Say
Sometimes enthusiastically endorsing something or someone turns out to be a terrible decision. Other times making disparaging remarks turns out to be a bad decision. If your corporate climate is such that the winds shift from time to time, make sure you know what's going on before you jump in with your opinion. Often knowing when to speak up and when to remain silent is one key to success in organizational politics. We've all been in a situation where we speak up because we believe we have good information only to later discover our information was incorrect or incomplete. These kinds of situations are sometimes caused by people intentionally misinforming us, but other times it's just a matter of bad data. In either case, make sure you have the information you need and are confident it's correct before speaking too strongly either for or against a proposal. That doesn't mean you can't voice a strong opinion, just stop and think about the potential political consequences before speaking. This goes back to the first suggestionadmitting that politics exists.
Knowing what to say and what not to say also relates to choice of words. We've all had the experience of saying something that was correct or accurate, but was said in an unfortunate way. Afterward, we sit wondering how we could possibly have said it in that manner (the old "open mouth, insert foot" routine). We're especially prone to mis-speaking when under pressureduring job interviews, difficult meetings, or uncomfortable confrontations. Take a moment to stop and think about what you want to say and then think about how you want to say it. An awkward silence is always better than an unfortunate comment. If the network goes down because someone really made a huge mistake, you might choose to say it was due to "an oversight" rather than "an error." Both are probably accurate, but the word oversight leaves the listener with more confidence than the word mistake does. The intent is not to deceive, but to avoid throwing gasoline on an already smoldering fire. Your choice of words can certainly be used to misdirect or deceive, but they can also be used to set the appropriate tone so sensitive situations remain under control.
If you accept that you work in a political environment, you're more likely to think about political consequences before jumping headlong into the fire. That said, don't let awareness of the political environment paralyze you. You'll take your lumps when you're wrong, but if you've developed genuine relationships and an awareness of the political environment, you're likely to survive with only a few bumps and scratches.
3.6.7. Share The Power
Those who share power end up with more power, in most situations. While you may need to exercise care when sharing power, it's a good idea to look at where you can and should share power and when it's best to hold on to it. Look around the organization for examples of people who've shared power. Were they managers or non-managers? Did it benefit them or did it hurt them? In some highly negative, political environments, sharing power can be tricky. However, if you can find appropriate ways to share power, you're more likely to end up on the winning end of the deal. The saying "trust, but verify" is a good one to keep in mind here. Start off with small increments of shared power and verify that the trust and shared power is used appropriately. Once you see a track record of your team (or individuals) being trustworthy, you can give them more power. As you do so, you empower them to do a better job and most of the time your results will improve as well.
3.6.8. Know Your Personal Values
It's a good idea to sit down and think about what you would or would not do in hypothetical work situations. Playing "what if" can give you insights into your personal values and limits. When you know firmly what your own limits are, you can make sure that when you run into a political situation, you make decisions based on your own values. While you might not make the most politically correct decision, it will be one you can live with later on. Sometimes the only right answer is the one you can live with.
3.6.9. Plan On Politics Impacting Your Job
In most companies, you'll be judged by two criteria: quality and politics. If you plan on politics playing a role in how your work is perceived, you won't take the naïve stance that your work should or will be judged solely on quality. In a perfect world, our work would be judged only on its merits, but that rarely is the case. Pretending politics doesn't exist or won't affect you is the best way to be blindsided by political events within your company. Making some effort to understand the political environment and accepting that your job performance will be perceived through the political filter will help you come out ahead.
3.6.10. Be Aware of Political Change
Political change can happen slowly over time or it can happen quickly overnight. This change can help or hinder you. If you're associated with someone with a lot of political power and he or she leaves the company suddenly, you could be left out in the cold. Unfortunately, people who are aligned with someone who falls out of favor also tend to fall out of favor. On the other hand, if someone leaves and that creates a gap in the organization, you could be standing in just the right spot. Being aware of what's going on around you and which way the political winds are blowing is important. While you may not always be able to gauge what's going to happen next or who's going to fall out of favor, you often can see signs of change and be prepared. If a project is suddenly cancelled (for political reasons or otherwise), you may see an opportunity to use those now idle resources for another project. There's a saying that luck is when preparation and opportunity meet, so if you're keeping your eyes open and you're prepared, you may find that changing political environments actually create opportunities for you.