The right kind of office politics

Dear Joan:
I work for a large corporation. I'm reasonably successful, and I'm trying to get ahead. But I need some help.

I am astonished at how many seemingly senseless decisions are made. The usual explanation is that "they made a political decision."

No one admits to being "they," of course. I do understand that if you do it, it's "political," while if I do it, it's "considering the whole picture." And I understand that politics is a basic part of corporate life. I want to improve my skills. And that's the problem.

Since no one is "they," no one will talk about it. We all pretend that we don't have anything to do with playing politics. So how does a simple country boy acquire the skill? How does one learn to play that game? I don't want to have to learn it all the hard way; I'd like to take a shortcut. Can you help me?

It's too bad all new employees don't receive a copy of their company's "Handbook of Corporate Politics." It would certainly make life a lot simpler if we could leaf through our thumb-worn guides to understand what often appears to be the Policy du Jour.

Any organization, regardless of size, operates with two (or more) systems: The Formal System and the "Political" System. Why? Because people don't always operate "formally." Personalities, friendships, conflicts, insecurities, reporting relationships all create a need to "humanize" the formal system.

You're wise to recognize the need to improve your skill. By recognizing that politics often play a part in corporate decision-making, you're halfway there. Those who deny that it exists, or refuse to play "those dirty political games," usually get lost or buried in the organizational shuffle.

First, some distinctions. "Dirty political games," like badmouthing or blackballing, have no place in corporate life. Fortunately, dirty politics don't occur as often as some people think.

"Playing politics," on the other hand, is more like learning what all the pieces are in the informal corporate puzzle. The object of the game - when played well - is to bring good ideas into the light of day, to get things done quickly, to take into account emotions and personalities and to make quality decisions (to name a few), as well as to advance on the game board at the same time. No small task for a "simple country boy."

You need to plug in to the numerous networks operating at all times within your company. Puzzle piece at a time, the "big picture" will emerge. You won't always like, or agree with, everything that you become privy to. Hopefully, you'll find that the good will outweigh the bad. You'll probably even begin to understand who "they" are.

The first person to turn to is your boss. He or she can often provide a wealth of political insight. Confusing events or personalities can be understood if your boss can provide some background. From your letter, it sounds as if your boss isn't talking, either because he doesn't understand it himself or chooses not to tell you.

If this is the case, you will have to go in search of other sources of information. This doesn't mean you should advertise in the corporate newsletter: "Mentor wanted. Any peers, secretaries, retirees, executives, etc., having information on how things really happen around here, please call extension 21. All information kept confidential."

Here are four easy (and more subtle) things to try instead:

1.      Work on relationships with others that are built on credibility and trust. Get to know as many people as you can, become known as a quality performer and never betray a confidence.

2.      Assimilate the corporate goals into your own objectives. Political progress is achieved by helping others to achieve their goals (provided that they benefit the organization.)

3.      Learn how to listen. Tune in to tone of voice, inflection, and the real message behind the words. Build a reputation as a receptive, understanding sounding board. Remember, you don't always have to have an answer.

4.      Firmly believe in, and adhere to, the rules. No "dirty" political games. The rules include helping the organization achieve its goals by helping other people achieve theirs.

As you become more adept at understanding the politics within your company, you will be better able to separate factual information from opinion. You'll be able to cross-pollinate the organization with helpful information. And if you're skillful, you may learn how to overcome some of the barriers that face all of us when trying to get things done.

No one ever masters the game. The art - and fun - is in the learning.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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