The Game of Corporate Politics
What they say about corporate politics
- In business, politics is the art of getting things done and reaping the benefits; it provides the power to get things done against opposition, avoiding negative implications and often producing positive effects in the career for the doer.
- The informal, unwritten procedures for making things happen or not happen in an organization.
- The unwritten and hardly ever spoken-out-loud norms of conducting oneself in order to successfully achieve one's goals and be rewarded for the achievement.
What I say about corporate politics
- Al the above is true.
- It happens in any company, big or small.
- It's not too different from lobbies in "real" politics.
- Don't fool yourself: You do need to play the game.
Why there isn't yet a required college course on corporate politics?
In my opinion, the reason is simple: There isn't an empiric way to package the knowledge around corporate politics. There are organizations with similar approaches, and there are a bunch of political styles that could be packaged in a more or less "scientific" bundle.
There are also some common sense rules that could be appended to the above. But aside from these generalizations that are true across the board, one needs to be in an organization to learn the politics of it in the field. And then again, what works for you may not work for others, because of personality, or because of the position they occupy.
As I see it, that would be why there are so many articles, seminars, references on the web on corporate politics, but no formal "education" on this fundamental subject matter for any soon to be, wannabe, or full-fledged business executive.
Oh, there actually are specialized trainings out there on corporate politics, except they are never called that, they are, as practically everything in politics, sweetened up with other less aggressive sounding names such as"interpersonal skills", "management skills", "negotiation skills", "team building"....
So, with all that's available in the internet...
... it seems writing a new hub on it may be a loss of my time and yours. Yeah, except for the fact that there isn't any empiric data valid and applicable to all organizations when it comes to corporate politics, so it's free-for-all, your-advice-is-as-good-as-mine topic.
I haven't been in corporate land for over 20 years for nothing, after all. And because I've read so much on the topic that's serious, I'll go for the tongue in check approach. This will be based on experience and I'll bet these few basic rules of corporate politics work pretty much anywhere –I know I said politics change depending on the organizations, but didn't I also say there are some basic principles?
THE UNWRITTEN RULES (ADVANTAGE: YOU DON'T NEED TO KNOW HOW TO READ!)
1. Don't fool yourself: You do need to play the game
And beware of fools who naively think they don't! They have the word trouble unfashionably knitted to whatever business attire the dress code at their workplace requires them to wear. Although, if they are as naïve as to think politics are for others but never for them, maybe they don't stick to a dress code either. Now, don't start rolling your eyes, because dress code is just as important and yes-yes as politics in corporate business. But that's another hub, maybe.
So, you're going to play the game, but it's true that the intensity and complexity of it varies depending on your position. The higher the corporate ladder, the more time you'll spend on politics, thinking of buy-ins, repercussions, favors you'll need to ask or cash in, people you need to meet and people you know that can forward your goals.
If it helps your sensibilities, think of it as business strategy, a plan with vision, instead of calling it "politics". Although, if you're high up enough, your sensibilities will be well prepared to call it any name that serves the purpose.
Now, if you're a newbie, fresh in the business world, don't go thinking this doesn’t apply to you. Corporate politics are there at all times and for all employees and, I repeat, beware of the fool who thinks they are exempt from such shenanigans. You may as well be clued in to reality –the sooner you realize this happens even if you don't want a part of it, the sooner you'll be on your way to be a pro, a captain in the waters of corporate politics.
Don't make enemies
It may take you a while to get familiar with the dynamics and the players, what works and what doesn't in your company, but it's still good to heed this strategy: meet people, let people know you, help people, let people owe you, don't get into silly arguments, fight battles that you know you can win and enlist bigger and stronger allies for those that present an uncertain battlefield.
If you don't believe me, more power to you. If you do, however, do yourself a favor and read my favorite and arguably the best book ever written on politics and strategy: The Prince by Machiavelli.
2. Never say No. Never say Never.
That doesn't meant you can't think "No way!" or "It's never gonna happen", and it most definitely doesn't mean you can't say either in a roundabout way, but please, don't be blunt and utter No or Never directly to any decision maker or any other big wig, even if it's not a decision maker in your scope of influence.
Corporate politics are just as any other brand of politics –they're about influencing, strategizing, about forming partnerships, enlisting allies, taking decisions and, at the end of the day, about coming out on top. In business, that means achieving a milestone, a goal, getting something done or approved.
Now, think how many things happen to get done by saying No or Never. It may occur to you that this isn't your target or your goal, it's nowhere near your area of influence and, basically, there's nothing in it for you, but think again: It's not your goal NOW, but it's bound to be some day, or worse (so, SO much worse!), it's bound to be the goal of someone you'll need on your side in future...
If you say NO or NEVER to the wrong audience, these two poisonous words can, and likely will, rebound to you ten-fold in future. Think "karma is like a boomerang". Or think "today for me and tomorrow for you". Think what helps, but save your Nos and Nevers for your mother in law or the nosy neighbor, take them away from your biz speech.
I'm a bit (ahem) stubborn so, evidently, I ended up learning this rule the hard way, by trial and error, you'd call it. By learning it, I also learned that there are so many synonyms for No and Never that it's no hardship to find an appropriate one for each situation where you may be tempted to shout a big fat No:
- I'll look into it
- I'll get back to you
- I'll see what can be done
- Let me think about it
- I'm not sure, I'll check it out
You're thinking this is silly, even children know that when parents say "maybe" it usually means No. Too right! All these accomplish the very same thing a No or Never, you didn't commit to something you don't believe is possible or good for you, the difference is that you didn't make an enemy out of anyone.
Now you're thinking that at some point you're going to have to enlighten your audience that you're actually NOT going to do it. Indeed, you'll have to formulate a suitable and professional explanation, which is the second advantage of never saying never.
You either have a perfectly reasonable and businesslike justification for not doing something, or you may find that it's actually a good idea and to your advantage to help this stakeholder now because it'll get you support in future, or plainly because it's simply a sound business idea, you just never thought of it in the first place.
The lesson here is don’t be blunt and impetuous. Don't use any power you may have to deny, use it to control what goes on around you.
3. If you absolutely can't avoid uttering either No or Never, then say them with all the authority you can muster
First of all, I said authority, not power. Not the same thing by any long shot. Any positional power you have in your company doesn't necessarily equal authority, we've all heard of disrespected managers, people with supposed power that would only be able to launch a battalion into battle by sheer discipline of the forces, because they are trained to obey the stripes in someone's shoulder.
Authority is a rather moral concept as opposed to the arbitrary rank granted by the organization, and it can never be gratuitously or arbitrarily granted to you, is something you earn by proving yourself over time to reports, peers and managers.
In my experience, authority is a lot more effective than power when you're navigating corporate politics. It's definitely a lot more powerful when you need to say No, because your counterparts will respect you, even if you're bound to annoy the living daylights out of them. An annoyed but respectful colleague is a lot better to deal with than an annoyed and disrespectful colleague.
That is true to the nth power when you're denying stakeholders that are a lot higher up in the ladder than you are. Again in my experience, big wigs tend to pay no heed to people that don't have, or don't know how to display, moral authority. I guess it's like they say, one only plays in the leagues where one can hit the ball.
You don't want to make enemies and you don't want to be despised, so gain your authority and use it when you need it. In the meantime, practice with all the synonyms for No and Never.
4. Don't be afraid to admit to a mistake (aka, No guts, no glory)
And don't wait to be caught, either! As opposed to what many misled professionals may think, admitting to a mistake is not only a very dignified act, but also a politically smart move if you're so unfortunate as to have, well, screwed up.
First of all, it demonstrates honesty –you're saying the truth, and it also demonstrates integrity –you're not trying to blame anyone else and are ready to admit the responsibility and take the potential consequences. It's not that I like to make mistakes, but I found that admitting to those I committed garnered me lot of respect and especially a lot of trust.
Respect and trust are pillars of authority, and we already covered how favorable to your interests authority can be in your career. Now, don't be silly and make a mistake on purpose to be able to confess to it! And don't go thinking that you can get away with confessing MANY mistakes either! If you're going to be screwing up more often than not, then you'll be out of a job soon, and that's not good for you, is it?
In corporate politics, much as it's often said to be a game of lies and frauds and make-believes, honesty and integrity and being able to trust your colleagues count for a lot. This is not only an "old boy's network" motto, it's real life in corporate land.
Who would you rather do business with, someone you trust or someone you don't? Admittedly, there will be instances where you'll need to do business with someone you don't trust, but given a choice it's a no-brainer.
Admitting to mistakes also means you're human and not a heartless, selfish, power-addicted executive that will save her ass by blaming her team, or anyone else, before admitting she's less than perfect.
It's not like higher up in the ladder execs can get away with blaming anyone much or for long, and it's not like there will be many chances to make mistakes, but here's my advice: If shit happens and it's your fault, first say so and then clean it up. Chances are, you'll be rewarded or at least not punished by the establishment.
5. Sarcasm and rudeness are out of the question. Jury is out on Irony.
In regards to irony, it will depend on how slick you are with your jabs and whether experience tells you that you can get away with a non-poisonous dose of it, but one thing that you need to avoid for sure is rudeness or sarcasm.
Folks, no one ever got anywhere by being an asshole. Do I need to explain more? If you think so, then refer above to the number of times I said corporate politics is about forming alliances and not creating enemies in the process. If you think you can be rude and will be forgiven, you are delusional. May happen once, or twice, but seriously, it'll catch up with you. Karma and boomerang again!
As for irony, I have a fondness for it, but won't risk it unless I'm convinced it'll go over well. In other words, I'll only use it in my inner professional circle. I hope you're not thinking I'm a coward, because that means you didn't listen to anything I explained in this hub about politics. I'm a confessed corporate player, and what does a player do with her cards? Keeps them close to her chest. Tada!
Another instance when I will resort to irony, or plain humor, is to get a certain audience to thinking or talking about something. There are forums where bluntly questioning things will create anxiety or direct opposition, so it comes in handy to be a bit ironic with your observations, because that makes stakeholders relax and feel less challenged; a bit of biting humor is usually a good pill to prompt open, stress-free discussions.
If you're uncertain about the effect of irony or humor, if you think they can be misunderstood, then avoid them. It's a rather obvious rule in corporate politics: Treat people as if you're going to need them in future. Maybe you won't, but risking an insult just for the fun of it it's plain silly, a bad strategy all around.
Is this playing in any theater near you?
I listed what to me are the five most useful unwritten rules in corporate politics. If you think about it, most are plain common sense:
- Don't bite the hand that feeds you.
- Don't be controversial but find a workaround that pacifies stakeholders.
- Don't insult colleagues or business associates, and what have you.
Pay no heed to any of my ramblings, if you think they make no sense whatsoever, but at least pay attention to rule #1:
Don't fool yourself! Politics are there whether you like it or not, whether you play the game or not!