One of the questions we hear the most from our coaching clients at pretty much all management levels is ‘Should I engage in organisational politics?’. This question is certainly worth examining, although the answer is almost always a given (Yes, in case you wondered). Given that organisational politics is pervasive in any organisation with more than one level of hierarchy, we should probably first consider the question why organisational politics exists and what its purpose might be. The answer to both is power.
We create organisational hierarchies because this is a tried and tested way of organising a large number of people around a common purpose. It enables centralised decision making on the basis of assigning higher levels of power to individuals on higher levels of the hierarchy. This is a social convention that we all share, so only mavericks – who tend not to last in large organisations – dare to question it. From an evolutionary point of view this was obviously advantageous, since many species share this pattern of organising in groups. The side effect appears to be that wherever there is a power hierarchy, there is politics.
Politics exist to negotiate power outside of the established organisational structure. This could be done to benefit the organisation and actually make it more efficient or it could be done to benefit the individual. Most people we talk to focus on the latter, having been burnt in the past or simply driven by the dislike of ‘political players’ and their agendas. In reality, the majority of people who engage in politics are actually driven by the desire to benefit the organisation, whilst not being adverse to benefiting themselves in the process. More often than not the players who are only in it for themselves lose allies and traction after a while and leave.
So why would engaging in politics benefit the organisation as whole? Because it appears to be impossible to create an efficient and effective organisational design without politics that can withstand internal and external stressors over time. We have tried strict hierarchies, flat hierarchies, matrix organisations, functional hierarchies, geographic hierarchies and so on, but we have never been able to create a structure that does not need informal channels of communication, influencing and negotiation. In addition, hierarchies only attribute role authority, but there are four other forms of power (or authority) that people can use to influence or get their way – reward power, coercive power, expert power and reverent (personal) power. Hence it should come as no surprise that we will find ways to exercise these forms of power even within a structure that nominally fixes power relationships based on rank and levels. The result is the creation of informal and alternative hierarchies that sometimes can be more powerful than the formal structure.
Hopefully you will agree with me at this point that organisational politics is simply a consequence of organising people in large groups. It isn’t bad as such, it just so happens to open up avenues for bad individual behaviour if a person is intent on driving their own agenda over and above all others, including the organisational goals. If you can stop focussing on those individuals and start to see organisational politics for what it is really good for – like stopping useless change projects or reversing bad decisions made unilaterally – then it becomes rather obvious that engaging in organisational politics (at least sometimes) is the right thing to do for any manager or leader. To stay authentic in doing so, you need to learn how to engage in politics on your terms and how to survive the inevitable setbacks when you violate the (usually unspoken) rules of the game.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that the currency of politics is information. Information is a precious commodity and can be shared, withheld or traded. The moment you receive information outside the official channels you become a player, whether you realise it or not. Even if you don’t pass on the information, you are exercising power within the informal information sharing network(s). The second most important thing are the rules of the game. Each organisation will have slightly different rules, but there are common ones, like the expectation of reciprocity in political dealings and the expectation that you will respect the need for ‘plausible deniability’ of any political dealings (which means no email trail, for example).
The final thing to bear in mind is that politics will lead to bruising and will sometimes challenge long-standing relationships. This last point tends to be the reason why men in general are slightly better at playing politics, they tend to have grown up playing team sports where it is considered ok to get hurt (a bit) and to have arguments that can get heated on the field but are forgotten minutes after the game is finished.