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HomeBlogOffice Politics! Which Side are you on? The Nuts and the Bolts and How to Scale through these Murky Waters – by Wangari Maina

Office Politics! Which Side are you on? The Nuts and the Bolts and How to Scale through these Murky Waters – by Wangari Maina

politicks

Allow me to set the stage for this article with a scenario from real life.

Trading Company XAT promotes June to be a Head of Business Section after 8 years with the company. He is dependable and delivers. In his new capacity, he is responsible for the financial success/ loss, team performance, customer satisfaction, business growth and development as well as good relations with the principles of company TBZ which owns the rights to the products being distributed by June’s business section. For reporting purposes, June directly reports to the CEO of XAT who in turn reports to a board of directors. The distribution agreement signed by XAT and TBZ creates room for June to also have direct communication with the Sales Director with weekly and monthly reports while keeping his own CEO and the finance manager in copy.

This is a straight forward arrangement – until the day that TBZ management feels that the CEO of XAT is too busy with the other product lines to concentrate on the day to day operations of June’s section. So, they want to June to be a puppet as they get into the daily operations including seeing what June’s diary looks like and they also want to talk to the staff directly and give them instructions of how to do their job. The CEO of XAT gives his blessing and now June is caught in a dilemma:

  1. With the blessing of the CEO, TBZ wants one of its products to be sold at a loss which should be absorbed by hiking the prices of the other products.
  2. TBZ wants June to convince the management of XAT to shoulder some running costs so that it looks like the product line is profitable yet it is not.
  3. TBZ does not want to be seen as the proponents of the above. They want June to sell their ideas as though they are his. It is not lost to June through reliable company sources that his boss and the board are having these discussions on the side and the board is not warming up to the ideas by TBZ
  4. June knows the product line can be profitable if things are approached differently but TBZ want nothing to do with his ideas.
  5. June has been with XAT for more than 10 years and knows his business too well. His boss and the board know that he is an asset. He also knows that the intricacies of distributorship agreements are not child’s play. He knows that there is a deeper relationship between the two companies hence XAT will more than readily and gladly throw him under the bus if there was ever a point of choosing between TBZ and June.

This is just one of the many examples of office politics and I dare say that office politics is like the village football. One day you are playing on team A, the next day you are on the other team. A short while later the two teams are playing on one side fighting a common enemy. In another match you are a referee and in another, you are simply a spectator. You could also be clueless about an existing match in your own village.

Whatever your placement in your office politics, the fact is that politics will always be present in the workplace and the best advice you can receive is one of how you can deal with it without being a statistic.

Political scientist, Harold Laswell, says that office politics can be understood as the unwritten rules that determine who gets what, when, where and how, and who doesn’t. Good politics are driven by the need to achieve organizational gains while advancing personal interest BUT without being unfair and inhumane with colleagues. Bad politics means you step all over everybody (including the company) for your own selfish interest[1].

The points below are given to help you find yourself in the midst of either brand of politics in your workplace.

  1. Work. Whether good or bad, office politics stem out of the fact that we are gathered at an establishment with a corporate vision and our presence there is for nothing else but work. We are neither paid to politic nor to play PR games. Salary and benefits are negotiated based on expected output from work done. So, work, work, work. There is no substitute for work. A friend of mine came to congratulate me when I was promoted to be a departmental head and this is what he told me, “the higher you go the more political it becomes. At your level now, it’s 60% politics and 40% work; but make sure the work is a constant 40%.” Even if you are a master at the game of politics, make sure you deliver on the work front otherwise your opponents will have a field day with your failure.
  2. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business. No one is out get you. No one is conspiring with your past to make sure that you never succeed in your career or profession. Just like Harold Laswell put it, bad corporate politicians know what they want, they go for it and they don’t care who they hurt in the process. That is why you should not soil your heart with questions of why me? What did I ever do? Some people can be cruel and it may not be your life’s mandate to change them but it is your primary responsibility to protect yourself from getting life scars that will ruin future relationships and endeavors in your professional life.
  3. Know Yourself (Personality and System of Beliefs). Personally, I dislike corporate politics but when pushed into those murky waters, I have learnt that I have two keys to my corporate politics armory. First key is humility which many people confuse it with foolishness. Second key is using my body organs in the proportion they were given. One mouth (to speak less), two ears (to hear more), two hands and legs (to work more. Humility gets me to apologize even when I have done nothing wrong because I am able to see that the future of my team or section will be jeopardized if I don’t. Humility stops me from typing an email in capital, bold and red letters. Using my body organs has often given me a sponge effect for information because I listen to people who come to my desk and say all manner of things. Their information comes in handy and not in a snitch way. Let me give an example. A driver once came and told me how frustrated he was by the boss he had been assigned to carry. In his talk, he started staying how he thought I was a good person and he couldn’t understand how the boss he was carrying was asking him about my personal life and whether I do personal business during work hours. A couple of days later, I noticed the boss would often come to my cubicle and stand over my shoulder to see what was on my screen! A few weeks later I was asked to put together my job profile (as though they didn’t already have it) indicating what I do daily, weekly, monthly, and annually!
  4. Have a strong brand YOU. My two years of deep, intricate corporate politics were at best a whirlwind and with hindsight, one of the lifelines that held it all together for me was what I regard as brand me. My political detractors would start a case that I had done or said something and because they did not take the time to investigate my past, they found it a hard sell to the management. Their end game with everything they threw around was for me to be removed from the team. A respectable organization will not just lay off a good employee. It will have to work hard to find fraud, a breach of in conduct and gross misconduct. A strong brand YOU is also built by having a support group or enthusiasts who can fight for you when you can’t fight for yourself. To build this, just remember people defend good people who won’t leave them with egg on their face when the political war becomes really bad.
  5. Be a good student of history. The famous song, the Gambler has a wonderful lyric that we can borrow. “If you’re gonna play the game, boy You gotta learn to play it right.” Politics has very few written rules. The ones that run the day are largely unwritten and you only get to know them when you are in the game. It’s the opposite of what we have been cultured to believe about games but that is what it is. If you listen to enough people in your organization, you will learn the political landscape of your organization. You will know who plays dirty and who has it right. You will learn people’s weak spots and strengths. But you will also learn whether you are placed well for politics or not. While the present is soon going to history when the future finally comes, you will do well to study the history of politics in your organization for you to steer through the present.
  6. The Third Option. When emotions are high and everybody’s sight is stuck to only two choices, it is best advised that you step back and take in the landscape. In this stepping-back you will find a third option. The challenge is actually to take that third option when you find it because most likely it is not a comfortable one for you within that political landscape. How do you deal with an employee who is the boss’s close relative who is constantly late without encouraging the behavior in other team members? The two obvious choices – leave it alone and say that he is the boss’s problem; tell the boss to talk to him while you tell the rest of the team not to emulate because they don’t come from the boss’s family. The third choice that is not immediately apparent is for you to take the boss’s relative out for lunch or a quick coffee break and lay out the situation to help him understand what the lateness means for the team and the business. When the situation allows it, always seek for the third option.
  7. Balancing Act. No matter the principles at play, never take sides. Especially when the politics of the day pits two bosses against each other. A friend of mine once shared great advice. When two people who go to the same meetings (that you are never a part of) are fighting, never get between them – whether for reconciliation purposes or for any other reason. Your balancing act is a matter of tact in words and actions. This tact will lead you away from the precarious position of having to take sides.
  8. Influence rather than deflate. Every time I have thought about the end of a political engagement in the corporate setting, I always envision the people involved sitting at a table having lunch and then they leave abruptly with crumbs and left overs on the table without cleaning up. Political manners are another set of unwritten codes of conduct. An argument and political engagement can be left unfinished, but never with the dirty laundry hanging out for the entire world to see. Be amicable enough to even say good morning and to work together when called upon. Even when the battle is left suspended, do not leave the other person with feelings of worthlessness and insecurity, unless your agenda is to water down their self-esteem (which is really selfish to say the least). I’ve learnt that in any corporate political landscape, you need to leave the other party with something important and professional to think about. Mostly, that something important, for me, usually, is why it is so important for us to engage in that political exchange.
  9. Fight to Fight another day. Sometimes retreat is the best option in a battlefield. You’d rather be an injured recuperating guard dog than be a dead guard dog. Because of their nature, politics will always exist. It’s the players who will change. The idea is that when you find yourself in the middle of bad politics, apply the wisdom of the gambler – Learn to read people and the non-verbal communicators. You will quickly know what they have up their sleeve and in turn you will know whether it is time to dig in for a fight, or if it you should all it a day by apologizing and walking away without turning your back. Bottom line, protect what is in your hand knowing that you lose some, you gain some.
  10. Keep documentation. Sometimes you will be in the corporate battlefield with someone who is tactical enough to leave a trail of evidence. Do the same. Leave a trail of hard evidence. From first-hand experience, such people are either covering their tracks of incompetence or they are out to show how ineffective/ inefficient you are among many other things. You don’t have to come down to the level of responding to them by way of insults, but you will do well to stack up your own evidence so that when the dust settles, they won’t have anything against you that can stick.

In conclusion, I’d like to quote Max Messmer (Chairman and CEO of Robert Half International Company) who once said, “… remain attuned to the political undercurrents but don’t … get pulled into situations that could compromise … working relationships or reputation.”

In simpler terms, when you find yourself in the open sea of office politics, consider yourself a fisherman whose 3-tiered purpose at that moment is to get back home with the boat intact ready to sail the next day; the catch of the day in your hand for sumptuous meal with your family and three, remain alive to come back again for more fortunes.

[1] https://hbr.org/2017/09/playing-office-politics-without-selling-your-soul

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