Office politics. It’s a phrase that immediately conjures up negative ideas and images in our minds. But it doesn’t need to. There’s no doubt that politics plays an important role in the way we operate in the workplace but it can be used positively. Rather than viewing office politics as a struggle for power we can see it as a way of harnessing team dynamics and engaging people to achieve a common goal.
Leading a successful team hinges on your ability to get the best out of each individual. That involves knowing how to approach, consult and negotiate with everyone in your team on a daily basis. It might also mean building and leveraging effective relationships across the organisation to help give your team a platform for success. In other words, using office politics to your own (and the organisation’s) advantage.
1. Ask open-ended questions to gain different perspectives
Ask lots of questions to different people from different areas of the company. Don’t interrupt them. Just listen and take notes. Hearing the perspectives of people within your team and outside your immediate group will help you see the world as other people see it and understand what their priorities and expectations are. What you learn may be surprising, but it will also help you when dealing with those individuals.
2. Get buy-in from everyone affected
Whenever you are trying to achieve specific objectives, managing projects or introducing change within your organisation, it is important to make sure everyone who may be influenced by what you’re doing feels like they have been involved in the process. Communicate clearly around your programmes and initiatives and encourage people to share their opinions, feedback and recommendations. Ideally you will find that people are supportive of your project, but at the very least involving people should reduce friction that could derail your future success.
3. Find out where the real political power lies
Office politics often circumvent the formal structure of the organisation. Observe and ask questions across the organisation to find out who the real influencers are, which people are respected the most, who champions or mentors others and who has authority but is not really exercising it. You can also then gain an understanding of the informal networks that exist between these individuals and groups and how influence flows between them.
4. Build effective relationships
Once you understand how the existing relationships work within the organisation you can build your own social network to give you a platform for influencing key people and raising the profile of your team. Develop relationships that cross the formal hierarchy in all directions (peers, managers, executives) including the people who have the informal power. Build relationships based on trust and respect and don’t be afraid to get to know politically powerful people within the organisation. Don’t align yourself with a particular group and be part of multiple networks to keep your finger on the pulse of the organisation as a whole.
5. Make the most of your network
Use the working relationships you have built inside and outside the organisation to stay clear of negative politicking and promote yourself and your team positively. It is up to you to communicate your team’s capabilities and successes to the right people and you can do this through positive political action. Use your network to gain access to information, build visibility for your achievements, improve difficult relationships and attract opportunities where your team can shine.
6. Encourage debate
When you are managing a particular project or programme where stakeholders have opposing views or priorities, act as a facilitator. Engage the parties in dialogue, not only with you, but with each other. Organise a meeting that emphasises how the project aligns with wider strategic objectives. Invite people with different views to lunch for a discussion. Do whatever is needed to make the conflicting views more transparent. When stakeholders have different agendas, ask them to prioritise their needs. People will be pleased that their views are being heard and are more likely to explore compromise solutions.
7. Facilitate compromise
Once you have opened up a dialogue you can create a targeted plan to build alignment. Speak with people who object to the proposal and explore ways to modify it so you are responding to their concerns. Talk to people who are in favour of the proposal and ask them to proactively influence others who are less enthusiastic. Politics is the art of the possible, not the perfect. Full alignment and support for your original proposal might not be achievable but if you engage with the right stakeholders you might gain enough buy-in to move forward with the most essential parts.
8. Keep personal opinions to yourself
If you want to use office politics for positive benefits, it is important that you keep any and all of your opinions about colleagues to yourself. The moment you share them with a team member or in the wider organisation you will start to lose your influence as a neutral negotiator and you will be viewed as biased.
9. Neutralise negative behaviours
Observing and researching the informal spheres in the organisation will have helped you identify people who tend to use others for their own purposes and indulge in negative politicking. Instead of avoiding these people it can be helpful to get to know them better. The phrase “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” rings very true when it comes to office politics. Spend time with these people – be courteous but always be very careful what you say to them. Try to understand what motivates them and what their objectives are – that will help you learn how to avoid or counter their negative actions.
10. Model positive political behaviour
As a leader, your team members will take their cues from you. By maintaining a professional attitude and behaviours you can help stop negative politics from spreading. For example:
- Rise above personal conflicts – don’t get sucked into arguments
- Stay positive – when challenges arise, don’t whine or complain
- Never pass on gossip, questionable judgements or spread rumours – when you hear something take time to consider how much credibility it has and whether it is appropriate to share
- When voicing objections or criticism, always take an organisational perspective rather than a personal one
- Be a model of integrity to your team and discourage negative politics within it.