The first rule about workplace politics is that nobody will tell you the rules. But everyone somehow knows how the unspoken web of power dynamics works. Or do they?
This fake certainty is one reason we must reimagine workplace politics.
Managers often spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how to deal with difficult employees, peers, or bosses. At first glance, this appears to be a normal function of living in the workplace, a closer look reveals that this is more about workplace politics.
The game of workplace politics becomes a tool for negotiating your own position to avoid getting resistance from others in response to your actions. Given enough time and experience, with a non-nutritious sprinkling of gossip, you eventually learn to play the game. You learn to speak the “right” way, to the “right” people, in order to get the “right” reaction. The worst part of all this is it works.
So what’s the problem?
The problem with workplace politics is that it becomes a game where you achieve short-term goals by acting in a way that is not an example of the world you want to live in.
There’s a winner and there’s a loser, and playing the game means that you are simultaneously both.
Think about it, it’s like sawing-off a tree branch while you’re sitting on it!
So why get better at a bad game? The answer is to make a better game…because it is possible to reframe workplace politics as an act of service for the future you want to create.
The traditional rules of workplace politics center around managing and manipulating situations, information, and people to your own advantage. Tactics include being very cautious in telling the truth, selectively invoking high-level names to gain support, closely managing relationships, and paying great attention to what the people above you want.
A sea of books will tell you that you’ll gain attention, move up the ranks, and pull your own strings by mastering these strategies. And you probably will. But in the process, you perpetuate a patriarchal cycle that actually coerces you to surrender your power and autonomy. By “playing the game” you effectively exchange your freedom for dependence on those with power over you.
But what other option is there?
This doesn’t mean you have to start your own business. Instead, the solution here is to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset that reframes politics in a positive way.
An Entrepreneurial mindset is a path to reclaiming the freedom and accountability that has been surrendered to the unfulfilling game of workplace politics.
The outcome is a powerful yet non-manipulative way to negotiate power and relationships within your organization. It is a move away from obligating compliance to inviting collaboration.
This transformation shift comes down to you making three fundamental choices.
Firstly, the path of positive politics chooses possibility over maintenance. Much of traditional workplace politics is preoccupied with safety for fear of losing ground. The more you move up, the more energy you expend to avoid losing what you have. And so decisions become more and more driven by a desire for maintaining. What this really reflects is the choice to be led by others.
The antidote is for you to choose possibility. Making a commitment to building something great carries real risk. It is dangerous. But the first step in being political in a positive way is making the choice not to just maintain what you have, but to reach for unreachable possibilities.
This leads us to the second choice, which is courage over caution. There are hundreds of ways that corporate culture drives an atmosphere of caution. Here are just two of the more pervasive ways: Performance reviews and high-pressure presentations to top management. These two are designed to produce extremely measured and conservative behavior. This makes perfect sense when you realize that the aforementioned “Maintenance” requires caution. But striving for greatness requires courage.
Working for a better future always requires courage. And it mostly comes in small steps. Usually, you are the only one aware of the risk you are taking. But your choice for self-assertion and risk is the antidote to caution and maintaining what we have inherited or amassed on our own.
Thirdly, the entrepreneurial mindset must choose autonomy over dependence. A culture of maintenance and caution thrives on breeding dependence.
When your aim is to scale the political ladder, you implicitly agree to a kind of parental contract. Their job is to lead and reward and your job is to listen and obey.
But autonomy is the attitude that declares: my actions are my own and I help create the organization I am a part of. By choosing autonomy, you are recovering the freedom you willingly surrendered to play the game. You are recovering what you once gave away, not taking back what was taken from you. This is something you can do without asking permission.
The entrepreneurial culture does not take effect in top-down programs or C-Suite announcements. The only way to change the game is to act in small ways that affect a new culture in recurring moments.
In a way, the only culture that really exists is what happens in the room, the meeting, the conversation you are in right now. By making the choice to pursue positive workplace politics, you will embody the culture you want to create and the short-term goals will take care of themselves.
[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001 and Peter Block, The Empowered Manager, 2017]