It's All Politics
Like business in general, politics is not a spectator sport. You cannot afford to be apolitical at work if you have any aspirations for advancement. The only way to avoid politics is to avoid people--by finding an out-of-the-way corner where you can do your job. Of course, it's the same job you'll likely be doing for the rest of your career if you remain politically impaired.
In any job, when you reach a certain level of technical competence, politics is what makes all the difference with regard to success. At that point, it is indeed all politics. Everyday brilliant people take a backseat to politically adept colleagues by failing to win crucial support for their ideas.
Sometimes politics involves going around or bending rules, but more typically it's about positioning your ideas in a favorable light and knowing what to say, and how, when, and to whom to say it. Refusing to participate in what you may consider "the incivility of politics" is exactly what will keep you a political underdog, watching helplessly as your career aspirations evaporate.
Ask yourself these questions to see if you're up to snuff on politics 101.
* Can you effectively influence and manage people's perceptions of you and your ideas?
* Are you able to convert enemies to allies?
* Can you manage outcomes long before they're in sight?
* Do your ideas get a fair hearing?
* Do you know when and how to present them?
* Are you in the loop?
If you've answered no to even one of these questions, you can learn a great deal from this book. Such political skills determine career success, but they are only the beginning. Politics is a highly complex skill set. Albert Einstein was once asked: "Dr. Einstein, why is it that when the mind of man has stretched so far as to discover the structure of the atom we have been unable to devise the political means to keep the atom from destroying us?" The great scientist replied: "That is simple, my friend. It is because politics is more difficult than physics."1
Politics is more difficult than physics because most of us have not devoted adequate time to the study of it. Most business schools disregard politics completely, even though the success of their students will depend to a large extent on their political skill level. This is the case for the elite scientist as well as the machinist working on a shop floor. Business schools generally ignore an entire type of human intelligence in favor of more technical subjects, and many otherwise talented people suffer as a result. They bumble their way through the workplace, saying whatever is on their minds or failing to say that which they should because they never learned the difference.
Security at work comes from being able to manage how people treat you and your ideas. This is true no matter where you are on the hierarchy. I worked with a CEO who'd been in place for less than a year when he realized that certain board members were out to get him. When I met him, he was moderately political, no match for the masters on his board. They were becoming so effective in their attempts to unseat him that even his most ardent supporters were beginning to waver. This CEO invited me to work with him on his communication. He made no mention of altering his political approach. But soon it became evident that this man was about to walk the plank if he didn't learn how to manage belowdecks as well as at the helm. After meeting with his direct reports, I learned from them, as well as from him, about each board member's agendas and political styles. The CEO and I then looked at each board member's alliances and discussed at length what had been said at prior meetings, especially those statements that seemed to be undermining his position.
If I had thought that this CEO was a threat to the company, I wouldn't have agreed to help him see past his own nonpolitical predilections. But his employees truly admired him and what he'd already achieved. They considered the board's behavior to be the result of sour grapes among a couple of members who'd wanted to hire a different CEO. But some employees were beginning to lose respect for this CEO because he couldn't seem to stifle or appease his adversaries. Workdays were becoming fractious, with less work getting done as senior people spent more time worrying about their jobs than doing them.
After I convinced the CEO that he needed to learn how to manage his board politically, I began the process of teaching him how to present himself and his ideas. We discussed which board members he should call before each meeting and which ones would provide him with the insights we needed to formulate a strategy. Interestingly, it became clear that the most important issue was the need some members felt to have their opinions valued by the new CEO. They also wanted reassurance that they would retain the power they perceived themselves to be losing. Another issue for them was a feeling that the CEO lacked conviction and self-confidence. Over a period of several weeks I worked with the CEO to alter these damaging perceptions. I sat in his office while he spoke with the leaders of the insurgency, assuring them not only that he'd heard their suggestions but also, in two instances, planned to put them in charge of implementation. We worked on his style, on his sense of conviction, on the words he'd use at the next board meeting, on positioning ideas and past events in a positive way, and on how he'd address, call on, and respond to all members of the board. We identified areas of agreement that could be emphasized. We even practiced in the boardroom with certain trusted senior managers playing the roles of his detractors. Yes, it was a lot of work, but so is learning physics--and, remember, according to Einstein, physics is easier. The reluctant politician proved to be a fast learner. The insurgency ended and a good man's career was saved.
Whether at the very top of organizations or farther down the ladder, the politically astute stay in touch with what is going on around them and communicate with others in ways that align their goals with those in power or soon to be in power. They make it their business to know a great deal about the systems in which they work, the common views that define those systems as well as loopholes in those common views, and the kind of behavior considered controversial. They know how to talk so that others are compelled to listen. Well in advance of any serious conflict, they develop an arsenal of options and a corral of connections that can help make those options possible.
You can't know politics simply by discussing it theoretically. I learned what I know by observing, trying new approaches, falling on my face, and getting up to try again. One of my very early political lessons came from a colleague who, after seeing me struggle with a manipulator, took me aside and said, "He doesn't need to be confronted; he needs to be managed. He's predictable and quite needy, really," she continued, an interpretation that seemed foreign to me at the time, not to mention surprising, considering it was regarding someone so much my senior. "He has you where he wants you: desperate to please, easily hurt by his rebuffs because you simply haven't stopped to think. Give him some of what he wants--be less predictable yourself. Try a little unexpected kindness and guide him to your side. He's not your friend, but you're making him an enemy. And that's where you're losing the game."
As an alumna of the University of Connecticut, I watch as many UConn basketball games as possible. In 2004 the men and women both won NCAA championships. It was the first time in history that men's and women's teams from the same school won this honor. Sports Illustrated describes star player Diana Taurasi this way: "What everybody says, one way or another, is that Taurasi sees. She sees things on the court that God hasn't arranged for other people to pick out."2 This is what intuition is about--seeing more and farther ahead than others. Truly effective politicians possess an uncanny sense of their surroundings. Small nonverbal moves, changes in the direction of talk, and momentary emotional expressions do not escape them. Information that seems peripheral to most people is often pivotal for the intuitive, whether on a basketball court or in a critical business meeting. The real stars in any endeavor are those who see--truly see--and then use that information to determine their course of action. Novices operate in the dark, some desperately attempting to pick up a strategy here or there, but until they see what is really going on around them, no amount of strategy accumulation will advance them.
One media executive told me she developed a sense of what's ahead over time. "I now know if there's a big hole in the ground up ahead. I don't need to go put my foot in it anymore." This book will teach you how to develop an early warning system for detecting when something in the environment just isn't right--when there's a hole up ahead. You'll learn that skilled politicians listen to their gut while so many others push valuable impressions aside.
I'll also explore how to detect deception--a look at primates can teach us a great deal about being aware of dangers that lurk nearby. As primatologist Franz de Waal has discovered, chimpanzees don't make uncalculated moves. They are always keeping track of each other, always thinking about the next social step.3 Chimps form coalitions and work together to assess their surroundings and deal with potential enemies. We humans tend to keep track mostly of ourselves, especially in western cultures, and pride ourselves on individual, rather than group, accomplishment. Because of this, we lower our chances of truly seeing what is going on around us. Fortunately, with time and practice, you'll be less inclined to readily dismiss a nagging sense that something isn't quite right. You'll learn how to listen to your gut and make sense of the input. This is a crucial step in becoming politically skilled and advancing your career. Like Diana Tarausi's sense of the court, we all need to develop a keen sense of our work surroundings in order to take some impressive shots when others are still looking for the ball.
Once you have developed intuition, you also need to have the insight to respond creatively to a variety of situations. The worst thing you can be at work is predictable. When you are, people can easily manage and maneuver around you. Skilled politicians have an extensive repertoire of responses so they're prepared for anything. They know that there is more than one way to handle any situation; for every locked entrance, there is a back door, windows--even a chimney. I'll discuss how to determine which concerns should be on your front burner and a variety of responses to those concerns. You'll learn to be flexible and creative in your responses in order to avoid falling into a predictable routine. I'll show you how to break out of these ruts to find fresh ways of dealing with problems at work.
You also will learn how to better prepare yourself for political situations at work before they happen. People who speak first take a big risk in politically volatile situations, unless they're well prepared. The magic in being politically savvy lies in advance work, not in fancy strategies. You have to learn to be on the lookout for situations that could be harmful to your career. Skilled politicians have multiple antennae taking in information that others overlook or discard. They go from room to room dusting for fingerprints, asking questions when others don't. You have to know what makes the people with whom you're dealing tick.
You also will master the skill of thinking on your feet. People constantly tell me they think of what they should have said at some point of the workday only when they're driving home from work; but, of course, it's already too late. On their feet, most people are a disaster. The good news is that this condition can be changed. You can learn to dance, even late in life. When you learn how to think strategically, you can jump into the fray and walk away with everything you wanted--or pretty darn close.
Politics is nothing without acquiring the power of persuasion. Persuasion is not something you do, it's something you work at doing. Emeka Okafor, star of the UConn men's national championship team, didn't start playing basketball until he was in the sixth grade. A few years later, he was on the highest-ranked college team in the United States. What happened between sixth grade and his first year at UConn can be summed up in one word: work. He focused on learning from the best--his coach Jim Calhoun, his teammates, and his adversaries--just as his father had focused on earning several advanced college degrees. You can't pick up a few tricks and expect to reach the corner office one day--or to stay there once you arrive. And if you can't influence others, then the road ahead is a short one.
Politics is often associated with power as if they're one and the same. If I had to choose between persuasion and power as the heart of politics, I'd choose persuasion. Yet power is a critical component of career politics. People pay attention to those they perceive to be powerful. I say "perceive" because power is largely in the eye of the beholder. It's created through relationships rather than status alone. Even people of low status can have and accrue power. They just need to understand how to attain it and use it effectively.
Just as you'll learn ways to develop power in an organization, you'll also come to recognize moments when you'll need to be courageous. Sticking your neck out is never an easy thing in life. After all, the tall tree catches the wind. But you'll see how some impressive people turned bad situations to good by having the guts and the skill to step forward in crisis situations. We'll look at what it takes to be politically courageous--both the prerequisites and the means--and we'll examine how people who commit career suicide miss the mark.
Politics is inevitable. It is part of life. But that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Many companies have made efforts to manage politics in productive ways. They haven't tried to stamp out political activity so much as they've rewarded positive politics. They've helped individuals find their own political compasses, and the results are impressive not only in terms of those organizations' cultures, but in terms of the bottom line as well. Once the idea that there is such a thing as positive politics sinks in, organizations and individuals can encourage it and discourage harmful political machinations.
You'll know a lot more about the supposed "mystery" that is politics when you finish this book. Keep in mind that people benefit from perpetuating the image of politics as something you either know or you don't. Ignore them.
Political acumen is largely learned from observation. And then it's a matter of practice, practice, and more practice. When a journalist suggested that golfing great Gary Player was very lucky, he replied: "It's funny, but the more I practice the luckier I get." The same is true of politics.
From the Hardcover edition.