Managing Internal Politics. It’s How You Play the Game
Did you ever notice that almost everyone says they hate internal politics, yet we all seem to end up involved in them? It’s a rare case when a person stays truly neutral in political games, and that may be because, like it or not, internal politics are unavoidable. In a really big dust-up, say when faced with a restructuring, those who insist on neutrality often end up disliked by everyone.
I’m reminded of the famous mine workers organizing song, “Which Side Are You On?” It includes the lines, “There are no neutrals there. You’ll either be a union man, or a thug for JH Blair” (the boss man). The 1960s activists had an equivalent in the saying, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Neutrality implies silence, and as the HIV/AIDS activists taught us in the 80s, “Silence = Death.” This attitude comes up over and over again, the most recent iteration I can think of being MTV’s “Choose or Lose” election season campaigns. We love winners and sympathize with losers, but we really dislike those who have no skin in the game.
So perhaps it’s time that we admit to playing internal politics, at least some of the time, and there’s nothing to say that in so doing we can’t influence people and events for the better. Here are three general rules for managing internal politics productively.
1) Assume colleagues are sincere. Take what they say at face value unless you have personal experience otherwise. Dismiss hearsay and avoid speculating about the motives of others. Following this rule will save a lot of energy you would otherwise expend in trying to psych out who thinks what and how you can use it to your advantage.
2) Avoid entangling alliances. In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned against “permanent alliances,” but it was Thomas Jefferson who aptly characterized them as “entangling.” It’s the perfect word in that it conjures images of being caught in a net or wrestling an octopus. You don’t want to be drawn into other people’s disagreements or power struggles. Deal with each colleague on his or her own merits. You will find success easier to achieve when you focus on ideas and place principles before personalities.
3) Make decisions based on what’s best for the total organization, not just one or two departments. This helps you build a reputation for integrity. If we’re honest, most of us can probably think of a time when we acted on narrow or even self interests rather than the interests of a whole organization or community. In the end, though, if the organization goes down, so will you. Currently, my favorite example of this is a statement shared by a climate activist on Twitter: “There are no human rights on a dead planet.” A few years ago, consultants joked about “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” Everyone knows that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Avoid focusing on small concerns when there’s an elephant sitting in the conference room.
Sadly, there are some companies and organizations, or individual departments within them, that have leaders who set up a climate where it’s more or less required to play internal politics, and not necessarily the benign kind. I recently spoke with a very bright, young professional who was forced to leave a job because she found herself in this situation. In that case, leaving was not only honorable, but a smart career move. Her departure was the organization’s loss.
Those who are in senior leadership positions should take a serious look at their approach to internal politics. What type of tone are you setting for those managers and line staff who report to you? Admitting that internal politics are a fact of working life is the first step in figuring out how to live with them.