Navigating Office Politics
There I sat. In a cubicle we lovingly called a “horse stall” because of its size (you literally had to back up in your chair to turn one way or the other). There I was minding my own business writing COBOL code as a contractor for a large consumer electronics firm; very content in typing away on my 3270 terminal (real programmers don’t need PC’s, with their color screens and mice), when “Whump!”, I felt a swift kick in my backside. It was a colleague (who later became a dear friend) stating emphatically “You need to go into management! You would be good at it!”. My response? “Nope, don’t want to play the games”, as I resumed my typing.
A few months later, a group of friends and I were at a local watering hole enjoying a few libations. Again, there I was minding my own business drinking a beer, shooting some pool, when, there it was again…”Whump!” Another swift kick in my backside, this one courtesy of a dear friend (who later became my wife). “You need to go into management! You would be good at it!” Again, “Nope! Don’t want to play the games!” This time the response was a bit stronger. “You need to get your head out of your nether regions and grow up. You would be an awesome manager. Get over it, you have to play the games!”. I thought she was going to break the pool cue over my head.
So, there you have it…Game On!. I was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of management and office politics, with no map to help me navigate. It felt like being up the proverbial creek without a paddle!
“For those that make maps, not follow them” is emblazoned on a t-shirt I bought years ago at a Lewis and Clark event in Kansas. The shirt was marketing a local beer, but it could just as easily been an instruction manual for navigating office politics. When you find yourself without a map, what should you do? Make one!
Back when I was that long-haired hippy COBOL programmer, I loved to play the computer game “Zork”. “Zork” was one of first adventure games to be computerized. In the game, you have to navigate through a mythical land and encounter many different characters. I found one of the keys to beating that game was to make a map, not only of the geography, but of the characters.
Every organization has formal (typically hierarchical) and informal (the way communication REALLY happens) networks, both internal to the organization and external to it. Mapping the formal may be as easy as finding on organizational chart, mapping the informal networks is much more difficult, it takes time, it takes observation. Who talks to who? Who goes to lunch with who? Who has real power and influence? How does word spread (rumor or not) throughout an organization? Which departments or which people work well with each other.
In a recent study conducted by MIT, an organization’s communication path was mapped by seeding information and following the communication streams. In this particular company, the accounting department was the central hub for word to spread throughout the organization. If you were responsible for a major communication effort within that particular organization, it would behove you to start with accounting.
Your resulting map will probably resemble a plate full of spaghetti rather than the nice neat org chart, but as you navigate the game of office politics, the informal map will help you avoid the landmines lurking down the hall or around the corner.
Once you have your communication maps, its time to draw on one of your other super powers: “empathy”. Psychology Today defines empathy as: “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.” What things are they dealing with that might influence their behavior? What motivates them?” In short, what makes them tick. Everyone has an agenda. Their agenda might be “All for one and one for All”, or perhaps their agenda is to “win” at all costs, no matter the collateral damage, or perhaps their agenda is to “put in their time” and be done.
Gaining this understanding can take even more time than developing your map. To know people, you must spend time talking with them, observing them, listening to them. In our busy “always on” worlds, taking this time can be the most difficult to achieve.
Empathy can be key to building strong personal relationships and making a connection with someone far below the superficial level. Knowing “where they are coming from” can help you motivate and encourage them toward your company’s goals and objectives, not to mention, those relationships are far more rewarding than the generic, “how’re you doing?” “Fine” as you pass in the hallway.
The third tool in your utility belt (note obscure Batman reference) are the relationships you build within the organizations. These relationships have to go beyond the superficial. They must be built on trust, respect and transparency. Your relationships should cross hierarchical and political boundaries. Build relationships with those that are politically powerful within the organization and those that are not.
Like any good game there are the heroes, those that use their super power for good and villains, those that use their super powers for evil. Your understanding of how to navigate office politics can be used for good or evil. You can use it to further your own agenda and “win” at all costs, or you can use it to advance the organization to be the best it can be. My view of the game may be a bit naive, but I believe those in the first camp, ultimately lose in the end. So, let’s play! Game On!
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