Winning at Working: Serving Company Politics

I once had a boss who informed me there was no such thing as company politics. At the time, I decided that depended on whether you were the person wielding power or influenced by it.

I’d categorize self-serving antics, sabotaging behaviors, information hoarding, and artful manipulation under the heading of organizational politics. I’d throw in veiled threats, perpetuated mistruths, finger-pointing, and coercion. There’s a long list of behaviors I’ve personally experienced or witnessed in the workplace under the politics label. And I’m sure you can add more.

These negative work cultures are fraught with fear and distrust. Fear you’ll step on a career grenade, lose your job, be labeled a trouble-maker, or relegated to a non-promotable category. Fear you’ll say the wrong thing, fall into project quicksand, find no support, or be kept out of the loop. These soul-depleting cultures trample self-esteem, negate initiative, encourage survival behavior, and diminish motivation.

But I learned in 20 plus years in management something else about company politics. It doesn’t have to be a blood-sport. The politics label can be assigned to assisting other departments, supporting company initiatives, cooperating with those in charge, sharing information, and helping others achieve results. You see, strategic alignments, interdepartmental collaboration, and volunteering for additional work assignments are politics, too.

That’s because politics can be served with a negative or a positive impact. Samuel B. Bacharach, a Cornell University professor, put it this way in Get Them on Your Side: “Politics is simply the way we influence others to achieve our goals. As long as those goals are positive, and not achieved at the expense of others, the politics of getting them accomplished is neither manipulative nor negative. Dictators may be political, but saints might be, too.”

It’s the intention behind an action that determines whether politics creates fear or builds relationships. What’s the motive? If politics is a dirty word where you work, undermining results and reducing engagement, consider your contribution to that culture.

We have a choice how we use our power and influence. And don’t be naïve to think you don’t have both. We all have power and influence over people in our lives: staff, coworkers, family, bosses, children. We can serve our brand of politics from well-intentioned thoughts or manipulative self-interest. And each impacts differently.

People who are winning at working understand that politics are not inherently good or bad. It’s what’s behind them that instills the fear or creates the trust. How we serve our own politics at work is a direct result of how we show up (in the deepest sense) as a person. Want to be winning at working? Serve your politics with well-meaning intention.

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