Let’s Get Political!

being the bossLike many summa cum laude graduates, I started my career with confidence in my talents and abilities. So much so that I refused to get involved in anything that smacked of “office politics.” I believed that work and career were all about merit, not about backroom bartering or Happy Hour schmoozing. Today I look back at my younger self with amusement and affection, recognizing that what she considered integrity was actually a tangle of naivet? and arrogance.

Oh, how I wish Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback had been around to set me straight.

In their new book, Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, Harvard business prof Hill and business exec Lineback make an argument for office politics to which even the indignant Dr. Daly would have conceded. Here’s how I imagine such a conversation might have gone:

Q: Office politics are a waste of my time, and I don’t want to deal with them. Why should I bother?

A: Well, for one thing, your organization, like all organizations, is inherently political. Where there are people, there are power relations. If you ignore that reality, you’ll miss out on an essential tool you need to get your work and your team’s work accomplished–because your ability to obtain necessary resources often depends upon the intelligence you gather and the partnerships you’ve established. Even more, you’ll miss out on the opportunity to influence (read: lead) the direction of your organization.

Q: But what about that old saying, “power corrupts”?

A: In fact, powerlessness corrupts just as well. Because if you have no power or influence, you can’t stand up for what you believe is right. You end up saying, “They made me do it.”

Q: So office politics aren’t just about screwing people over for your own gain?

A: Sure, there are those people who get off on the game for their own dark reasons, but don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Office politics, when you break them down, are fundamentally about building bridges and making allies in order to get things accomplished.

Q: I get things accomplished just fine, thank you.

A: Right now you may be able to get things done on your own. But as your career develops and you begin to manage a project or a team beyond your own tasks, you’ll need other people to buy in and lend a hand.

Q: OK, I think I can see your point. So how do I go about building all these bridges and making all these allies without wasting most of my work day? Please don’t tell me I have to “network.”

A: We’re not going to tell you to “network,” but we are going to suggest that you build networks. Three networks, to be precise. Your operational network consists of the people who will help you and your team get the job done on a daily basis. Your strategic network consists of the people who will help you prepare for the future by scanning the wider environment for opportunities and threats. Your developmental network consists of the people who will help you to grow and develop.

Q: Why do I need colleagues to help me grow and develop? I’m a great learner!

A: Here’s why: Who you know determines what you get to do, and what you get to do determines what you get to know. Competence and expertise are not developed in isolation. They are developed through interactions with others.

Q: I never thought of it that way. But what am I supposed to do, go up to someone and ask her, “Will you be my mentor?”

A: Well, that’s probably not going to work all that well. Here’s a three-part process that will get you better results. First, clarify where you are and where you’re trying to go. (And by “you,” we mean the collective “you,” as in you-and-your-team.) Second, identify those people who can help you get there. Third, create opportunities to meet those people, even if it means volunteering for the task force that would otherwise send you running in the opposite direction.

Q: Ugh.

A: You can’t win if you don’t play, and you can’t build relationships without leaving your desk. You need to let people know what you stand for before there’s a crisis that you need to confront together. Build your credibility and trustworthiness in advance. So think of that task force as an investment in your team and in your career.

Q: I don’t know. I’m still not sure I can go up against that guy who’s been sharpening his game for years.

A: You don’t have to go up against him. But you can neutralize him. And the only way to neutralize that guy is to accumulate political capital of your own.

Q: Well, I would like to neutralize that guy. Actually, I’d love to vaporize him.

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