How to Deal with Organizational Politics

by Jarie Bolander on February 28, 2011

There is not an organization on earth (or space for that matter) that does not have to deal with politics. The degree of organizational politics varies from one organization to another but the reality is, all organizations have some sort of internal political struggle that can rip it apart. Dealing with this struggle takes a keen awareness of the landscape, players and rules in which the political game is played. Don’t dilute yourself in thinking that your organization has no politics.The reality of any organization with more than one person is that politics is the lubricate that oils your organizations internal gears. Apply the proper lubricate and things will work fine. Forget to lubricate it and your organization will grind to a halt.

The Political Landscape

Your organizations political landscape starts from the top. Whomever leads your organization will not only form the landscape but also influence the rules (more on that later). The political landscape is the formal hierarchy, informal hierarchy and alternative hierarchies that link the political players together.

Formal Hierarchy

In most organizations, this is the organizational chart that defines the reporting structure and who works for whom. It’s the first indication of how the organization is setup politically and can reveal a lot about how the landscape is initially formed. Consider some of these ideas when looking at your organizations reporting structure.

 

  • Flat Reporting: Flat reporting structures come about because the people at the top want visibility into every aspect of the organization. Flat works when you are small but as an organization grows, flat starts to strain and produces other hierarchies.

  • Lots of Executives: An organization with lots of executives usually means that there is a lot of politics because executives want more influence and they now have to fight among other executives for a smaller number of resources.

  • Functional: A functional hierarchy groups like resources (legal, HR, etc.) under one boss. These resources are then farmed out to various groups or divisions (if they exist) to get tasks done. In general, functional groups don’t really have a revenue stream so they are constantly validating their existence and this creates a natural political atmosphere.

  • Divisional: Most companies use the divisional approach since it allows for more accurate reporting of performance and allows people to focus on specific products and markets. The politics of a divisional hierarchy tend to center around budgets and interactions with the functional groups. Even a divisional hierarchy needs some functional groups for support.

  • Matrix: A matrix takes the functional approach and the divisional approach and crosses them. Resources are common and assigned to projects that divisions wants done. This structure is ripe with political struggle because there are various reporting structures, resources don’t work on one thing and politicking is driven by the constant fight between matrix mangers and divisional managers.

 

As you can see, there are several different organizational hierarchies and each has it’s own unique political challenges. Most organizations tend to be a hybrid and that adds an even more interesting dynamic to the political landscape.

Informal Hierarchy

All organizations have an informal hierarchy that runs parallel to the formal one. This informal hierarchy is built at all levels and comes about by people working together. By working together, people within the organization know the go to people for critical items. These people can are the organizational gatekeepers that yield some political power by the nature of their position or reputation. It’s pretty clear who these people are because they may control an executives schedule, are critical to a legacy system or know all the office gossip.

Alternative Hierarchy

This is akin to the informal hierarchy but more formal in the sense that it’s usually associated with the matrix type organizations where there is a lot “dotted line” reporting. Dotted line reporting is when you have more than one boss. The dotted line implies you are responsible for some aspects of someone else’s project but they don’t write your review. This alternative hierarchy can be a powerful political lever. It usually taps into a different part of the organization and your dotted line boss can sometimes be a valuable ally when your interests are aligned.

Information Links The Landscape

Within this political landscape, the main linkage between everything is the access to and the flow of information. Information is a precious commodity. The worth of this commodity naturally rises and falls as the political landscape shifts up and down all of these hierarchies. Realize that you are a player in this landscape. Where you fit in and what power or influence your position and linkages have will be just as important as your ability to use that influence.

The Political Players

Each player in the organization has a role in the politics that grease the wheels of getting things done. No one can escape politics and that’s why it’s vital to determine who the players are and what power they wield. Any organization, whether it’s all volunteer or a corporation, will have several of the following political players:

 

  • The boss: is the person that’s in charge of the organization. Usually, they make the ultimate decision and are who people are trying to gain favor with.

  • 2nd in command: is being groomed for the bosses job and has a tremendous amount of political clout with the boss.

  • The yes man: pretty much always agrees with the boss, even if it’s the wrong thing to do. Yes men get to their position by catering to what every boss deep down wants — to always be right.

  • The curmudgeon: is always looking at the downside of everything. Nothing is ever good enough or “like we used to do it.” The curmudgeon has political power but it’s usually narrowly focused.

  • The vortex: always creates drama and wants to suck everyone to their side, even if it’s down the path to disaster. Their typical MO is to say they just want to be helpful and make sure every option is explored but what they really want to do is slow things way down and push their own agenda.

  • The empire builder: loves the political power of having lots of people. They use this power to grab even more power and will not stop until they are the boss.

  • The peacemaker: wants everyone to get along and work together in harmony. Usually, they have a ton of political power because they are perceived as having the best interest of the company in mind.

  • The brain: knows everything and is purely data driven. Politicians usually avoid the brain because the entire company knows how smart they are.

  • The rubber chicken: is hard to pin down and always has a “what if”. They are rubber chickens because they squeak a lot but don’t really say much.

  • The parrot: will steal someone else’s idea as their own. They also tend to have no real opinion other than the “right” opinion of the day and will parrot that all around the company.

 

One thing to remember is that people can and do change their roll, depending on the situation. It’s not uncommon for a yes man to be the boss in certain circumstances or even the curmudgeon being the brain or even a peacemaker. The dynamics of the situation should always dictate a reexamination of the players and how they fit into the landscape.

The essential item to remember is that people will fall into several different modes, depending on their attitudes and political prowess

The Rules

Organizational politics does have rules and the sooner you figure them out, the better. These rules are what the players have agreed to as the framework of how the organization will deal with political conflict. Now, rules can also change and are sometimes situational when it comes to what hierarchy you are dealing with. There are really no true set of general rules but the list below gives some of the basic ones that most organizations will adhere too. Obviously, your organization will differ but once you understand some of the basic rules, then it should be pretty easy to figure out the rest.

 

  • Strict chain of command: chain of command rules mean that any issues or decision must follow the proper channels. There is no going over a mangers head to talk directly to his boss. This rule is generally in organizations with a lot of hierarchy. Lots of hierarchy breeds paranoia in that if someone is out of the loop, they are probably irrelevant.

  • Shoots the messenger: if the bearer of bad news is frowned upon or looked upon negatively, then you clearly don’t want to give bad news. Even if it’s the truth, you really need to learn how to tell the whole truth in a positive way and not get shot in the process.

  • Favoritism trumps performance: this rule is usually in place when there is an organization with a lot of yes men that the boss likes. In this situation, the most favorite people will have a ton of influence and any political maneuvering has to go through them.

  • Paranoid android: In some political realms, there is a paranoia baked into the environment. Everyone feels this sense that “people are out to get you.” When this type of environment is in play, the rules dictate that you cover yourself from attacks by hyper communicating what’s going on.

  • Kingpins: An environment with kingpins says that every decision has to go through a specific set of people. Kingpins usually control groups or divisions and their influence is far reaching. In some cases, the other rules don’t apply to kingpins and that means you need to craft your positions directly to them.

  • Data driven: When an environment is data driven, the political posturing is somewhat reduced. Politics never really go away but it’s more controlled when the environment trusts the data over favoritism.

  • Decision by committee: When the rules of the game include committees, it takes longer to get stuff done. Committees have their place and when decisions or directions are made strictly by committee, you need to be vigilant in making sure every committee member understands the issues and has all the data.

  • Straight from the gut: If you political environment relies on quick decisions and gut reactions, then you will need to be prepared for a rapid change in direction at a moments notice. Influencing the gut reaction environment requires having a solid grasp of the facts and the ability to think quickly.

  • Analysis paralysis: Some organizations deliberately ask for so much analysis that they never make a decision. This rule can frustrate a person of action. To combat this, you need to do the analysis up front and have a really compelling story or you will be asked to do even more analysis.

 

Some of the items above are not really rules but rather behaviors. These behaviors are important to watch out for because they do frame how the political game is played and will guild you in your political strategies.

Methods to Deal with Organizational Politics

Organizational politics is a full contact sport. It must be played with diligence and a full understanding of the landscape, players and rules. Like any good sports team, preparation before the game makes the game much easier to play and gives you a better chance of winning. Below are a few essential skills that will help you play the game better:

 

  • Be data driven: Usually, data trumps any sort of political agenda. When you are data driven, you rely on the facts and that is your best method to diffuse any sort of political positioning.

  • Foster alliances: You need to build up alliances well in advance of any political conflict. Alliances are a great way to help each other ensure that nothing gets past your collective political radar.

  • Admit when you are wrong: The power of admitting when you are wrong is seldom understood. When used correctly, it diffuses a politically charged situation within an instant. The trick is to use it sparingly since if you are wrong too often, people will start to question your competence.

  • Understand the question behind the question: In a politically charged environment, the line of questioning will always lead to some sort of political peak. Knowing where the questions are leading will allow you to anticipate this and adjust accordingly.

  • Tell the truth: This may seem obvious but most people will skirt the truth because it may make them look bad. Don’t worry so much about looking bad that but rather, make sure you have the facts straight and that you are striving to seek the truth about the situation.

  • Use email sparingly: Email can be a curse in a political environment since it’s a record of half-baked ideas and half-truths. Use email sparingly and only when you have the facts straight.

  • Always look out for the best interest of the company: This is probably the single best thing you can do when in a politically charged company. No one can debate you motivation when it’s in the best interest of the company.

  • Foster relationships: Personal insights into your coworkers can help you navigate the political landscape by giving you content into their personality. This is useful when the arguments get heated.

  • Stand up for yourself: When you right, let everyone know it. Don’t cower when someone attacks you. Rather, state the facts and be proud of how you handled the situation.

  • Help others: By helping others, you earn their trust and respect. You also earn their gratitude that will come in handy when you need help.

  • Try and find common ground: Common ground is where everyone in the situation can agree. In almost every situation, there is some common point where all parties will agree. Finding that will allow you to accomplish a critical political move — having the parties actually agree on something.

  • Agree to disagree: Sometimes a situation will descend into such chaos that the only solution is to agree to disagree. This should be your last alternative but it’s a powerful tool when you are deadlocked.

  • Be the peacemaker: It’s best that you get the reputation of someone who finds solutions to tricky problems. Being the peacemaker is one way to achieve that. Peacemakers are looked at favorably because they transcend the politics and focus on making progress.

  • Know When to Say “I don’t know”: It’s much better to say I don’t know then to try and make up an answer on the fly. Saying I don’t know takes courage but when used correctly, those three simple words can diffuse a volatile situation for another day. Just be careful not to use it too much.

  • Constantly adjust your approach: As the saying goes, one size does not fit all. You need to read the situation you are in and select the best approach to achieve your objectives. Doing this will allow you to be much more successful than if you just do the same thing over and over again.

 

One thing that stands out from the list above is the amount of effort it takes to interact in a politically charged organization. Don’t fret if you feel overwhelmed. Most people do get overwhelmed when they first jump into a political environment. The thing to remember is to ease into it, if possible and really understand the landscape before you start playing the game.

One Final Thought

The most important thing about organizational politics is to be prepared. Don’t wing it or assume that you have alliances when you spent no time beforehand doing research or building them. The worst thing you can do is come into a political situation and not have all the facts, know the landscape, understand the players and the rules. That’s a sure way to lose the game before you even started to play it.

References

Krackhardt, David “Assessing the political landscape: structure, cognition, and power in organizations”, Administrative Science Quarterly, June 1990.

Dwyer, Kelly Pate “How to Win at Office Politics”, bnet.com, July 2, 2007

 

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