Big Fish, Little Fish: Politics
By Tami L Siewruk
Office politics are often not discussed, acknowledged or even recognized. But in recent years reasonable and responsible office politics have been acknowledged as great skills in the business world. It is likewise known that negative, deceptive and unethical practices can lead to disaster in the workplace.
Those who understand the difference between ethical and unethical practices have developed a savvy kind of common sense and communications skills that go far beyond what they learned in management classes. Such skills are born of practice and determination.
Is office politics really the “game” that most people consider it to be? That depends on your attitude. If you take your career seriously and are in it for the long haul, then you may find it beneficial to view political situations as a series of games with the goal of becoming a champion. If you think that a business environment is no place for games, then consider the following:
1. All business is competitive. COMPETITION
2. All teams have a leader. LEADERSHIP
3. Champions are well-rewarded. REWARD
Good Business requires strategic planning, theory, tactics, and maneuvers. So, incidentally, does a good game. The success of your career depends upon these same elements, as well. One of the key meanings of the word “political” is “taking sides”. Games require that you choose sides.
Since office politics are made up of the strategies that everyone in both public and private organizations uses to gain or maintain a competitive advantage in their business, you can choose to become politically skilled and position yourself for greater opportunities and success in life.
It can be confusing to deal with people who have very one-sided agendas and use unethical practices. Your goal is to develop ethical practices, as well as to recognize “I win, you lose” strategies and overcome them. I’m not suggesting that the political arena has to be viewed as a circus or a hunt in which only one person survives. I’m not suggesting that you take a commando stance against potential harm to your career — but I am strongly recommending that you understand the potential harm that can (and often does) come of being unaware of the strategies that surround you.
WHEN THE GAME ISN’T FUN ANYMORE…
Let’s stop here to examine the meaning of the word. One of the key definitions of the word political is “supporting”, as in “leading up to”. This is the sense in which political situations are strategically designed to lead toward a desired end. Another of the key definitions is “choosing sides” as in making decisions. Choosing sides isn’t always easy, especially when the desired end isn’t your idea of a good one. That’s why office politics – as inescapable as it is – has garnered such a frightening reputation.
It can be difficult for even the most skilled politician to act “correctly”, or recognize the appropriate decision to make in the midst of difficult situations. At times, making a decision will leave you feeling as though you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, either accepting something that you don’t feel entirely comfortable with, or “rocking the boat”, like when you’re faced with:
- Supporting your boss when you know he or she is wrong.
- Being made the scapegoat for your boss’ mistakes.
- Having someone tell you negative gossip.
- Having someone at the “top” ask you to do something you do not agree with.
- Being asked to correct a co-worker’s mistake.
- Having a friend and co-worker ask you to share confidential information you have access to.
- Saying the wrong thing in a really important meeting.
- Having someone else take credit for your idea.
- Knowing something that could harm a project or your company.
- Being asked to support promotions for people when you know they cannot do the job.
These and many other political situations are difficult because they can affect you and others negatively, or go against your own personal beliefs and convictions. They are political in that you’re faced with the decision of whether or how to act, and that your decision could be an advantage or a disadvantage to yourself and/or others.
Not all difficult situations are political and not all political situations are difficult. We face many difficulties in business that have nothing to do with a political motive.
If something occurs that is illegal or dishonest, even if the action was politically motivated, then we must say that there is a right or wrong answer to the problem. But in most difficult situations there are no concrete answers.
Whatever the political situation, there are definite skills that you can acquire and exercise toward becoming more politically savvy. Here are a few that will serve you well throughout your career:
RECOGNIZE AND RECOVER FROM MISTAKES
Many politically difficult situations result from simple mistakes. Other than that which is obvious, how can you tell if you have made a political blunder. Not all political mistakes are so easily discovered. They may not manifest for days, weeks, or months. They can show up just when you least expect it, and you may not even remember the specific event or action that led up to a particular result.
Let’s take, for example, a job evaluation where your boss points out your poor communication skills and cites that you offended a top client in meeting months earlier. You may not recognize an error when you make it, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t come back to haunt you. The best defense against such a problem is to learn to recognize and guard against making a mistake in the first place.
Many people make politically incorrect statements in meetings or group sessions. It’s one of those common “one second mistakes” that can last for quite a bit longer than the second it takes to commit! Let’s say you do or say something wrong in a meeting, or at least are perceived that way by others. If, indeed, you do not see it as they do, meant no harm (or perhaps were just joking!) you may never realize that you blundered. Of course, it’s best to think before you speak — but when that defense fails, the sooner you recognize you own mistakes, the sooner you can recover from them. You know you have said the wrong thing if:
1. The room (or other person) becomes very quiet and all eyes are on you.
2. Your co-worker leans over to you and says, “What were you thinking?”
3. Your leader suggests a sudden break.
4. Someone suggests that the subject be changed.
5. Your boss is there and asks to see you after the meeting.
6. Everyone (or the other person) laughs and you did not mean to be funny.
7. You are asked to explain yourself — NOW!
8. Everyone pretends to start taking notes.
9. You lose others’ attention, or are skipped over for any suggestions during the remainder of the meeting.
What are some alternatives for recovery?
1. You can admit that you just made a mistake and genuinely apologize.
2. You can try to make yourself better understood with a clarifying statement.
3. You can excuse yourself from the meeting.
4. Put a smile on your face, remain calm, and move past the statement.
There is truly no easy out when you have fallen into this circumstance. If recovery is not possible at the time, you can always apologize to key people at a later time, but do not wait too long. The more time people have to talk about what you did, the bigger the event becomes. Once you apologize, forget it and do not discuss the event with co-workers or peers. If your boss wants to talk about it, then he or she should be the only one you go over it with. The less you fuel the fire, the faster it will go out.
We have all blundered in one way or another. It is embarrassing, to say the least, but move on and do not belabor the issue. Someone else will come along with a new problem and the focus will be off of you. Keep this in mind when you gossip about someone else’s mistake. It could happen to you tomorrow.
UNDERSTAND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE POLITICALLY CORRECT
Many people think that being politically correct means doing only what is accepted by the majority. That’s a somewhat simplistic definition political correctness within a business environment.
Situations can become so involved that it may be impossible to know the majority position. Many people in top business positions function on what is called “a need to know basis”, expected to operate effectively on only the information that has to do with their immediate position and sphere of influence, and no more. While many executives refuse to put their reputation and careers on the line without “big picture” details, they often do not receive the full explanations that they long for, or they may be given a limited or altered version of the truth. These circumstances can create tension, conflict, and confusion within an organization. To be objective under such conditions, you must remain politically wise.
Politically Wise Decision Making
1. Choose Your Action
2. Accept the Situation
3. Remain Objective
4. Understand the Options
5. Focus on the Facts
Some things are out of your control, and most high-level politically driven decisions are never made entirely clear to all involved. It is often the reactions and frustration of these experiences that lead people to act counterproductively in the face of incomplete information.
If you have a hard time remaining politically correct in difficult situations or under circumstances you can’t control, you may have to alter your thinking to survive in a business world filled with uncertainty.
How to Work With (or In Spite Of) Uncertainty
1. Identify your negative thoughts about political activity in the workplace.
2. Review the evidence and never assume that what you hear or see is fact.
3. Think in terms of multiple possibilities instead of viewing situations one-sidedly.
4. Before you announce your assessment of a situation, ask a few trusted people their thoughts on your views.
5. Search out the meaning behind a situation before you decide what is acceptable.
6. Define what you will accept before you pass judgment or make any decision.
7. Do not assume you know all the facts or all the reasons why something has occurred.
8. Do a cost-benefit analysis of any action you may take.
In your efforts to remain politically correct, you will soon discover the following benefits to not compromising your values and ethics:
1. You’ll gain the trust of those with influence
2. You’ll have access to more information
3. You’ll obtain more authority
4. You’ll develop more contacts
5. Your position will be better protected
6. You’ll be called upon to make more important decisions
When it comes to dealing with people who have devious political motives, confronting and exposing them are two options — but what do you do about that one person who has zeroed in on you with real destruction in mind?
First of all, hold your position. You can become unproductive and exhausted trying to outmaneuver this attacker. Your best strategy is to maintain control over yourself and your territory.
Establish Allies. Your defense is always stronger if you are a welcomed member of a team and a valued peer.
Analyze the Conflict. Discover the real issues behind the attacks and the person’s motivation.
Determine (and guard) Your Vulnerable Spots. Realize any areas of vulnerability that you may have and work to close them off.
Understand Your Options. Find out what legal recourse you have, if any, and what your options are for dealing with the attacks effectively.
Create Distance. Never run, but if you create distance, you can give the attacker a chance to get confused about direction.
Remain Confident. The attacker enjoys seeing fear in the victim.
Stick to Your Agenda. The attacker’s intent is to throw you off balance so that you are an easier target. Stick to your professional and personal goals, but it is not necessary to announce your itinerary.
Never Lose Control
Whatever you do in a difficult or impossible situation, remain in control of your emotions. You have every right to be angry and even outraged at betrayal, a vicious smear campaign or any other deceptive political tactic. Losing control and striking back will not improve your situation. Remember attackers are out of control in the first place, and you don’t need to contribute to the negative results of their behavior or play by their rules by succumbing to pressure. To maintain the upper hand:
1. Control your emotions and think rationally.
2. Express yourself constructively and ethically.
3. Evaluate your feelings and your needs.
4. Play only by your rules or the rules of the company.
5. Formulate a strategy for dealing with the problem.
Think First, Act Later
Even if you do not lose control, you can make a bad situation worse by taking action too soon or sometimes, even at all. Some political tactics do not require a response, and those that justify a response do not necessarily require an immediate one. Take time to develop a better perspective on the situation. Generally, volatile emotions lead to volatile responses and reproductive results.
HOW TO MAKE THE BEST DECISION
Whatever the situation, your “best” decision is one in which everyone wins. If that is not possible, then there are some considerations to be made in deciding whether and how to act.
The Power of Focus:
Often just the slightest adjustment to the scope of your focus can bring a much clearer understanding to the situation. Often, when we talk about “focus”, we mean zeroing in on a given situation. Sometimes, instead of zooming in, we need to instead step back and take in the bigger picture. It is always better to step back and assess a problem before responding. In addition to buying additional time, you’ll be better able to see the whole problem instead of its immediate symptoms, and you’ll be better able to reach a true solution rather than jumping to a faulty decision. Although business often requires rapid decisions, making the right decision under pressure is an acquired skill. It takes practice, and a few proven techniques can help. The following questions are known to help leaders in making better decisions:
1. Are you aware of the real issue or even the facts relative to the situation? (Do you need to investigate further?)
2. How and where did the problem or situation originate, and could the problem be more involved than you realize?
3. Does the situation require any action, and what could the end result(s) be?
4. How does this problem truly affect you, and how would it affect you if you take a particular position on it?
5. How do you truly feel about the situation, and are your feelings or thinking accurate?
Your conclusion should come down to the following decisions:
1. What do you want to do about this situation, if anything?
2. Who will be affected by this decision or action?
3. What is your final strategy going to be?
TAKE AN ACTIVE STANCE
When all is said and done, the best political skill that you can possess in a business environment is the awareness that political situations exist. If you do your best to maintain a “big picture” awareness of what is going on around you, you’ll always be in a better position to avoid or overcome a potentially harmful situation. I wish you tremendous success, and I wish you a career free of pitfalls, underhanded strategies, and even accidental blunders – but I advise you to acquire and exercise the skills that you’ll need face a political challenge, and resolve it to the benefit of all concerned!