The Power of Politics
in business

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How did She get that job? A question often phrased in an incredulous tone. You worked just as hard as she did. You made more significant contributions. The only thing different was that she seemed to know everyone in the company. Hmm, maybe, just maybe there are some politics going on you don't understand!
I couldn't understand the decision. It went against all recommendations. It went against all logic. And it was just plain dumb. But then I remembered: decisions are often political in nature and politics is all about power. Now it made sense.

Politics is a word with multiple meanings. In business it means the difference between success and failure. And often it defines your personal career. I have enjoyed the benefits and suffered the penalties of politics throughout my three decade career. Sometimes decisions went my way because someone liked me, other times I bore the brunt of ill feelings or of being invisible.

You hear it all the time: "It was just politics." or "This place is so political" or "He really knows how to play the politics." What are they really saying? And how can you get in the game?

"The Consultants have determined that we need to re-organize to serve our customers better. By the way, your job is changing to become a member of my Staff." Looking at my new Boss, a benefactor from a recent merger, I fought the urge to say what was really on my mind. Maybe my Emotional Intelligence had really gone up given this victory of self control!

After stewing for a while it became clear the power had shifted and I was being moved out. There was nothing wrong with my performance but I held the organizational power that my new boss wanted. Not understanding that we could work together, he felt he had to eliminate the threat I posed. That threat being a thorough understanding of the business, strong relationships with our customers and respect throughout the organization as a leader. A year later he had been asked to resign.

People use politics to gain power to drive their own agenda.

Even on climbs, politics exist. In the worst cases, Guides often have their own agenda (summit with or without the clients) or individual clients want to control the schedule, routes or pace. The same principles apply, the same games are played in the boardroom or near the summit.

There two type of politics: Good Politics and Bad Politics. In either case to play the game you must have a clear set of values as to right, wrong and what you are willing to do get your way. Second you must be willing to work as hard at the politics as you do your true job and finally, you must be willing to win by the sword or die by the sword: consequences.

Let's start with what most of us see everyday: Bad Politics.

The sophistication of any politics is proportional to the size of the organization. There are politics in all organizations. Even in a two-person company. Remember politics equals power. The bigger the company, the more complex the politics. There are more players, more agendas, more information, more to gain and more to lose.

I have seen that the most successful business politicians are the ones who spend most of their energy managing up, in other words, working their chain of command at the expense of being a true leader for their organization. While this is necessary during times of crisis, these people base their career on building relationships with the power brokers. They attend all the right meetings, take personal credit for other's ideas and hoard information. This last point is key. Information is power and power is politics. He who has the knowledge has the power. The dead giveaway of a political person is when they rarely share information. On climbs this is obvious.

If you want to play the game you must build your network up, not down. Then make yourself visible to the network. These two steps will distance you from your peers and subordinates (if any). You will spend more time on your networking than on your job but you will still have to find a way to get your job done thus the "This was my idea" behavior.

Good politics do exist. So be careful not to confuse deft leadership with bad politics. The good politician also builds a strong network but does so at all levels of an organization. They spend time with first level employees as well as two levels up. The have a solid understanding of what makes their organization or job successful and can represent it clearly and accurately at any level.

The good politician shares information and encourages other to do the same. Thus they build on their knowledge base often connecting the dots to see something others miss. They are visible to their network in appropriate ways. They attend meetings when they can add value and make themselves available and approachable throughout an organization.

So, let's go back to the concepts of values, work and consequences. Can you state your values? Do you know when you cross a boundary? Are you willing to step back when you approach the boundary or do you push right through intoxicated by the lure of more power? At the end of the day, are you willing to live with yourself when you reap the personal rewards on the backs of others?

Sadly, it seems that there are more Bad Politicians in the business world than Good. Perhaps this is because the Bad Ones have gotten ahead and continue to make the rules. Regardless of how you play the game, the game exists. You can say that I will not do it. You can say that I will be smarter. Or you can simply say that I will play it my way and enjoy the consequences knowing that I set my boundaries, played hard to win and slept well at night.