“You are asking me to be more political in my working?!” asked Mr New Manager incredulously as he looked aghast at me. We were reviewing his first year of team leadership and I had advised him that he needed to be more politically astute and agile to succeed in his new role. His reaction unequivocally stated where he stood on the subject. He isn’t alone in his stand.
One of the most common negative factors quoted by employees in exit interviews is, “The climate is too political.” The achievements of ambitious, aggressive professionals are disparagingly attributed to “She’s very political.” For a large majority of professionals who toil tirelessly at their tasks with the best of intentions, at the limit of their capabilities and yet with limited professional progress, being political is a bad thing.
For a country that has since time immemorial lived and breathed politics in its history and mythology, it is strange how politics is often seen as a negative factor in an organizational environment. A cursory look back in time throws up innumerable examples of how rulers skilfully practised political art to wield and grow their power and influence. In current times, political practice (not always of a laudable calibre) is constantly on display as parties jostle for a handle on the seat of power.
This dichotomy is fascinating to observe. We adulate leaders whose business and political acumen has seen them achieve godhood and yet label the same practice negatively in our immediate work environment. To the contrary, the much-maligned political thought and practice can be a valuable tool for progress in the organization.
Simply put, politics is the art of influencing people using the means and power that one has, to achieve ends—for the sake of this article, let’s assume that the ends are ethical and for the greater good. It is a vital career skill when one isn’t a sole worker—and most of us aren’t. Professional survival and success is vitally dependant on how one can influence the environment, given that the environment—people and factors—is largely out of one’s control.
Here are just a few examples of skills that can help one deal with an uncertain, unhelpful environment in the pursuit of objectives.
The impermanence of friends and foes: While working as a corporate staff leader at a global engineering organization, it fell upon me to drive management objectives across several discrete strategic business units (SBUs) and functions. These SBUs were headed by line leaders who “owned” the business resources and had priority objectives of their own. Driving consensus meant hard professional arguments and at times bitterness spilling over and affecting personal relationships. Cutting off ties wasn’t an option. I soon learnt that disagreement on an issue had to be treated as just that, without allowing it to deteriorate into a “he always blocks me...she doesn’t like me” dead-end mindset.
Labelling others as ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ was emotionally satisfying but limited the options for working together in future and came in the way of results. I learnt to accept that a dogged opponent can also be an ally on a different issue, just as a staunch supporter can withdraw on a new initiative. This allowed me to work with colleagues on initiative A, while we argued heatedly about initiative B.
Labels limit flexibility and leveraging of relationships towards ones objectives. One can collaborate with competitors and differ with allies if it brings objectives within reach. Clearly, the ego has to play second fiddle to objectives.
Convincing a crowd, one at a time: One of the biggest challenges I encountered was convincing a large disparate audience of senior peers to support a new initiative. Launch meetings and calls would often deteriorate into a resolve-sapping question session with a barrage of why, what, when and who queries. If that wasn’t challenging enough, another section of the audience would propose a plethora of alternates to the initiative proposed. All good natured, leading to much discussion, but eventually no conclusion.
I realised that just me convincing the mob wasn’t working. I needed supporters. I experimented with several brief one-on-one talks with key vocal peers before the official launch. We spoke about the initiative and I queried their views, suggestions and criticisms. At the actual launch session, I presented the initiative with several suggestions now incorporated. I also peppered my talk with references to “so when I spoke to Bob about this…”, “Jane made a good suggestion…”, “Joe thought we should do it…” At times I would even invite Bob, Jane and Joe to add their views. The larger audience now saw this as evidence, limited but visible, of alignment with the proposal. Happily opposition reduced dramatically and consensus was easier to reach. Oh yes, Bob, Jane and Joe loved the public recognition of being in the inner circle and were primed to support the next initiative.
Different strokes: As professionals we each have an instinctive style of functioning that we adopt in most situations. Thus, as an aggressive personality I may tend to use a command and control style as compared to someone else who is more inclusive and would adopt a communicate and convince style. Unsurprisingly, any one style of managing people and situations wasn’t effective since the recipients were wired differently. It was critical to assess the other person’s personality and amend one’s approach accordingly—a focal shift from what “works best for me” to “what works best for them”.
Leading a team of proficient, professional, yet individualistic managers was a learning ground for me. While one thrived on public recognition for a job well done, another wanted her rewards in money terms. While one strove hard to get to the next rank, the other just wanted more lateral exposure to expand his skills portfolio.
Not every team member is driven by the same levers of motivation. Recognising this early on allows one to communicate with and reward them in terms they recognise and value most.
Manage the optics: Caesars wife mustn’t just be above suspicion, but should be seen to be as such. In the overcrowded attention bandwidth of an organization it is mission critical to not just do/plan to do the right things, but to be seen to be doing so.
As the business head of a high tech manufacturing unit, it fell upon me to answer management and customers for any slips in performance and quality. After any alarm I would drive my teams to take rapid corrective and preventive action on process, material and equipment. The intent and the actions were perfectly aligned. Results would also improve downstream in a few weeks’ time. However, this wasn’t enough. It was vital to broadcast just what had happened and what steps were being taken, even if no one asked for it. At times this meant a daily update on recovery progress to global clients and management.
Did this news bulletin reduce the period of the recovery or its severity? Not really, but it did build confidence and credibility on our efforts and allowed the team much needed breathing space. Likewise, proactively announcing a problem and steps taken to ameliorate it is a smarter option than waiting to be found out. Not managing the optics means being drowned in an avalanche of criticism, interference and scrutiny, further complicating recovery.
In an increasingly complex, diffracted, matrix, results-driven environment, we need to be able to influence without direct control. Getting this wrong can be progress and career limiting. As the ancient Indian political teacher and philosopher Chanakya opined, the use of saam (to explain, advocate, ask), daam (pay a price, feed a greed), dand (to punish, coerce, force), bheed (to divide, leverage a weakness) are all valid and valuable means to drive acceptance of one’s ideas and commands .