How to Navigate Internal Politics and Its Impact on the Organization
by Benjamin Von Seeger
November 7, 2017
Let’s face it … no matter where you work, you’ll encounter internal politics that won’t go away anytime soon. To most people, the term “internal politics” equates to bad politics, such as people gossiping about their co-workers and their company. Peter Jacobs, founder and managing partner of Global Career Coaching in San Francisco says, “Anytime a group of people in an organization are trying to get something done, there will be some form of organizational politics as they try to figure out how to achieve their goals.”
Astute professionals know that playing the politics game doesn’t mean you have to play dirty. While ‘playing the game’ can cover a range of feelings—from amusing to frustrating—savvy leaders know how to navigate these waters in a skilled and professional manner, always keeping the good of their company, team members and their interests in mind. If you want to succeed in your project and your career, you must learn to navigate the ever-changing landscape of internal policies.
So, what can you do? Realize that you can’t bury your head in the sand and refuse to play. Since everyone else is jockeying for advancement for themselves and their projects and you’re not, by default, you’ve already lost. Therefore, you must learn to play the ‘good politics’ game to promote your own interest, those of your team members and the company.
Beth Weissenberger, co-founder of the Handel Group and president of HG Corporate and Sports, believes, “Office politics is not a recipe for disaster but rather a business strategy in any environment of people where building relationships is key to navigating and succeeding.” Mudslinging, manipulation and lying only serve to denigrate the organization. Bad politics takes away from the main focus of the business and can hurt the overall culture and revenue. Good politics can garner success for your project, your team and your career.
There are many strategies that politically savvy leaders practice for dealing with internal politics. Below are some of the more important ones that you should be practicing in order to be successful and reach your goals.
One of the biggest challenges people face is lack of communication. “The problem is that most of us feel we are good communicators—it is the other guy who didn’t get the message right,” says William S. Hubbartt, president of Hubbartt & Associates. Communication is key starting from the top and across all levels of the organization. Managers need to give clear direction to departmental teams, across departments and organization-wide. Effective communications not only quash bad internal politics, but they are also crucial to an organization’s success, as well as your own.
Know the appropriate method by which to communicate. The most effective and politically savvy executives have face-to-face meetings. They use email sparingly. Therefore, send emails only after you are sure of your facts or when you wish to document an event, process or meeting. Knowing when to, or when not to, send an email is pivotal to your success. Don’t send that email when you are frustrated. Once your email is sent, you never know where it will go next. “In political situations the right approach is to think before you do anything and think through the consequences of your actions,” says Ira Rosenbloom, CEO of Optimum Strategies.
Town Hall Meetings
“A town hall meeting can be used to give information and/or to get information,” says Hubbartt. These meetings can be conducted with a specific purpose in mind, such as announcing a new benefit, describing a new policy, or clarifying an issue of concern. Town hall meetings can be used to “promote employee awareness of new sales or marketing plans, new customers, new products or services, or sales goals or milestones. A group meeting helps to build a better team spirit in an organization. Or, it can be used as a medium for employee training or to convey the organization’s commitment to resolve concerns,” Hubbartt explains.
Relationship building is paramount for attaining success. Don’t assume that you have alliances when you haven’t spent any time building them.
The term “corporate politics” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Instead, think of it as a form of networking and make it about creating relationships to solidify organizational goals, promote a vision of change and a cohesive culture. Use the three A’s rule and always be approachable, articulate and authentic. Start by being a good listener. Listen to what your co-workers, peers and customers are saying. Listen and don’t interrupt. They have valuable input. Hear their needs and concerns and help them with solutions as, more often than not, meeting their needs yields a more productive team. They often know the answer to the question, “What can we do better as an organization?”
Building great relationships is the most important thing you can do and you can’t do it overnight. It takes months and sometimes years to build solid relationships. That means having relationships that cross formal hierarchy in all directions—the people with the formal power and the informal power—bosses, executives and co-workers of all levels. Don’t be afraid of making contact with the powerful executives in your company. Likewise, build relationship with the rank and file employees. For example, most people underestimate the informal power of a secretary or administrative assistant. Don’t think people are just being polite when they stop by the secretary’s desk. What they are really doing is chatting with the person who wields informal power, the person who has their finger on the pulse of the organization. This makes them an important relationship to cultivate.
When building relationships, always be honest and sincere. This inspires others to trust you. A lack of integrity will undermine your credibility and destroy all your efforts in building relationships. And once your credibility is destroyed, it will be next to impossible to restore. When you take time to establish a relationship with your co-workers, peers, bosses or your customers, you will earn their trust. Without a trust relationship, you and your business are standing in the desert waiting to die. Relationships are the glue that connect you and your team to the company and take the focus away from the bad politics.
Have Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to recognize, understand and manage their own, as well as recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others—to distinguish between different feelings and label them appropriately and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior. This means being aware that emotions can drive your behavior and impact people both positively and negatively. Therefore, learn how to manage those emotions, especially when you are under pressure.
There is a direct correlation between emotional intelligence and your success in relationships, work, and even your physical well-being. At work, emotional intelligence is established through observations in the workplace, face-to-face meetings and phone calls. These interactions give you the confidence and polish to conquer a boardroom and connect with your peers, co-workers, bosses and customers.
Cross-Functional Peer Relationships
A cross-functional team is a group of people with different functional expertise working toward a common goal. Typically, it includes employees from all levels of an organization, and as such, it affords you an opportunity to ‘rub elbows’ and to build relationships with people in the organization with whom you otherwise may not ever have contact.
Rob Denker, Managing Principal of rd&partners cites these three strategies of successful cross-functional peer relationships.
- Successful executives understand their peers are their most important team, their direct reports are second. In his book, The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker wrote: “The people who are the most important to the effectiveness of an executive are not the people over whom he has direct control. They are people in other areas, the people who are “sideways” … his peers … Unless the executive can reach these people, can make his contribution effective for them and in their work, he has no effectiveness at all.”
- Leadership is about making others successful over themselves. Jim Kouzes writes in his book, The Truth About Leadership, “Leadership is a team sport, and you need to engage others in the cause. What strengthens and sustains the relationship between leader and constituent (peer) is that leaders are obsessed with what is best for others, not what is best for themselves.”
- They know their strengths and limitations and acknowledge them publicly. “They know their ability and limitations, surround themselves with others who fill their gaps, … freely and openly admit to their peers that they are aware of and comfortable with their shortcomings.” But let’s take it one step further: If you do make a mistake, own it quickly. Nobody is perfect and it’s in your best interest to admit it. This shows integrity and earns respect. Don’t be afraid to apologize for a misunderstanding or for unintentionally hurt feelings. Admitting you were wrong is not only a powerful political strategy; it also shows strength of character and confidence. Admitting you were wrong instantly diffuses a politically charged situation. But, beware not to do it too often as it will bring your competence into question.
Playing the internal politics game ethically by knowing the rules, assessing ever-changing situations, arming yourself with the facts and being prepared is indeed worth the effort in ensuring the advancement and success of the goals and interests of your team, your company and yourself.
About the Author:
Benjamin Von Seeger is the VP of Global Network Service Providers at Cyxtera Communications. He is an entrepreneur, frequent C-suite member and telecommunications expert with twenty years of global business experience. He speaks five languages and graduated with degrees in Business Administration and International Relations from Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich Germany. He is attending the Advanced Management Program, Business Administration and Management, at Harvard School of Business. His Axiom Business Award winning book, The RiVal: Play the Game, Own the Hustle, Power in Competition, Longevity in Collaboration, draws on vast personal experience and proven philosophy to inspire a new generation of businesspeople and students. Visit his website: BenjaminVonSeeger.com and follow Ben on Twitter: @benvonseeger.