You Can’t Wish Away Office Politics
The Competence Cauldron

You Can’t Wish Away Office Politics

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

When Abhijit was assigned to the most sought-after Project Team in the company on completion of his induction training and assessment, many in his cohort could not contain their feelings-a mixture of admiration, anguish and jealousy. After all, he was being handpicked to join the elite team headed by the blue-eyed boy of the Management, a hot favorite to one day occupy the corner office, according to many insiders. Abhijit himself was overwhelmed by the enormous potential of the opportunity. As he lay in bed trying to fake sleep which was eluding him due to over excitement, the humming from his earphone seemed an apt coincidence – “Apna time aayega …”. “Yes, my time has come, Buddy”, he teased himself.

Over the next few days, as he got used to corporate life, he was in for a hard landing – from the romanticized idea of his first job to the realities of the workplace. He realised soon enough that everyone was in a rat race to outsmart and elbow out the others through means, foul and fair. As for the boss, he had the reputation among his team members of a ruthless manipulator who would make the team slog it out and corner the credit for success all to himself. Abhijit soon found that the team was actually split into two – a handful of loyalists who would praise the boss and carry tales of loose talk to his eager and receptive ears who formed the powerful group. The workhorses who talked about lack of appreciation and recognition in muted tones constituted the larger but less coherent group. Abhijit realized as days passed that what mattered in the real world was not the organization chart and the formal reporting structures prominently displayed. He had three options - to join the loyalists, tag along with the grumblers or stay assertively and politely independent. What would you have chosen, if you were Abhijit?

In every organization, apart from the formal structure, there is an even more powerful, informal one that promotes or inhibits the career trajectory. To be successful in the virtual organization that is often submerged in the din and hassle of the formal interfaces, one needs to have the ability to emotionally maneuver through the bumps, twists and turns. No wonder, Dale Carnegie, the guru of self-management techniques commented, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic but creatures of emotions.”

Politics is the play of power in a society or organization. As Yuval Noah Harari elaborates eloquently in his pathbreaking best seller “Homo Deus”, Homo Sapiens are essentially social animals. One of the key differentiators that propelled the human race far ahead of any other species in history is our ability to work together and leverage the synergy to achieve disproportionately higher results than by working as loners or in silos.

Relationships, influence and power are therefore the tools and methods for forging ahead in life, politics or workplace. As anybody who has spent years in the corporate playfields would vouch, it is very often the subtle, soft and camouflaged political moves rather than hard and obvious power play that win the power games. It is not uncommon to see many professionals, including accomplished achievers in diverse fields, displaying an overly tactical focus. They act as if in a perpetual chess game where every move is to outwit and lead their ‘perceived challengers’ to forced errors. Not just in the office context but in social life too, we come across many ‘chess players.’ They don’t have a win-win approach, but believe every round should be a win for them.

Manoeuvers, posturing and surrogate moves are part of the corporate political war chest and this phenomenon is universal. The characters in the iconic comic strip on corporate politics, ‘Dilbert’ seem so familiar to most of us. Just to mention a couple of them to let us recollect the astounding similarity of the corporate behavior one encounters day in and day out in the office, we shall look at Dilbert and his ‘Pointy-haired Boss.’

The main character in the strip, Dilbert is the archetypical professional. Academically accomplished, with a Master's degree from MIT, he has many ideas which are sensible, sometimes even revolutionary, but they are rarely pursued because he is powerless. As most professionals who feel marginalized in the politics at work, Dilbert externalizes his frustrations by blaming the incompetence and scheming nature of his co-workers and his boss, who is mostly sarcastic and rude.

Dilbert’s Boss is hopelessly incompetent at managing his team, but unmindful of his leadership flaws or perhaps to compensate for that, he indulges in countless meetings and counselling sessions for his subordinates. The Boss often perceives and uses his team to his own ends.

Such bosses follow a simple dictum,”All achievements of the team to my account; all failures to the individual accounts of my team.” Now, don’t rub your eyes in disbelief – this Boss is in reality very familiar to most of us; some of us might even be seeing him every time we look at the mirror!

Office politics is a reality that many of us wish not to take note off. But the elephant in the room is alive and kicking and might trample on anyone in the room. How to deal effectively with office politics, then?

Firstly, we need to recognize that the beast does exist. It not only exists, but its presence is as inevitable as the emergence of day and night. When people work together, there is always the clear and subtle flow of relationship building, communication and influencing behaviors. To be unmindful of these is to drive blindfolded in the highway hoping that the drivers in the nearfield would be so caring and alert as to ensure a safe passage to you. Right from the time of Panchatantra and Taoism, the politics of pushing one’s way through the likely machinations and manipulations has been recognized as a critical success factor. There are many who believe the best form of defense is indeed attack! There are even self-help books on how to play office politics ‘successfully,’ whatever that means.

Secondly, naivety has to give way to accepting the subtle realpolitik that exists in any situation where people work together. Chanakya said, “A person should not be too honest. Straight trees are cut first and honest people are screwed first.” Chanakya’s call was not to be dishonest, but to be wary of the dishonesty and manipulation that might catch you unawares, if you are an outright simpleton.

Ability to sense the environment, be adaptable and flexible without compromising core beliefs while also being mindful of the sensibilities of others is key to weathering the occasional storms in the corporate teacup. To manoeuver the workplace successfully, one should have the emotional intelligence, poise and restraint needed to recognize, digest and respond to situations. One can wade through the cesspool of workplace politics, by being less prone to reacting and demonstrating more of responsiveness to events and people. Reactions are often loaded with ‘settling scores’; responses are the outcome of detached and objective assessment. Reactions tend to provoke the target; responses on the other hand might influence the other person to introspect, take in the spirit of accommodation and behave positively.

Thirdly, one should avoid being identified as too close to the Boss. This is a trap to which many hardworking, well-meaning employees unknowingly walk into. In the corporate world, it is not uncommon to find ambitious managers in the line of succession trying to create close groups of loyal and dedicated buddies to boost their halo of visibility, influence and loyalty. As individuals in two different levels of the power ladder, it is often beyond the control of the buddies to stay clear of getting identified with the bosses. When the power structure changes for reasons unpredictable, there is a challenge for the buddies to shake off the image of closeness with the boss of yesterday and adapt to the style, preferences and tactics of the new boss. In fact, this is a skill that civil servants are hard pressed to master. The political bosses being much more susceptible to ‘falling from the grace’ than corporate managers, civil servants see adaptability and flexibility as crucial survival skills.

Truth be told, the eager civil servant looking for short-cut to patronage and the comfort of ‘nominal’ power is as much to blame as the cunning politician who throws a safety net of protection and support to buy lifelong loyalty of the pliable bureaucrat for this mess. On the other hand, there are many examples of upright bureaucrats who demonstrate unflappable commitment to ethics, fairness and strategic focus enjoying the acceptability and respect of successive political bosses. Many a time, young bureaucrats get carried away by the rush of adrenalin and the headiness of media glare to adopt a confrontationist posture with politicians not aligned with their current political bosses. Unaware of the dangers of their political patrons turning cold at a crucial juncture and backing the fellow politician, this is a risky course. This scenario in the political governance playbook is seen being enacted very often, creating in the process many a fallen hero from the young, enthusiastic civil servants.

Fourthly, ‘boundary management’ is a skill critical for survival and sustainability at the workplace. Office is neither a place for reformist evangelism or activism by you. Workplace effectiveness is a function of relationship building and networking skills. Your personal influence and perceived value that others see in their association with you are proportional to the answer they get for “What is in it for me?” If they consider that you would help enhance their ability and effectiveness to succeed at work, they look up to you for advice and support. Your business awareness, domain knowledge and the perceived willingness to understand and help them grow are what most colleagues at work value. It is important to set the boundaries of your interfaces limiting them sensibly to workplace priorities and processes so that others feel at ease about your lack of interest in playing manipulative tricks behind their back.

Fifthly, do understand that there is a lot of sense in the old adage, “An idle mind is a devil’s workshop.” If you observe closely at the mischief-makers in your team or organization, you might find that it is often those who have been marginalized or have been disengaged who indulge in gossip, manipulation of relationships and creating negativity through distorted informal communication. The challenge lies in identifying the engagement level of your team, critically examining the task and responsibility assignment and enhancing the monitoring practices. Negativity and politicking are in many cases the outcome of low self-esteem and uncertainty arising out of competence gaps. Handled with empathy and attention, many of the deviant employees would learn to rediscover the beauty of being effective and productive at what they do.

Being aware of office politics and tackling it head on through a realistic, objective and assertive approach are key to handle this ubiquitous practice. In the larger strategic view of careers, office politics can be seen at best as bouts of influenza. One can surely ride out with caution, discretion, detachment and assertiveness. Beware that many of us have multiple roles – as boss, peer, subordinate and subject matter expert. Staying clear of mixing personal preferences and priorities and focusing on the role responsibilities can reduce the potential for politicking at the workplace.

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach, mentor and start up enthusiast based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at ravikumarpillai9@gmail.com

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