Originally published 10/10/10

I talked about political avoiders in an earlier post. Today, I'll comment on the fuzziest category of responses to the corporate political environment -- political neutrals.

There are a few characteristics that define a neutral. First, they are aware of and understand the political environment. They also typically are willing to engage in defensive tactics, but notoffensive tactics, for one of several reasons -- they don't understand how the offensive tactics work, they think those tactics are too risky, or they find them morally reprehensible. I'll talk a little bit more about defensive tactics in a later post, but for the most part, defensive political tactics involve managing your own image and the perceptions about you, but not attempting to negatively alter general perceptions about others.

An example might be helpful -- let's say (as was the case with one of my employers), you recognize the political reality that your commitment is being measured by your boss (or someone else higher up) by the number of hours you spend at work. An adept neutral would make sure that when the boss and other power players could see they were at work for long hours. A neutral might also cut out early or take an extra long lunch if they felt they were not being watched (that's more of a question of personal integrity). The neutral might engage in a conversation about how little of their vacation they used, or how much time they had to spend at home working over the weekend.

An avoider, by contrast, would whine about how it shouldn't matter how many hours you work, as long as you get your job done.

A power player, would take this one step further -- they might identify their organizational rival or target, and find a clever way to make sure the boss knew they weren't as committed. For example, they'd find a way to expose that three hour lunch, or the fact that their competitor was playing solitaire for an hour on the computer each day.

Neutrals run the gamut from ham-handed to skilled, just like power players do. I've personally witnessed some pretty poorly executed self-promotion over the years by political neutrals.

I don't know if this is a complete list, but I think Neutrals stay as neutrals, and don't venture into being power players, primarily for three reasons.

  1. They might be unaware of power play (PP) tactics -- I expect this applies to very few people. If someone was ignorant of PP tactics, they would generally be an avoider, but I can't rule out the possibility that they might know just enough to poorly utilize a few neutral tactics.
  2. They may see the power play (PP) techniques as too risky. There is little question that PP tactics are more difficult to get right, and more likely to create enemies. Some individuals probably do the math, and decide PP tactics are not for them.
  3. They see many of the things power players do as wrong or unfair. I personally fell in this category. While I had no problem trying to improve my own image, there was just something that felt wrong about trying to negatively influence someone else's image.

As I've mentioned before, these categorizations are abstractions. Probably nobody is a perfect neutral. Sometimes neutrals may fail to recognize a political reality, and other times, they may try a PP technique or two. I would also argue that the vast majority of corporate professionals and managers are neutrals. Unfortunately for them, in the organizations I've known, adept power players typically rise rapidly to the top.

Next subject: Power Players