Note: This article, one of the most popular items on my website, forms the conceptual core of my non-fiction book: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS.
Power and Politics in Corporations – Navigating the Minefield
Corporate politics and its impact have widespread negative connotations, yet the presence of politics is universal in large organizations. Corporate power, on the other hand, appears to at least be acknowledged as necessary, even if it is sometimes seen as a bit unsavory. But both power and politics are necessary for the normal functioning of large entities.
In this article, I use the metaphor of a field in a war-torn land to describe the practical functions of both power and politics in an organization. Power is represented by unexploded munitions obviously lying about, while politics is represented by hidden mines. Subsequent chapters detail the skills employees should have to identify political mines and avoid tripping them. Beyond these basics are techniques employees need to deploy a few mines of their own. Fail to learn the lessons, and your career may be blown up. Master them, and you may safely traverse the field to ascend higher up the corporate ladder.
Realities of formal and informal power:
Large Corporations -- and by large, I mean large enough that the Chief Executive cannot practically know all employees and their performance characteristics reasonably -- employ both formal and informal systems to manage and control the behaviors of employees. These can most easily be seen in the form of rules (and absence of them), and delegation of authority (or lack if it). These systems, and other written rules-based behavior-limiting policies are a critical portion of the corporation’s formal power system.
Formal power systems, and the politics present in the organization, establish a series of norms and expected behaviors that employees must understand and are expected to follow. Both are also often despised and disparaged by the employees that are disciplined by them. Formal systems are typically written down, widely disseminated, and leave limited room for interpretation. Informal systems are much harder to detect, understand and navigate.
Picture the corporation as a large farm field in a country plagued by war, one that is filled with explosive charges. The formal system could be represented by some unexploded bombs, or sticks of dynamite wired up with detonators and ready to go off. It’s obvious where the bombs and dynamite are, and obvious that if you mess around with them, they will likely go off blowing you to a million pieces. Yet, every day people in companies around the world push their luck.
For example – every company of significant size has rules delegating power for purchasing decisions. Usually these are based on dollar amounts and title or organizational position. Violate those rules, and you’re likely to get fired.
The informal system is more like a collection of claymore mines, hidden under the dirt and often quite difficult for the average person to detect. An experienced soldier might be able to avoid the claymores by knowing what to look for, but many still trip the explosive charges and are injured or killed. Soldiers that are going to survive, usually step through a minefield carefully, no matter how experienced they are.
If you trip a claymore mine, it does damage but isn’t always fatal. And it definitely causes less carnage than detonating a five hundred pound bomb, or exploding twelve sticks of dynamite!
Organizations tend to be a bit more forgiving when the informal rules are violated, but they definitely still keep score. The mistake might kill you, or it might just give you some scars – ones you’re likely to carry with you the rest of your time with that employer. Either way, there’s plenty of incentive to avoid the claymores too. Or even a well hidden mousetrap, for that matter.
Are the informal systems “politics”? Not really. “Politics” are an important set of techniques people use to navigate through the informal system present in their company. In our metaphor, they are the claymore mine detection and disarming methods. As we will see, it is possible to avoid employing politics yourself, but it is not possible to avoid being impacted by it. The presence of the informal system, and its associated ambiguity, creates an environment that gives birth to and nurtures political life.
The main reason the informal system exists is that formal power systems are quite limited. Formal systems mainly deal with key decisions that have easily defined right and wrong answers. Examples include: annual performance appraisals, financial decision making, and strategic direction setting. They usually don’t extend down to the rules and norms of how people carry out their day to day tasks.
Can you imagine trying to write the rulebook for how people are supposed to interact? You would need to think of every possible way people might need to relate to each other, then come up with the rules bounding the interactions that would produce the best results for the business. And don’t forget about forbidding every undesirable behavior, too. The task would be enormous. Overwhelming. Then you’d have to get people to actually read it. And then enforce it! It’s simply not practical. Informal power systems fill these gaps between desired behavior and the formal power systems.
The shortcomings of the informal system are numerous – they are fuzzy, situational, often in flux, sometimes challenging to understand, are unevenly applied, and can be manipulated by those skilled in the use politics. These are some of the very reasons why people rail against them.
Informal power systems may be maligned, but they are effective – sometimes ruthlessly so. And they support the overall business plan when correctly deployed.
The nature of politics in organizations:
The intention of politics is to change the way people perceive your, or someone else’s, performance in the context of the formal and informal power system. Making sure that people are aware you came in early today -- politics. Letting your boss know a hated subordinate is badmouthing him -- politics. By performance, I specifically mean the evaluation of how the individual conforms to the formal and informal expectations of the organization. Performance entails more than that, but for our purposes, the other can be ignored.
Politics can be about conformance or violation of the formal rules, but it is much more often about the informal system, where there is much more ambiguity. And it revolves as much around perceptions of reality as it does the reality itself. If you think of the minefield metaphor again, politics is mostly about making others believe you didn’t step on a claymore, but the other guy did. Of course, this is useless in war, because we can all see the real injuries. In the world of the large corporation, however, perception becomes reality. If enough people fervently believe something is true, it effectively is -- particularly if the truth is difficult to tease out, or circumstantial evidence and personal prejudices agree with the perception.
Political environments range from fairly straightforward and relatively benign, to incredibly complex and ruthless. While it isn’t possible to formulaically determine the savageness of a corporation’s political environment, we can at least look at some general tendencies:
- Organization size: Generally the larger the organization, the more extensive the political minefield. With more mines it becomes easier to accidentally trip one. With larger organizations, an even larger part of a person’s perceived performance is determined by gossip because of limited direct observation.
- Company history: There is a lot of inertia in organizations. If the organization has had a high level of politics in the past, it’s a good bet that will continue.
- Extent of the formal power system: Politics seem to abhor a vacuum. Where there is nothing written, there will be an informal system, and its associated politics, regulating behavior. Clear and evenly applied written policies and procedures reduce, to some degree, the informal environment where politics tends to reign.
- Character of the top executive: Is the top executive hands-on (less politics), or more “strategic” or detached (more politics). Does he or she tolerate some of the most destructive political techniques such as bad mouthing or the setting up of internal competitions? Or does the top executive turn a blind eye to politics and simply claim “it doesn’t go on here”?
- The concentration of power players: Power players (a term described in more detail later) are skilled at dropping their own mines in the minefield. They lay traps and exploit the political moves of others. A large concentration of them, usually means a more politically dangerous and destructive environment.
- The level in the company: As people climb the ladder within the corporation, two things happen: it becomes harder to accurately measure their effectiveness and performance in their jobs, and there are more people targeting them for political maneuvering. As a general rule – higher in the company means more political risk.
There is often a temptation to view informal power systems in a strictly negative sense, but doing so ignores the fact that they exist as part of a disciplinary system to regulate employee behavior. Informal systems help to get the organization to agree to decisions, and to get people working toward common goals. If companies waited around for everybody to voluntarily agree, nothing would ever get done! And, as has already been discussed, developing formal power systems to do that is impractical.
For the organization in total, informal systems are necessary, and politics, which are nurtured by the informal power system, are a necessary evil.
Would it be possible for a large corporation to avoid politics? I don’t believe so. Human nature, being what it is, will introduce politics around the formal and informal power systems. Of course, since the informal system is fuzzier, with more room for interpretation, politics tends to operate much more in the informal system. Politics works the environment of opinion, perception, ambiguity, and opportunism. Politics is a willful attempt to bend perception for an individual’s own purposes. If someone tells you their large organization has no politics, they are either disingenuous, or simply ignorant.
Responses to the political environment:
If you accept my thesis -- that politics are present in virtually every larger organization, the question is no longer politics yes or no, it really is how can a person respond to it.
Over the years, I’ve noted three different reactions to corporate politics (one of which has two subsets). The first two are by far the most common.
These are typically people that either don’t grasp the organizational politics, or hate dealing with it with a passion. I believe the latter is more common than the former, and the reasoning seems to go as follows: “I hate this politics stuff so much, that maybe if I just pretend it doesn’t exist, it will go away. I should just put my head down and work hard, and maybe it won’t impact me.”
Much like the jury moralists on the TV show “Survivor”, these folks never seem to understand the game or its rules. Trust me folks, if you want to win, you have to at least learn the rules. To reach a high level in the company, you will undoubtedly have to bend those rules to your purposes. Invariably, when avoiders are voted off the island, they are surprised, and belligerently whine about how they tried to play “honestly”, “fairly” or “morally”.
If you are one of these people, you should probably resign yourself to working only on the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder. If you start climbing while ignoring the political environment, you’re probably going to fall off the ladder, and probably in short order. When that happens, you will either be fired, or if you’re a hard or effective enough worker, pigeon-holed. Ambition to climb, and political avoidance, don’t mix. If you have to have both, shift to a smaller company, or start/buy your own.
Neutrals generally see and understand the political realities, and over time become adept at navigating through them. For personal reasons, often times ethical, they stop short of laying out mines of their own. That distinction belongs to our last class of politicians – the power players.
Neutrals often seem to find the politic behaviors of others to appear arbitrary, capricious and to some degree, unfair. Because neutrals usually find politics distasteful, they often ignore it until they’ve already sustained some damage. But that doesn’t describe all neutrals, some of whom could be very effective power players if they didn’t find power player class of tactics repugnant.
Anyone who wants to climb the corporate ladder needs to become at least a competent neutral, and the sooner the better. Even if it is distasteful, neutrals need to keep company politics in the front of their minds. Without constant vigilance, they are just as likely to become a victim as an Avoider.
Power players attempt to manipulate the political environment to their own or someone else’s advantage. They are the ones laying traps and dropping additional mines for the rest of the company to trip over. When painted in such stark terms, it isn’t hard to see why some neutrals reject power playing.
In reality, these divisions are artificial. I’m certain most neutrals engage in some political power playing once in a while. And power players aren’t always obsessed with politics.
I have observed two types of power players who have widely varying approaches to manipulation of the political environment:
Street fighters: These power players are the political terrorists of the corporation. They tend to be overt with their tactics, but can deposit some pretty powerful munitions – many of which are IED’s targeted at specific individuals or small groups. Some street fighters can be ham-handed, misunderstanding or misestimating the skills of their targets. Over time Street Fighters make a lot of enemies, and there is often quiet cheering if they have their own tactics turned against them. Even though poetic justice seems to come to this type of power player more often than not, you should never under-estimate a street fighter -- they can be perceptive, adept and ruthless.
Maneuverers: Maneuverers are at the top of the political food-chain. In terms of our metaphor, they are the top explosives experts. They have the most advanced weapons making and disguising skills, and like to use them covertly. Unlike street fighters, maneuverers often times have extensive networks of allies they can tap into to work their political manipulations. It has been my observation that a significant concentration of maneuverers exist at the top levels of large corporations. Maneuverers tend to see politics more as a game they play to win, and they are usually strategic in their actions. You might personally offend a maneuverer, and suffer no consequences, if taking you out isn’t in his or her best interests. But find yourself in a skilled maneuverer’s sights, and your chances of long term organizational survival are not good.
Avoider, neutral or power player, the corporate political environment is going to impact you. Where you fall on the continuum may be governed by your personal sense of right and wrong, but ignorance of the politics of your organization will never work in your favor, and will not save you if you step on a political mine. While there are literally scores, if not hundreds, of tactics, approaches, alliances and strategies you can use to navigate through your employer’s minefield, I’ve assembled some of the most common and most successful. In the balance of this chapter, you will find two lists of political tactics – one for skilled neutrals, the other for the budding power player.
Ten basic skills needed by political neutrals:
These are the basic skills you need to survive in most political environments. I’ve tried to rank them roughly from most basic and simplest, to most complex and risky. If you are new to corporate politics, or can only force yourself to master a few of these skills, focus on the top ones first.
- Learn the Landscape. It is critical to understand who are their allies and enemies. You should build connections with as many groups as possible -- just don’t give them the impression you fall into their camp exclusively. Knowing who’s ox you may be goring is essential to making smart decisions. You must learn the positions the power players have staked out for themselves on important issues before you start expressing loud opinions. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.
- Don’t burn bridges, without thinking things through. Maintain relationships unless the stakes are very high. If you do, make sure you know your exposures. Sometimes you’re forced to take sides in a dispute, but usually there are ways of doing this tactfully without offending others. But not always. When you can’t, make sure you know who you’re taking on, and how they might come back at you. Anticipating the counter-attack might give you time to prepare defenses, or might convince you not to burn the bridge in the first place.
- Figure out what is valued, (results, loyalty, sacrifice, or whatever), and how it’s measured. If, for example, the organization values personal sacrifice, and they measure it by how much vacation you don’t take each year, then you need to carefully manage perceptions along this dimension. It’s surprising how many organizations seem to watch the clock, and penalize employees that don’t give extra time to the company. I’m not saying you have to comply, but knowing what you’re giving up and what it might do to your potential to advance, is essential to making wise decisions.
- Be careful about what you put in writing, and how it could be used against you by others. Despite nearly continuous warnings to avoid emotional emails, I still read numerous politically damaging emails – often from people who should have known better. And don’t think this admonition stops at the company walls. If you write something obnoxious on Facebook, you can expect someone from work to find it and use it. Be particularly careful if you feel emotional about the topic of your writing – emotional writing can often be picked apart, out of context, by your enemies.
- Lend support before you need it. Think of your political alliances in terms of a checkbook – when you support others, you add to the balance. When you need support, you have to write checks that reduce that balance. Of course, don’t violate rule #2. Once you burn a bridge, virtually no amount of support will be enough to offset your past bad behavior.
- Make sure risks are tilted in your favor, and limited in number. When you take risks, as you almost certainly must, do your best to make sure they will ultimately be recorded as wins. You might be able to survive one failure, but not three or four simultaneously. A number of missed promises, or over-estimates of performance, while small individually, can add up to one big bomb. When you have to take a big risk, make sure it’s as close to a sure thing as possible. Better to back off of something you said previously than to be backed into taking on a big risk.
- Presentations count. A lot. Top management will have limited opportunities to see you, learn about you, and assess your capabilities. Make sure you put your best foot forward when these opportunities come up. Master the subject matter, take time to make your slides perfect, and present it well. Bonus points are given for coming up with fresh or new ways to look at old problems.
- Don’t hide bad news. But be very careful about how you reveal it. I’ve found the “bad news sandwich” works the best -- some good news on each side of the bad news. And if you must make a confession, get the admission up front in a conversation. Senior management hates to feel like they had to pry it out of you. It also helps if you have an action plan for how to handle any issues, just make sure you’re prepared to execute it.
- Don’t badmouth your enemies. Yes, you will probably have competitors or enemies, whether they are people you don’t like, who don’t like you, or who see you as an impediment to getting what they want. If you badmouth them, it is highly likely to get back to them, and you effectively raise your importance as a target. That might not matter if they’re an avoider, but if they’re a street fighter – better watch out.
- Keep complaints to yourself. If you’re unhappy with some aspect of the company, don’t discuss it with other employees. Commiseration may feel good, but it is the stuff that starts rumors, or offends others. And remember those things valued by your organization? Well, being a disengaged employee isn’t one of them. You can’t afford to have anyone thinking you’re disengaged. Of course, a light dose of criticism accompanied by a realistic plan to make improvements can get you far, just be prepared to make it happen.
Ten advanced skills needed by aspiring power players:
These are the advanced skills you need to climb to the top of most large organizations. I’ve again tried to rank them roughly from simplest, to most complex and risky. I recommend you focus on the top ones first. While it will help a neutral to be aware of these tactics, only engage in them only once you’ve proven yourself skilled at managing the neutral tactics. Recognize that some of these tactics may be offensive, and be aware of your own moral compass as you consider active involvement in each.
- Actively manage your reputation. You want to be seen as smart, hardworking, innovative, or whatever the company thinks is important. Be well aware of how you are seen by others, even if it means seeking the advice of a keen observer (see next item on mentors). Work to correct any deficiencies.
- Cultivate a mentor. Look for one who is a skilled politician of the type you aspire to be, as opposed to just somebody higher up the ladder (although being high up the ladder helps, too). Oddly, many skilled politicians, in the later part of their career, seem to develop a desire to help younger co-workers. Perhaps it’s all the years of not being able to talk about their political maneuvering to anyone…?
- Ask for what you want. You can’t expect the organization to figure out where you want to go, and put you there – at least not without some prodding. Ambition is generally admired as long as you don’t appear to threaten or be a threat to the person you are talking to. Carefully make your long-term desires known in a benign fashion.
- Set the bar credibly low. Make no mistake about it, hitting your targets is important in almost every organization. How the target is set, however, can sometimes completely disconnected from reality. Eighty percent of your wins or losses will be determined, not by how hard, smart or fast you work, but instead by where the bar is set. Managers are taught to set high targets for their subordinates, build in cushion of their own, and push down blame. So take every opportunity to make sure you score wins, rather than losses by influencing the setting of targets at a reasonable levels.
- Provide Some Original Thinking. Original thinking can greatly enhance your reputation. While what’s valued by corporations does vary, I’ve never seen one yet that didn’t highly value having smart people on the team. “Smart” can sometimes neutralize, or at least reduce, other negative perceptions. The ability to introduce new ideas to the company is critical to being seen as “smart” (also, avoiding stupid mistakes helps, too!). The ideas need not be original in total, just new to the company. And the best part about it is – these ideas don’t have to necessarily go anywhere.
- Promote yourself. This requires the lightest of touches, however. It’s a fine line between tooting one’s own horn, and being seen as an obnoxious self-promoter. Better if you can enlist someone else to promote you.
- Distance yourself from failure. There’s an old adage that “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan”. If that were only true. Many large organizations seem to have an almost pathological need to identify and punish the person(s) responsible for failures. As soon as you see a ship is sinking, my advice is you be the first rat to jump.
- Expect betrayal. Business relationships are often relationships of convenience – and it may become convenient to sacrifice you at some point. To help reduce this risk, you need to deepen your relationships beyond just the office with some of your best and strongest supporters. Even then, be prepared that you may be cast off by an ally when you are in greatest need.
- Invest in scapegoats. Wherever possible, try to insert someone between yourself and high risk projects or tasks. That way, if failure occurs on the project, that person can be sacrificed. It might not save you in every case, but I’ve seen the technique used time and again by senior managers. This technique is perhaps the most morally repugnant political behavior, and regardless of advice to the contrary, I could never bring myself to personally utilize scapegoating. That being said, it does work if it is within your moral comfort zone.
- Use sparingly, use strategically. Power player tactics are often seen as obnoxious or offensive by the organization at large. Over-indulgence in them can make you a target by itself. Sparing use, and covert use will get you much further than craftlessly lashing about.
I’ve postulated that corporate politics are endemic in large organizations, and are an outgrowth of both human nature, and the necessary fuzziness and gaps surrounding the formal and informal power systems.
People react differently in response to the environment. Some fail to grasp it or are in denial about it (Avoiders). Others understand, but elect to act defensively (Neutrals). A few embrace the political environment (Power players).
I then presented a list of common tactics used by neutrals, and another list employed by power players alone. While most people seem to be able to stomach the basic tactics, but the power player tactics contain distasteful lying, deceit, and betrayal.
I spent many years in senior management positions in large corporations, and was primarily a neutral. I could never get comfortable with the moral implications of using most of the advanced techniques. I did, however, benefit greatly by being able to recognize them – often times to prepare my defenses, if nothing else. I observed the power player tactics used successfully time and again by peers, bosses and subordinates.
If the advanced techniques bother you to the extreme, you may need to give up your dream of being a Chief Executive someday. I’ve never worked for a CEO who didn’t utilize these tactics adeptly.
Tom Spears was a President/Group President in three different U.S. public corporations over a fifteen year time span. In 2010 he resigned his last position with Lindsay Corporation to form Tom Spears Consulting, and to write. His novels LEVERAGE, INCENTIVIZE, DELIVERABLES and HEIR APPARENT are Corporate Thrillers that focus on wrongdoing and investigation in the context of modern corporations. His book NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS is an expansion of the ideas described in this article. He can be reached through his web site at http://tomspears.squarespace.com/