Corporate Politics – The Elephant in the Room

Nancy B. Alston

Corporate politics are everywhere. They inflict every company. In fact, you’d be hard put to find a senior manager out there who has completely avoided the fray.

Depending how far you make it up the corporate ladder, you’ll feel the heat the higher up you go. Executives and professionals talk about it all the time, especially over cocktails, but rarely in formal discussions or meetings. If it does come up in a formal setting, it is likely brought up as “We need to reinvigorate culture.”

And if you are running a new business in a large company that is developing or trying to develop a product or solution that is disruptive to the mainstream business, then you are likely drowning in corporate politics.

That certainly was my personal experience in running a business group that was creating new computers and devices for people living at the bottom of the pyramid. Any product we created would match Clayton Christensen’s definition of a disruptive innovation: i.e. compared to the PC, it would be more affordable (cheaper), easier to use (addressing computer/tech literacy issues), and have a unique value nonexistent in PC’s today.

How did it turn out for me? Not great. I walked in with open eyes, having seen politics in action before and having navigated through it successfully to get things done. I knew it would be a tough slog given what we were doing, but I was still blindsided by the intensity of driving a disruptive business.

In fact, I had come up with a way of describing corporate politics that I talked about frequently with my team, peers, and respective bosses:

There are “good” politics, and there are “bad” politics. Good politics are when someone needs to work the system (e.g. culture, personalities, organizational silos) to achieve business objectives that are GOOD for the company (e.g. bringing in new revenue, growth, profit, and satisfied customers). Bad politics are when someone works the same system to make themselves look good.

The moral of the story is obviously to practice good politics and avoid the bad. Looking back, the problem with this approach, and why I got blindsided, is that you can do the best job, exercise your best networking skills, and create fantastic things for your company, but by ignoring what I call the negative politicians, you will likely end up on the short end of the stick and you and the business you are running will suffer from it.

So my main advice is … know your enemy more than they know themselves. I really hate to use the word enemy, as my “people” philosophy tends to be more on the trusting side. But these folks see YOU as the enemy; as competition for whatever that future lucrative position or promotion may be. (And a hint: they are right in a way. As you move higher up in the company, there are fewer positions to go around. Everything becomes more competitive.)

So let me present five characteristics of the negative politicians I’ve observed over the years. They effectively:
Self promote. They go out of their way internally to promote themselves under the auspices of promoting their business or product. If they blog or publish internal articles about something related to their business group, you’ll see subliminal hints of-self promotion.

Manage up. They typically withhold negative information about their business to their bosses and selectively spin things for the positive.

Use information as power. They may use confidential (or what they position as confidential) business information about a part of the business they are involved in to enhance credibility. For example, in a meeting with other senior managers they’ll divulge some decisions or strategies that they know will captivate their audience.

Become “buddies” with the powers-that-be. They tend to actively network with the key movers and shakers within the company. If the executive suite tends to be political as well, you can bet that they have found ways to endear themselves to the company’s top dogs.

Spread disinformation about potential “competitors.” They quietly spread rumors and/or misinformation about someone that may threaten them career-wise, or against the business that person runs.

If reading these five characteristics makes your stomach clench, either in principle or because you’ve seen them in action, the next question you are likely asking is how do I stay away from these folks?

Short answer: You can’t. Long answer: Learn to work within “the company of wolves,” regardless of whether the intensity of politics is low or high. And I think you can do this without sinking to their their level.

I am in no way the expert on the best way to navigate these waters, but I have learned from past mistakes and have thought hard and long about the subject.

I have five recommendations I’d give to those that are currently in or expecting to eventually be in this situation:
Keep your ear to the ground — always. Keep an eye out and keep a mental list of those who consistently act the way I described above. By increasing your trusted network, you uncover misinformation and can make corrections.

Don’t bad mouth them to anybody. Bad mouthing people is what negative politicians do, and you will likely hear about it eventually. Information gets around remarkably easily in a company. The adage “If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say it” applies here.

Don’t alienate them, even if they screw you. The other adage I have found ALWAYS to be true is “never burn bridges,” no matter what. I have never burned a bridge. Those who have, got bitten back hard.

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Don’t avoid negative politicians. Network with them. Kind words and praise go a long way. I find that those that are insecure and have self-esteem issues tend to be the most political, so find ways to help them and/or increase their sense of self-worth. But don’t make it up. Be sincere about anything you say or do.

Use some of their tactics in a principled manner. Do some self promotion in a way that ALSO promotes others. Network with the powers that be in a way that shows your value to the company. Don’t avoid them at social functions … seek them out. Read “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi for great tactics on how to do this.

Another reference for you: Dan King, Principal at Meaningful Careers, wrote a great article called “Winning at Organizational Politics without Losing Your Soul” that gives additional insights and reasons for not keeping your head in the sand. As he states in his article, politics is a game. “Play or not play, the game still goes on!”

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