No matter what your company, you've probably encountered organizational politics. One of the most frequent complaints that I hear from managers is how difficult it is to get things done in the face of conflicting agendas, misaligned priorities, pursuit of personal goals, and unresolved issues -- all often lumped under the umbrella of "politics." Recently, for example, a health care manager told me about a proposal she had made that had the potential to generate millions in new revenue and provide a critical service to customers -- but was shot down because other groups were lobbying for the status quo. "It's a shame that politics got in the way of doing something that made so much sense," she said.
But is it really possible to put politics aside? Is there an organization in which everyone's personal interests are perfectly aligned with functional, business unit, and corporate interests?
Put simply, politics aren't going away any time soon. In fact, instead of complaining about politics and fantasizing that they will magically disappear, perhaps instead we should learn how to embrace them and manage them more effectively, for two reasons:
First, the emergence of politics can be a warning flag for your project -- a sign that your stakeholders have concerns about moving forward. The last thing you should want as a manager is for these concerns to go underground and surprise you later.
The second reason is that politics stimulate public debate. We're all familiar with candidate forums during election season. If you put aside the theater and posturing, the debate is an effective way of educating the electorate and moving towards a public consensus. Creating this kind of transparency is critical for democratic societies (even if it doesn't work perfectly), and it's the same for organizations. Without robust debate, leadership teams can easily become rubber stamp forums for the most powerful people, which can cause organizations to go down paths without full consideration of the consequences. A classic example was the Time-Warner merger with AOL that was decided by the two CEOs (Jerry Levin and Steve Case) without the usual internal debates. The absence of politics sped up the decision -- but certainly not for the better.
Even if you can embrace politics, managing them is not an easy process. Here are three guidelines that might get you started:
Draw a Political Map. Whenever you want to make some sort of change, create a map of the different stakeholders and then analyze them from a political perspective. Who do you think will be affected by the change, positively or negatively? Who needs to be involved in the decision? Who might influence the decision? Who will be your strong supporters and who will resist?
Hold a Debate. Engage the different stakeholders in dialogue, not only with you but with each other. Organize a meeting to discuss what you're trying to do, or invite people with different views to lunch. Do whatever is necessary to make the conflicting views more transparent.
Come to a Compromise. Once you've mapped the political terrain and opened up the dialogue, create a targeted plan for building alignment. Talk to people who would object and figure out ways to modify your proposal so that you respond to their concerns. Talk to people who are strongly in your camp and ask them to proactively influence others who may be less enthusiastic. The key here is to remember that politics is the art of the possible, not the perfect. You may not be able to get full alignment and support for your original proposal; but if you engage with the stakeholders on the map you've created, you may be able to shape enough buy-in to move forward with the most essential parts. And if these initial steps achieve results, you may be able to align these same stakeholders around more ambitious change.
It's easy to use "politics" as an excuse for a lack of achievement or an outlet for your frustration. But it may be a lot more effective to use "politics" as a way to get things done.
What's your view of politics in organizations? Have you found ways to use them to your advantage?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.