Workplace politics — get them on your side

I first read “Get them on your side (2006)” about 8 years ago. It struck me as a structured approach to a topic that was miss-understood in the work-place and that many of us had to learn by trial and error.

In short this is a book that details how to build one’s political competence, and that touches lightly on subjects such as successful change management and leadership.

Below I try to summarise the ideas of the book in short excerpts. Feel free to grab a copy off amazon and read it fully. I recommend you do so.

WAIT! BUT ISN’T “BEING POLITICAL” JUST A BAD THING?

Look. There is no shortage of good ideas. The problem is how to turn good ideas into action.

Making things happen isn’t simply a matter of getting a good idea, laying out a plan, telling others what to do, and overseeing implementation. In order to get results you need to be situationally aware, meaning you need to know, anticipate, and react to the interests, agendas and intentions of others within the organisation.

Political competence is the ability to understand what you can and cannot control, when to take action, anticipate who is going to resist your agenda, and determine whom you need on your side to push that agenda forward.

Being political, in its most attractive light, is being aware of the interests of others, finding areas of common ground, bringing others on board and leading them in pursuit of a goal.

COMMON ANTI PATTERNS

You are vulnerable to criticism whenever you propose an idea. For every initiative, there will be pocket of resistance and criticism.

Knowing the six common anti patterns you’re likely to hear when presenting your idea, allows you to begin to think how to pull your critics in without risking antagonising them.

So here they are:

  • “Your idea is too risky”. Suggesting that your idea will put the organisation in danger, threatening it’s highly valued accomplishments and successes so far.
  • “That idea will make things worse”. Or it’s close cousin “that idea is going to backfire”. Some will counter your proposal with a sense of their own assurance, their own knowledge and their own certainty. They try to enlighten you with angles and horizons you didn’t anticipate.
  • “Your proposal won’t change a thing”. One popular way to stamp out a new idea is to call the efforts a waste of time. The suggestion is that any attempt at change will be illusory, a façade or simply cosmetic. Some say “nothing is going to change”.
  • “You don’t know the issues well enough”. Some say “you are missing the whole point, the real issue is…”. These are not criticisms of your idea (although that might be the main goal of the detractor), but denunciations of you as the leader of the initiative.
  • “You’re doing it wrong”. By focusing on your lack of technical expertise or inexperience, skeptics are likely to raise questions in the minds of other people about your ability to lead the effort. Here also, these are not criticisms of the idea, but of the person leading of the initiative.
  • “You have ulterior motives”. The reasoning is “why would anyone want to change the status-quo? There must be a reason”

FIRST THINGS FIRST — ANALISE GOALS AND APPROACHES

In order to understand who is likely to support you and who is not, ask yourself:

QUESTION 1 — What are the goals of others — tinkering or overhauling?

  • Tinkering goals tend to be incremental improvements in the status quo of the organisation. Tinkerers make lists and prioritise which item they should pursue first. They target opportunities to achieve operational efficiencies. They redecorate, redesign and re-engineer. Please note, organisational tinkerers do have their place (these goals work well during stable times).
  • Overhaulers are concerned with broader goals. What concerns them is not the rules and operations but the underlying motivation. Instead of eking out a percentage improvement here, or a slightly lower cost structure there, they look for fundamental transformation and, in the process of doing so, a dramatic change of what their unit currently does.

Tinkerers say to Overhaulers “You are panicking, there are no icebergs”.

Overhaulers say to Tinkerers “We’re on the titanic and you’re rearranging the deck chairs”.

QUESTION 2 — What are the approaches of others — planning or improvising?

In the mind of the planner, everything can be accounted for and survival is a matter of collecting information, ensuring the accuracy of facts and estimating with more skill than competitors. In a situation full of ambiguity and uncertainty, adopting a planning approach minimises flexibility and narrows the number of options. Planners are concerned with control, a high level of interdependence (what is being done by whom), regimen (consistency on what is being done) and accountability (who reports to whom).

Improvisers are obsessed with perpetual adaptability. They try to minimise risk by looking at what others are doing, then acting and only then reassessing. The improvisational approach is ideal for making rapid adjustments. It’s also great for innovation, seeing new opportunities, anticipating new options and expecting the unexpected. The weakness of an improvisational approach is that too much extemporaneous action can take organizations off course.

Planners say to improvisers “You are just pursuing the idea of the day”.

Improvisers say to planners “Let’s move”.

UNDERSTANDING AGENDAS AND MAPPING THE POLITICAL TERRAIN

When you ask those two questions you can construct a 4x4 matrix as such:

  • Planning Approach && Tinkering Goals — A Traditionalist Agenda.When you adopt a Traditionalist agenda you will likely argue that repeating old (sometimes abandoned) routines are now the best way to deal with the uncertain and ambiguous environments.
  • Planning Approach && Overhauling Goals — A Developer Agenda. When you choose a Developer agenda, you are committed to staying on top of things — empirically, rationally, and incrementally. As a combination of a planning and overhauling, those choosing a Developer agenda will help you to formalize, codify, and quantify the change process. You will love change initiatives that have structure (like six sigma).
  • Improvising Approach && Tinkering Goals — An Adjuster Agenda. When you adopt an Adjuster agenda, you assume that change is unpredictable, and you will only react when necessary. You monitor the environment and try to isolate those factors that demand action now and ignore those that don’t.
  • Improvising Approach && Overhauling Goals — A Revolutionary Agenda. When you adopt an Revolutionary agenda, your goal is to impose a completely new set of ideas. You are likely to focus on new technologies, emerging markets and up to the minute research as the impetus for change. Revolution must start now.

With an understanding of the different agendas, take the following steps to map your political terrain:

  1. Determine what kind of agenda you have
  2. List all key stakeholders as they relate to your initiative (decision makers, directly impacted, peers and influentials.
  3. Identify each stakeholders agenda
  4. And MORE IMPORTANTLY highlight all the people who share your agenda (allies), those who agenda is your exact opposite (critics), those whoshare goals (potential allies), those with similar approaches (potential allies).

BUILD ON A SOLID FOUNDATION

Two things are part of the very foundation of successful change:

  • Your personal credibility. Personal credibility comes from a combination of four dimensions: your authoritative position, your personal integrity, your expertise and knowledge, and the specific time and opportunity when you act. While you don’t need to be strong in all four dimensions, you must have at least one where your credibility is clear to others. If anyone has to question your credibility, it is unlikely that they will support your effort.
  • A successful coalition. If there is no precedent, no historical context for the particular change you have in mind, you better have others around you who will legitimise your effort. Now… you may like the guy in marketing, but the two of you may have no overlapping agenda, no overarching need. The only thing you have in common is the elevator. That is not a coalition. A coalition is a conscious relationship with the intention of trying to get something done and is made up of people who want to influence, take action and want to cause some sort of change. Having a coalition is important for different reasons during the different stages of change (from spreading risk, overcoming resistance to deflecting revenge once the change is in place).

ENLISTING PEOPLE INTO THE COALITION

A question politically competent leaders face is how to successfully enlist people into the coalition. Two things:

  • Informal, tacit persuasion reduces the chance that you’ll be rejected. You cast out a line and see if you get a nibble. In drawing people into your coalition it is sometimes better to be tacit and not explicit.
  • Do not talk past others. Some may view your proposal as being broad and ideological, and therefore, when considering whether to join you, they want to discuss subtle issues such as meaning, symbols, and understanding. Others may consider your idea as being very specific and only want to deal with nuts-and-bolts issues of how, what, where, and when. Make sure you don’t talk past others and ensure alignment at strategic level (sometimes by discussing nuts-and-bolt issues first).

PUT YOUR IDEAS IN PLACE

So, now that you’ve successfully built initial support for your idea and you’ve gotten buy-in from a core coalition of supporters, what’s next?

Now you need to put your ideas in place. Specifically, you want to make sure that your ideas are a focus of consensus in your coalition, are adopted by others, and are diffused throughout the organisation to the point where they become part of the things your colleagues take for granted.

This starts with the existing coalition and expands into key actors outside that network. Only then your change will have gathered momentum to persist and deliver value.

Here is some structure for doing precisely that:

  • Solidify your coalition: by ensuring that there is a common purpose shared by everyone.
  • Work out differences: by helping both sides understand how they benefit from working together and how they can both achieve their own agendas while the coalition achieves its agenda.
  • Diffuse your ideas and network: by networking with key actors outside your coalition. Over the last two decades, management consultants have become tools for senior people to legitimise their agendas.
  • Take stock: by incorporating new members into the coalition and encouraging them to lead others.

So there you have it. Being a political competent leader is something like being a jedi on the light side of the force. One does not need to resort to the trickery that is played in all workplaces (the dark side). Political competence can be about driving change in a way that’s aware of the environment this change has to grow on. I say often that “you can’t fry an egg on acid, no matter how good a cook you are”. But more on that for a future blog post.

Enjoy your day!