Learn to play the politics game

Simon Bird

Building relationships within your own organisation can be as important as developing partnerships outside it. Simon Bird, special projects programme director at The King's Fund, offers some thoughts on alliances and divisions.

Publication:  Health Management
Reference:  Health Management, March/April 2008, pp. 24-25

Never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. Or so my mother told me. I'm unsure how office politics would play into this code of etiquette, but it would probably be even less welcome. 'Office politics' conjures up images of gossip, back-biting, and Machiavellian plans at various stages of execution, but the reality is that 'office politics' are a complex and messy reflection of the relationships, power, alliances and divisions which exist around us in all organisations. To state that one 'doesn't do' office politics belies a certain naïveté about how things work and how things get done in organisations.

By being part of the workforce, you are part of the political system in the organisation. And like all political animals, you are likely to have allies and detractors. Occasionally, you will face saboteurs and, on a more positive side, enjoy honeymoon periods. The most effective leaders understand this, and are able to look around them and work out how to navigate around the system in order to achieve their own goals, and to do so with integrity ie, not at the expense of others. How do they manage that? See our tips (below) on surviving office politics with your career, and integrity, intact.

Politics and alliances are part of organisational life. A number of the programmes we run at The King's Fund spend much time on helping people manage office politics, they are a fact of life. But, so long as you can keep perspective and understand how to navigate the environment, they can be the difference between average success and something of which you are truly proud.

Tips on building office alliances

1. Understand the 'rules of the game' where you work

The classic road safety advice, 'stop, look, listen' is useful to bear in mind while you get your bearings. It can be helpful even to 'interview' yourself at the beginning of some meeting or session which is important to you, to the extent of writing down your answers. What is valued by the people you need to impress? How do things get done around here? Why has this never happened before? Your analysis of the culture around you now is more important than some of the assumptions you bring with you from the past.

2. Understand who holds the power

Power is not necessarily about authorised status in the organisation – it can be about the amount of influence they have with other individuals or groups. A useful exercise to engage in is power mapping, where you map out your scenario, the stakeholders, the people you need to influence, who influences them and so on. This provides you with a broad schematic of all the stakeholders that are important to your work, and can be useful to highlight some inter-relationships and alternative ways of getting what you need, where a direct approach won’t work.

3. Invest widely

A classic mistake is for people to only build alliances and relationships with people they see as useful to them in the short term, or a similar status level in the organisation. Have some genuine interest in others around you – they will be there to support you in the longer term. The relationships you make early in your new role will be invaluable to you later, and there can be nothing more subversive than people who have felt wronged by you in the past.

4. Mind your email

When things are not going well, don't allow yourself to get dragged into an email exchange. Emails land without context or body language and are particularly effective at inflaming situations. Effective people know when to use email and when not to.