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Power and Politics: Learn How or Lose by Default

Many aspiring executives resent the fact that they must engage in office politics to get ahead.  Some view it as beneath them to do so, insisting they “just want to do their job.” The fact, however, is that if you want to advance in organizational life, you have no choice but to learn how to play the game. 

Every business entity is a social, thus a political, system.  Willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, it follows that you are forever immersed in power and politics. And without a sound knowledge of the gambits and rules, you are at a distinct disadvantage. Declaring yourself out of the game doesn’t get you out. You can’t not play – you can only play competently or incompetently.

So how do you play the political game to win?  The obvious first step is to give up on the fiction that you can ignore the process. The next step is to rid yourself of the notion that politics is always noxious. Like death, taxes, love and power, it just is. And, while lying, cheating and engaging in character assassination will give you more options, you can still win while upholding a higher moral code that forsakes that type of odious behaviour.

The gritty reality is that you only prevail when you understand how to acquire and use power.  That said, keep perspective – having too much power can scupper your chances. Because power breeds hubris – it can easily “go to your head.” You start thinking you can make your own rules and develop an unwarranted trust in what others tell you.

Power prompts risk taking without prudence  – especially if you become too focused on your own interests. As a consequence, you pay insufficient attention to what you say or do and, as importantly, how that is perceived by others around you. Also, you become increasingly inflexible – forgetting that what worked in past may not work in the future.

The upsides of power acquisition, however, are more obvious and appealing.  Simply put, power enables you to get things done. Status in organizations is generally commensurate with the resources you can control. So find ways to access the resources needed by others – things like information, support, money and jobs. Become the nexus of information flow. This enables you to form alliances with star performers (which must be regularly nourished). And speak with confidence; your assuredness connotes authority if not credibility.

The relationship you have with your boss is generally more important than your performance.  So ask on a regular basis what aspects of your job are most important to her – then act on what she tells you. Get noticed for your achievements by telling those above you what you’ve done. If you can’t get excited about your accomplishments, no one else will. In meetings with superiors, look genuinely engaged (put away the smartphone) and openly demonstrate enthusiasm. Also never forget that everyone likes flattery; it can pay to make people feel better about themselves, especially those in positions of power.

Power has little to do with intelligence but a lot to do with being smart (there is a difference).  It includes the ability to confront difficult, stressful situations, so work on your conflict skills. Assert yourself – ask for things. If you don’t ask, you likely won’t get what you want. The worst that can happen is that you are turned down. So what? You’ll at least get the points for asking.

People with power interrupt; those without power get interrupted.  Question and challenge the basic assumptions that underlie another person’s account. Get over the idea that you need to be liked by everyone. Instead, ask, interrupt and challenge. Plan to strategically display your emotions because research says those who display anger appropriately are viewed as “dominant, strong, competent and smart”.

Good interpersonal skills are a must – knowing how to use powerful non-verbal signals to make a positive first impression, wearing appropriate but dominant attire and practicing the principles of persuasion. Self-promotion is the ability to convey authenticity with grace and impact – to connect with others through storytelling and talking about yourself in a natural, comfortable way without coming off as an arrogant, self-aggrandizing braggart. Those who are unable to master the craft of self-promotion fail to capitalize on the best opportunities.

Self-promotion is continuous; it shouldn’t be reserved for special occasions  like performance reviews. And never assume others will tell your story the way you want it told. Learn how to “schmooze” people (Yiddish for friendly, heart-to-heart talk) – talk to them as if they really matter, listening carefully to draw them out and find the common ground. Then seamlessly plant the positive seeds to advance your cause. Know exactly who you are, what you’ve accomplished and where you want to go. Create pithy, colorful, convincing conversational narratives – make it conversational, not canned by learning and adapting your scripts as appropriate. Continually revise and tailor your story to the specific opportunities before you.

Power begets more power. Use yours to create real value,  help others in meaningful ways and noticeably contribute to the organizational mission. Although “dirty politicians” can and do succeed, the skilled use of positive tactics will ensure there is no regret, remorse or revenge to worry about. Plus, your reputation will become a real source of power for others to admire. That too is incredible personal leverage.

Finally, if all of this is simply too much to master,  then four decades of playing C-suite games with others leads to the following simple counsel: learn when to shut up and how to leave. That advice alone will at least keep you in the game but on top of the fray.

Jim Murray
CEO, optimal solutions international
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