Power and Office Politics: Rumor and Reality
By Jacqui Love Marshall Office politics have been around since ancient times. Julius Caesar succumbed to them, and Aristotle told the Greeks: “Man is by nature a political animal.” As a middle manager, even Tony Soprano spent most of his day (and therapy sessions) pondering the power elements and politics of his world. No wonder Tony watched the History Channel in search of leadership tips. Ignoring office politics is not likely to land you a dagger in the back or a bullet in the head. But don’t underestimate the career fatalities that can befall the politically unaware. Jean Hollands, a Silicon Valley corporate team builder, advises: “The person who says, ‘I’m not political’ is in great danger ... Only the fittest will survive, and the fittest will be the ones who understand their office’s politics.” Face it, office politics are here to stay. If anything, the game has become more complex.
‘Power’: Not a Dirty Word
At the heart of office politics is that daunting word — POWER — so let’s start there. For some, power falls into the company of words that carries negative connotation, along with influence, control and manipulation. Few of us were raised in worlds ruled by truly powerful people. So power holds a mysterious, perhaps unsavory, place in many minds. And we’re right to be skeptical. All too often, power has been abused. Who hasn’t encountered at least one manipulative, dishonest or back-biting colleague? However, the ability to negotiate and leverage power can make a measurable difference in navigating choppy business waters, achieving positive results and advancing your career. It’s helpful to think of power as a kind of currency in business environments. As currency, power is minted in many forms — knowledge and information, access to others, access to resources (including funds), decision-making authority, approval to act, latitude to take risks, forgiveness when a risk turns to failure, etc. Another reality is that, in any organization, some people have more power, influence and autonomy than others, often (but not always) along hierarchical lines. The ability to offer, share, exchange, anoint or negotiate power is a key component of office politics. And the ability to capture some of that power to get things accomplished is critical to your success. In other words, power is not a bad thing, if you understand it and can deploy it for constructive outcomes.
Ron Brown, an organizational and management consultant, sees a lot of ambivalence among managers of color in dealing with concepts of power and politics. Speaking at a diversity conference at Bennett College, Brown said: “One of the major challenges ... is understanding the nature of power, how to get it, how to use it, how to feel comfortable with the notion of power. For many managers of color, it’s like walking onto a football field with a basketball; they’re playing the wrong game.” Not sure how power operates in your work environment or which game really is being played? Observe people and activities for a month and then answer these important questions: •
Rumor: You can find a work environment void of politics. Reality: Every workplace has its own politics. It behooves you to observe and discover the unique elements of your office’s politics. Rumor: Power is a bad word, an unpleasant concept. Reality: Power is a currency that can be employed for good or bad. Understanding how power operates in your workplace can help you harness it to achieve positive outcomes and advance your goals.
Is the hierarchy of authority the primary clue Rumor: If you work hard and to who holds the most power here? How do the keep your nose clean, the top executives influence others in leadership promotions will come and you positions? What do employees think about the top will be successful. Reality: Working hard and leaders? How is power defined? staying under the radar screen What drives the...
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