Many years ago, I worked with a person who said, ‘Michelle, you can get to a certain level in your career by being good at what you do. But if you want to go any further, you need to know how to play the political game.’
Their comment always troubled me as it implies you must play politics and be Machiavellian to succeed in the corporate world. In an inter-connected world where your reputation sticks to you like glue, taking that approach can have long-term negative consequences.
Instead, it’s more sustainable to be astutely aware of the nature of your working environment. You want to be conscious of relationship and power dynamics, have a vibrant network of people who support you, and be realistic about how politics operate at work.
Power and politics are good friends
If you think there’s no politics at your workplace, you are either blissfully unaware or turning a blind eye to it. Organisations are power constructs by their very nature, and with power comes workplace politics.
Politics arises because people have different personalities, beliefs, priorities and goals, influencing decision-making, allocation of resources, and promotion (to name a few). When diverse personalities and ambitions collide, politics takes centre stage; central to this is how people wield power.
So how do you navigate this at work?
Notice politics – don’t play politics
You don’t need to be the political mastermind plotting and scheming in the background. But you must develop the awareness and skills to thrive within an organisational landscape.
So rather than plotting revenge, gossiping, playing politics and trying to undermine people around you so you can come out on top – focus on acting with integrity, making wise choices and backing yourself.
This approach isn’t about playing politics, nor ignoring the reality of it, but knowing how to survive politics by navigating your way through.
Find the power source
This approach requires you to understand the sources of power and how they play out at work.
They initially outlined five sources of power, and six years later, a sixth was added:
- Legitimate – This can also be considered positional power. It’s the power that comes from a person’s position and the expectations that the person has the formal right to make demands, which should be complied with.
- Reward – This power is derived from a person’s ability to compensate a person for compliance, whether it’s through money, recognition or other types of rewards.
- Expert – Power of this nature stems from a person’s skills, knowledge and expertise.
- Referent – This source derives from a person’s perceived attractiveness, likeability, charisma, worthiness and other factors that earn other people’s respect.
- Coercive – This is the power to punish others for noncompliance – whether it’s potential or used.
- Informational – This is about information control and the ability to control the flow of details that others need.
If you want more on these sources, then this research by Associate Professor Mary Kovach is worth reading. Her article summarises the power sources and their impact on workplace productivity and employee motivation.
All six forms of power operate within organisations. So do other sources.
There is also relational power, which derives from a person’s proximity to someone or persons with positional/legitimate authority. Executive Assistants are a perfect example. Their proximity and strong relationship with the boss can give them power.
There is also collective power, which is the power that is derived when individuals come together to get something done (often to shift an idea or gain support for an initiative). It is based on your context and situation, so it can go when you move organisations. When teams come together, they can exert collective power.
A person can hold multiple sources of power simultaneously. For example, the charismatic senior leader who is an expert in their field likely holds legitimate, reward, expert and referent power; and may even hold all forms of power.
Balance the power dynamics
When these power sources operate in a workplace, they combine to create power dynamics. You want to understand what those dynamics look like in practical terms and how it influences behaviour.
Consider – who holds the decision-making authority? Who influences whom? Who controls what types of power in your stakeholder network, and how do they wield that power? Are there balancing forces in the organisation, and how does this impact decisions?
Some people will hold a lot of power, others not so much. Some people are happy with the power they have, and others will be seeking more. When there is power, there is often a power imbalance.
In political and diplomatic circles, the concept of a ‘balance of power’ is used, and it proposes that outcomes are enhanced when no single nation is so powerful it can dominate world affairs.
This concept accepts that power in the hands of the few isn’t healthy. It equally applies in the working environment. To have a healthy, thriving work environment, you want a balance of power. This is a culture where power is shared and distributed, and no one leader or team member dominates over others.
Notice your power
Each of us has different things that give us power or restrict it, and so you need to understand where you derive your power from and its impact on you. Is the power bestowed by others or internally sourced? While some power is granted or given to us by others, there is a power that comes from within.
These internal power reserves involve drawing on your inner courage, values and resilience. It’s you holding true to your values and speaking up on things that matter. It’s you being courageous.
It’s speaking up – even when it’s uncomfortable. Having a voice and using your internal power is essential to having a healthy dynamic with your boss and those more senior than you. When you lose your voice and don’t speak up, the power imbalance in a workplace relationship – which can exist because of positional authority (or something else) – gets even more out of kilter.
Experiencing externally and formally sourced power can corrupt how we see our place in the world. As I wrote previously (How to Know if You are Drunk on Power), you want to notice how having power impacts you. There are warning signs that you may be drunk on power. For example, when you think your rights and needs outweigh others, if you’re striving for outcomes that are all about you, and when you feel you’re the smartest person in the room and have stopped listening.
Challenge yourself to examine how you respond and react to the power that you hold and others have.
This helpful article by Boyka Simeonova and colleagues reminds us that “power is multi-dimensional, dynamic, transient and contingent, where instances of one type can enact another type of power and have different effects for the different actor”. It isn’t all bad either; it’s about how it’s used.
Hierarchical structures create inequalities and power imbalances because certain positions hold more decision-making authority than others. However, they are also a practical reality of organisations – both big and small.
Effective leaders recognise that power dynamics can make it harder for marginalised or less popular voices to be heard. So, they actively work to mitigate power differentials, encourage open dialogue, and create avenues for diverse voices to be heard.
You want to encourage your team members to use their voices because it helps balance the power that operates in an organisational system. When power is more equally distributed, it is easier to challenge assumptions, act collaboratively, and make more informed and considered decisions.
Consider – How much effort do you put into sharing power at work? Do you hold it closely and guard its use? Do you seek to create a power imbalance deliberately?
Mitigating power struggles
Encouraging collaboration and shared decision-making can mitigate power struggles and enhance employee engagement. You can delegate authority, foster autonomy, and empower your team members to take ownership of their work, contribute their unique perspectives and develop their skills.
As part of this, clearly communicate goals, expectations, and decision-making processes to ensure power is exercised responsibly.
Examine how information flows up and down the team. Are you sharing information or hoarding information and sharing selectively? Are you encouraging your team members to share and collaborate, and rewarding good behaviour?
When analysed and deployed ethically, these elements enable you to harness the collective power of your team better to drive innovation and progress.
Be the diplomat
Astute diplomats know how to keep their ears to the ground. They are alert to changing tempos and notice what is happening. They are keen observers and excellent communicators.
To thrive in politics at work, you can channel your inner diplomat. Nurture your communication skills because they are the cornerstone of political astuteness.
Practice diplomacy, choose your words thoughtfully, and adapt your message to resonate with different audiences. Learn to advocate for your ideas while considering the perspectives of others.
Stay abreast of organisational developments, changes, and trends. Observe how decisions are made, how individuals influence, and how conflicts are resolved. By being informed and vigilant, you can anticipate potential challenges and adapt your approach.
Build real relationships
Establishing meaningful connections and alliances across organisational levels is crucial to building your relational power.
Mentors and allies can provide valuable guidance and support, offering insights into navigating the political terrain. Identifying individuals who have successfully manoeuvred through organisational politics can help you learn from their experiences.
You can also seek to provide space for workgroups and colleagues to come together to share, learn from, and advocate for each other’s needs.
But you can’t do this alone…your reputation comes with you. Your professional reputation is an asset in the realm of workplace politics. Maintain integrity, demonstrate consistency, and deliver high-quality work. Cultivate a reputation for being a reliable, authentic and trustworthy colleague. Being trusted goes a long way in a politically charged environment.
As the author, Stephen Covey said, “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships”.
Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®
Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.