The art of ethical office politics

It is tough to stay away and sometimes tougher still to play the game, but you need to understand and manage the undercurrents
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First Published: Sun, Sep 23 2012. 08 05 PM IST
Understand the power hierarchy in your office to network effectively.
Understand the power hierarchy in your office to network effectively.
Do you think politics is petty and consider yourself above it, especially at the office? Do you believe that the resolution to issues should hinge upon analysis woven into data and logic, rather than depend on who you know and who knows you? If yes, then think again! Atul Srivastava, chief executive officer, Effective People, a human resources consulting and training company in Mumbai, says, “A long-term strategy for success lies in recognizing and accepting politics and playing it within the precincts of ethics.”
Any entity where two or more people interact is inherently political for two reasons: One, people are bound to have diverse—and often conflicting—views, goals, perspectives and priorities, and second, resources are limited. Politics stems from the struggle and competition for power and resources, and encompasses the complex dynamic that emerges from this.
Ignoring it or pretending it does not exist would render you powerless, disconnected and devoid of supporters for meeting your personal and team goals. Chennai-based P.G. Suresh Kumar, chief personnel officer, L&T Infrastructure Development Projects Ltd, says: “Politics in an organization is unavoidable. It is vital to recognize the political undercurrents, understand and manage them, and turn them around to one’s own advantage and that of the organization.”
If you want to survive at work and still be effective and ethical, here are a few ways to navigate cubicle politics.
Be in the know
Understand the power infrastructure in your office—the decision makers, the influencers and those deemed to be the “powerhouses of information”. Information typically flows through two channels. The official channel comprises newsletters, emails, notices, town halls and meetings. This information is authentic, but may not be very effective for taking decisions proactively as events, situations and people are likely to have been in motion long before you get this information.
As a result, you have little flexibility to leverage it to your advantage for meeting your goals. For instance, assume that you are striving for a particular slot in the department to promote a team member, and that slot happens to fall vacant as a result of a resignation. If you are in the know of this early enough, you may be able to present your case to your stakeholders proactively, and hope to turn the decision in your favour, else someone else may beat you to it!
The second channel, also called grapevine, is informal and off the record. For instance, Kumar highlights that at times certain organizational policies which are in the offing may be “slipped out” through the grapevine, in order to gauge reactions and assess the level of acceptance, before a formal launch.
How does the grapevine work? It works through clusters or groups of four-six people who hang out for coffee or lunch, or meet for drinks or dinner after work or on weekends. These informal alliances are the hotbeds of information exchange, invariably ahead of the official channel. Clusters are fed by floaters or people who are well-perceived, influential and in the know. So it is a good strategy to either form a cluster or be associated with an existing cluster.
Build your network
Sunil Wariar, senior vice-president, human capital, Future Generali, Mumbai, says, “Engaging in politics encompasses influencing people and seeking their alignment with your proposal or viewpoint.” So build a network of allies by forging relationships with people across the organization.
According to Linda Hill and Kent Lineback, authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, you need an operational network comprising people who will support you in getting your job done; a strategic network which will help you scan the environment and identify opportunities and threats that you and your team need to prepare for; and a developmental network that opens up opportunities like new assignments, projects and experiences which enable you to learn and develop. These networks are bound to overlap, and who should be on them really depends on your goals. Irrespective of your specific goals, it would be prudent to cultivate mentors, sponsors, and your boss, team and peers.
What are the strategies for cultivating your network? Let’s flip the question over. What will make you attractive for people to want to network with you? First, people should know you and, second, they should consider you credible. You can gain visibility and credibility by volunteering, teaching, writing, speaking or being on working groups or task forces. In addition, reinvent yourself by learning constantly, and build trust by delivering on time, keeping your promises and recommending solutions that work for all. We naturally tend to network with people whom we like, and those with whom we are perforce required to work. But it is best to overlook these proclivities, and forge good working relations with all who may play a role in helping us achieve our goals.
Be visible: The approach where you put in your best at work and let “your good work speak for itself” may not work. So promote your work actively, not at someone’s expense, but through responsible communication to your stakeholders at an appropriate forum, without over-promoting yourself.
Be ethical: Engage in politics ethically. Do the right thing and form alliances for mutual gain, not just for your own. Srivastava says the term “politics” assumes negative connotations when it degenerates into manipulation. Manipulation through sycophancy, stepping on people’s toes and pandering to their weaknesses is a means to address your own insecurities, which can, at best, bring short-term gains, but is bound to be counterproductive in the long run.” Wariar echoes this sentiment when he says, “The word ‘politics’ falls short in effectively representing people interaction at the workplace, when it oversteps the boundaries of ethics.”
Be respectful: According to Wariar, there’s bound to be dissent and conflict in the wake of diversity of views. This, however, is healthy, as long as it does not get personal and is resolved within the precincts of mutual respect. He adds that one of the dimensions of playing politics in a constructive manner rests in learning how to deal with conflict effectively, rather than shying away from it.
Hill and Lineback aptly summarize it: “Staying above it all (politics) may feel like the moral high road, but it’s just abdication (of responsibility).”
Charu Sabnavis is a trainer and consultant in the area of people development.
Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Sep 23 2012. 08 05 PM IST
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