Mastering Office Politics Is Still a Required Skill
Remember the bad old days, when organizations were divided between thinkers and doers, and employees were expected to stay quiet and obey orders? Today, a front-line employee who demonstrates initiative, creativity and the ability to make quick decisions is rewarded, not criticized. Showing that you're competent and innovative is key, in most companies, to moving up to higher-level management responsibilities.
While today's corporations are substantially different from the corporations of the past, however, many business authors and observers tend to draw exaggerated portraits of pure meritocracies, utopias in which talent and the ability to communicate are the only passports needed for successful careers. The truth, writes management professor Kathleen Kelly Reardon in The Secret Handshake, is that those who make it to the top not only have talent and communication skills, they also have another prerequisite to corporate success: political savvy. "There is no doubt that a high level of field-based competence is needed to get ahead," Reardon explains. "But choose any two competent people, and the one who has political savvy, agility in the use of power and the ability to influence others, will go farther."
More Politics, More Conflict
Politics is not necessarily negative when viewed as a means to get things done. In other words, politically savvy people find ways - sometimes subtle ways - to achieve their goals, as opposed to running into brick walls. When politics is a means to getting ideas accepted, it can be a positive attribute. However, when political savvy means avoiding taking initiatives or passing along bad news in order to get along with the boss, it can be negative.
In addition, the more political an organization, Reardon warns, the more the chance for conflict. In highly politicized companies - where formal rules are ignored, powerful cliques dominate other groups of employees and managers, topics are taboo and communication with top managers is nonexistent - politics is a destructive presence that undermines productivity. The worse companies are what Reardon labels "pathologically politicized organizations," in which people or groups of people are literally at war with each other.
Ideally, companies would be "minimally politicized organizations" - the true meritocracies and team-based organizations described in the business books. But such organizations are rare; some politics is at work in most companies and, thus, the ability to play the game constructively can ensure a person's long-term success.
Align Political Style to Company
One key to succeeding in the game of office politics is to fit your political style to the demands of the organization. For example, purists - those who don't know how to play and don't want to learn how to play politics under any circumstances - are best suited for minimally politicized companies. Team players believe that you get along by working well with others. This political style is best suited to the moderately politicized organization. Street fighters who thrive on conflict can succeed in highly politicized and even pathologically politicized environments. Maneuverers - more subtle, preferring to work under cover to advance their goals - are more successful in minimally to moderately politicized companies. Most people tend toward one style. The challenge is to recognize that style and to determine whether it is appropriate to the company in which you find yourself. If not, a decision must be made: to change styles or change organizations.
If you decide to "stay and play," The Secret Handshakewill show you what it takes to succeed. This is not a sociology text; it's the best kind of self-help book: extensively researched and filled with specific and practical advice for succeeding in the real world, not the theoretical utopias of so many business authors.