What they say about corporate politics
- In business, politics is the art of getting things done and reaping the benefits; it provides the power to get things done against opposition, avoiding negative implications and often producing positive effects in the career for the doer.
- The informal, unwritten procedures for making things happen or not happen in an organization.
- The unwritten and hardly ever spoken-out-loud norms of conducting oneself in order to successfully achieve one's goals and be rewarded for the achievement.
What I say about corporate politics
- Al the above is true.
- It happens in any company, big or small.
- It's not too different from lobbies in "real" politics.
- Don't fool yourself: You do need to play the game.
Why there isn't yet a required college course on corporate politics?
In my opinion, the reason is simple: There isn't an empiric way to package the knowledge around corporate politics. There are organizations with similar approaches, and there are a bunch of political styles that could be packaged in a more or less "scientific" bundle.
There are also some common sense rules that could be appended to the above. But aside from these generalizations that are true across the board, one needs to be in an organization to learn the politics of it in the field. And then again, what works for you may not work for others, because of personality, or because of the position they occupy.
As I see it, that would be why there are so many articles, seminars, references on the web on corporate politics, but no formal "education" on this fundamental subject matter for any soon to be, wannabe, or full-fledged business executive.
Oh, there actually are specialized trainings out there on corporate politics, except they are never called that, they are, as practically everything in politics, sweetened up with other less aggressive sounding names such as"interpersonal skills", "management skills", "negotiation skills", "team building"....
So, with all that's available in the internet...
... it seems writing a new hub on it may be a loss of my time and yours. Yeah, except for the fact that there isn't any empiric data valid and applicable to all organizations when it comes to corporate politics, so it's free-for-all, your-advice-is-as-good-as-mine topic.
I haven't been in corporate land for over 20 years for nothing, after all. And because I've read so much on the topic that's serious, I'll go for the tongue in check approach. This will be based on experience and I'll bet these few basic rules of corporate politics work pretty much anywhere –I know I said politics change depending on the organizations, but didn't I also say there are some basic principles?
THE UNWRITTEN RULES (ADVANTAGE: YOU DON'T NEED TO KNOW HOW TO READ!)
1. Don't fool yourself: You do need to play the game
And beware of fools who naively think they don't! They have the word trouble unfashionably knitted to whatever business attire the dress code at their workplace requires them to wear. Although, if they are as naïve as to think politics are for others but never for them, maybe they don't stick to a dress code either. Now, don't start rolling your eyes, because dress code is just as important and yes-yes as politics in corporate business. But that's another hub, maybe.
So, you're going to play the game, but it's true that the intensity and complexity of it varies depending on your position. The higher the corporate ladder, the more time you'll spend on politics, thinking of buy-ins, repercussions, favors you'll need to ask or cash in, people you need to meet and people you know that can forward your goals.
If it helps your sensibilities, think of it as business strategy, a plan with vision, instead of calling it "politics". Although, if you're high up enough, your sensibilities will be well prepared to call it any name that serves the purpose.
Now, if you're a newbie, fresh in the business world, don't go thinking this doesn’t apply to you. Corporate politics are there at all times and for all employees and, I repeat, beware of the fool who thinks they are exempt from such shenanigans. You may as well be clued in to reality –the sooner you realize this happens even if you don't want a part of it, the sooner you'll be on your way to be a pro, a captain in the waters of corporate politics.
Don't make enemies
It may take you a while to get familiar with the dynamics and the players, what works and what doesn't in your company, but it's still good to heed this strategy: meet people, let people know you, help people, let people owe you, don't get into silly arguments, fight battles that you know you can win and enlist bigger and stronger allies for those that present an uncertain battlefield.
If you don't believe me, more power to you. If you do, however, do yourself a favor and read my favorite and arguably the best book ever written on politics and strategy: The Prince by Machiavelli.
2. Never say No. Never say Never.
That doesn't meant you can't think "No way!" or "It's never gonna happen", and it most definitely doesn't mean you can't say either in a roundabout way, but please, don't be blunt and utter No or Never directly to any decision maker or any other big wig, even if it's not a decision maker in your scope of influence.
Corporate politics are just as any other brand of politics –they're about influencing, strategizing, about forming partnerships, enlisting allies, taking decisions and, at the end of the day, about coming out on top. In business, that means achieving a milestone, a goal, getting something done or approved.
Now, think how many things happen to get done by saying No or Never. It may occur to you that this isn't your target or your goal, it's nowhere near your area of influence and, basically, there's nothing in it for you, but think again: It's not your goal NOW, but it's bound to be some day, or worse (so, SO much worse!), it's bound to be the goal of someone you'll need on your side in future...
If you say NO or NEVER to the wrong audience, these two poisonous words can, and likely will, rebound to you ten-fold in future. Think "karma is like a boomerang". Or think "today for me and tomorrow for you". Think what helps, but save your Nos and Nevers for your mother in law or the nosy neighbor, take them away from your biz speech.
I'm a bit (ahem) stubborn so, evidently, I ended up learning this rule the hard way, by trial and error, you'd call it. By learning it, I also learned that there are so many synonyms for No and Never that it's no hardship to find an appropriate one for each situation where you may be tempted to shout a big fat No:
- I'll look into it
- I'll get back to you
- I'll see what can be done
- Let me think about it
- I'm not sure, I'll check it out
You're thinking this is silly, even children know that when parents say "maybe" it usually means No. Too right! All these accomplish the very same thing a No or Never, you didn't commit to something you don't believe is possible or good for you, the difference is that you didn't make an enemy out of anyone.
Now you're thinking that at some point you're going to have to enlighten your audience that you're actually NOT going to do it. Indeed, you'll have to formulate a suitable and professional explanation, which is the second advantage of never saying never.
You either have a perfectly reasonable and businesslike justification for not doing something, or you may find that it's actually a good idea and to your advantage to help this stakeholder now because it'll get you support in future, or plainly because it's simply a sound business idea, you just never thought of it in the first place.
The lesson here is don’t be blunt and impetuous. Don't use any power you may have to deny, use it to control what goes on around you.
3. If you absolutely can't avoid uttering either No or Never, then say them with all the authority you can muster
First of all, I said authority, not power. Not the same thing by any long shot. Any positional power you have in your company doesn't necessarily equal authority, we've all heard of disrespected managers, people with supposed power that would only be able to launch a battalion into battle by sheer discipline of the forces, because they are trained to obey the stripes in someone's shoulder.
Authority is a rather moral concept as opposed to the arbitrary rank granted by the organization, and it can never be gratuitously or arbitrarily granted to you, is something you earn by proving yourself over time to reports, peers and managers.
In my experience, authority is a lot more effective than power when you're navigating corporate politics. It's definitely a lot more powerful when you need to say No, because your counterparts will respect you, even if you're bound to annoy the living daylights out of them. An annoyed but respectful colleague is a lot better to deal with than an annoyed and disrespectful colleague.
That is true to the nth power when you're denying stakeholders that are a lot higher up in the ladder than you are. Again in my experience, big wigs tend to pay no heed to people that don't have, or don't know how to display, moral authority. I guess it's like they say, one only plays in the leagues where one can hit the ball.
You don't want to make enemies and you don't want to be despised, so gain your authority and use it when you need it. In the meantime, practice with all the synonyms for No and Never.
4. Don't be afraid to admit to a mistake (aka, No guts, no glory)
And don't wait to be caught, either! As opposed to what many misled professionals may think, admitting to a mistake is not only a very dignified act, but also a politically smart move if you're so unfortunate as to have, well, screwed up.
First of all, it demonstrates honesty –you're saying the truth, and it also demonstrates integrity –you're not trying to blame anyone else and are ready to admit the responsibility and take the potential consequences. It's not that I like to make mistakes, but I found that admitting to those I committed garnered me lot of respect and especially a lot of trust.
Respect and trust are pillars of authority, and we already covered how favorable to your interests authority can be in your career. Now, don't be silly and make a mistake on purpose to be able to confess to it! And don't go thinking that you can get away with confessing MANY mistakes either! If you're going to be screwing up more often than not, then you'll be out of a job soon, and that's not good for you, is it?
In corporate politics, much as it's often said to be a game of lies and frauds and make-believes, honesty and integrity and being able to trust your colleagues count for a lot. This is not only an "old boy's network" motto, it's real life in corporate land.
Who would you rather do business with, someone you trust or someone you don't? Admittedly, there will be instances where you'll need to do business with someone you don't trust, but given a choice it's a no-brainer.
Admitting to mistakes also means you're human and not a heartless, selfish, power-addicted executive that will save her ass by blaming her team, or anyone else, before admitting she's less than perfect.
It's not like higher up in the ladder execs can get away with blaming anyone much or for long, and it's not like there will be many chances to make mistakes, but here's my advice: If shit happens and it's your fault, first say so and then clean it up. Chances are, you'll be rewarded or at least not punished by the establishment.
5. Sarcasm and rudeness are out of the question. Jury is out on Irony.
In regards to irony, it will depend on how slick you are with your jabs and whether experience tells you that you can get away with a non-poisonous dose of it, but one thing that you need to avoid for sure is rudeness or sarcasm.
Folks, no one ever got anywhere by being an asshole. Do I need to explain more? If you think so, then refer above to the number of times I said corporate politics is about forming alliances and not creating enemies in the process. If you think you can be rude and will be forgiven, you are delusional. May happen once, or twice, but seriously, it'll catch up with you. Karma and boomerang again!
As for irony, I have a fondness for it, but won't risk it unless I'm convinced it'll go over well. In other words, I'll only use it in my inner professional circle. I hope you're not thinking I'm a coward, because that means you didn't listen to anything I explained in this hub about politics. I'm a confessed corporate player, and what does a player do with her cards? Keeps them close to her chest. Tada!
Another instance when I will resort to irony, or plain humor, is to get a certain audience to thinking or talking about something. There are forums where bluntly questioning things will create anxiety or direct opposition, so it comes in handy to be a bit ironic with your observations, because that makes stakeholders relax and feel less challenged; a bit of biting humor is usually a good pill to prompt open, stress-free discussions.
If you're uncertain about the effect of irony or humor, if you think they can be misunderstood, then avoid them. It's a rather obvious rule in corporate politics: Treat people as if you're going to need them in future. Maybe you won't, but risking an insult just for the fun of it it's plain silly, a bad strategy all around.
Is this playing in any theater near you?
I listed what to me are the five most useful unwritten rules in corporate politics. If you think about it, most are plain common sense:
- Don't bite the hand that feeds you.
- Don't be controversial but find a workaround that pacifies stakeholders.
- Don't insult colleagues or business associates, and what have you.
Pay no heed to any of my ramblings, if you think they make no sense whatsoever, but at least pay attention to rule #1:
Don't fool yourself! Politics are there whether you like it or not, whether you play the game or not!
© 2010 Elena.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on August 10, 2017:
The one thing I don't miss by not having a job is corporate politics. I really hate that game, lol.
Elena. (author) from Madrid on July 07, 2014:
Thanks for the comment, Subramaniam, glad you found this interesting!
Subramaniam Thamizh Venthar on July 06, 2014:
Office without politics is like a pond without water. As fish swims in the water to be alive, we need to steer our way through the water’s to be successful.
You have provided a wonderful set of Rules to be followed to manage and to prevail over office politics. Congrats Elena! And, thank you for sharing it with us.
Elena. (author) from Madrid on July 20, 2013:
Hello to you, Sue! Indeed, just as in a relationship, open communications are the best for team building in a company, but that's not incompatible with politics. It all depends on the levels one needs to navigate, and the position one holds. There can be time for team building, and time for politics, in my experience :)
Sustainable Sue from Altadena CA, USA on July 20, 2013:
I like that phrase too, "The one to ask is the one with nothing to lose." When there are communication problems within a company, both manipulation and politicking increase. The last company I worked with was that way. I had managerial and marketing skills they wanted, but they were afraid of me, I think, because I'm fairly open and they weren't. (One of the owners was my boss.) Judiciously open communication works better than anything I can think of for good team building. I finally quit after four years, because I couldn't take the bad decisions and politics anymore. I would have been a good person to ask for insights.
Elena. (author) from Madrid on July 14, 2013:
Hi Mel, and thanks for the feedback. I sort of like your line "The one to ask is the one with nothing to lose", except I have yet to meet that person in any meaningful level in a business organization :) I mean, whoever has nothing to lose hasn't probably won much either, so perhaps I wouldn't directly question their insights, but I would have to take them with a grain of salt, if you get what I mean?
Mel Carriere from San Diego California on July 13, 2013:
You are absolutely right that the political game has to be played. But an aspiring candidate for management also has to recognize that the rules of the game are different in every organization, and all of it filters from the top down. The most important thing to do first is learn those rules, and one cannot rely on other managerial candidates to be truthful about what works and what doesn't. The one to ask is the one with nothing to lose. Good hub. I've been through the managerial mill myself and I didn't want to swim any more in those shark infested waters.
Elena. (author) from Madrid on April 29, 2012:
Thanks, Vj! I wrote about "toxic employees" - but more in the context of management. If you were to provide an example of what you mean, you may yet inspire a tirade... article, I mean article, of course :)
Vj on April 28, 2012:
Very nicely written.. It would be great if you write something about catching or identifying the 'rat' in the corporate :)
Elena. (author) from Madrid on March 15, 2011:
Thanks much, Scott!
Scott G. Harrow from Toronto, Ontario. Canada. on March 15, 2011:
Dear Elena, I enjoyed your Hub very much it is factual and to the point. I like the way you sense business...
Grace on February 24, 2011:
Yes. It works :)
Elena. (author) from Madrid on May 09, 2010:
Can be tough, or can be child's game, I think it depends on whether one takes it personally or just as part of business :-) Thanks for commenting billy!
billyaustindillon on May 09, 2010:
A great hub and a tough game to get caught up in is corporate politics.
Jenny Roglear on April 25, 2010:
WOW ! I'll be sure to check these communication hub
Elena. (author) from Madrid on April 20, 2010:
Why, thank you GmaGoldie! I'll be sure to check these communication hubs, too! :-)
Kelly Kline Burnett from Madison, Wisconsin on April 20, 2010:
This is a must read! Excellent! Great graphics too! Teaching communications I try to bring these ideas into the classroom at the local college. Will be sure to link back to you on my communication Hubs. 5 stars!
Elena. (author) from Madrid on April 19, 2010:
Hi lctodd1947, thanks for your comment! I don't think it's sad, unless you stepped on someone else's foot (or head) on purpose :-) Sad is when one is a toxic employee or boss and they do everyone's life miserable to advance their carreer, but if one behaves dimplomatically and harms no one, that's not really sad, it's politics :-)
Linda Todd from Charleston on April 19, 2010:
Nothing to be said about this but wonderful, true, exact and yes the office is full of politics. Sometimes it is not what you know, it is who you know and how much they like you. You have done a fantastic work describing this situation in Corporate American. I have been there and done that also. Sadly...but true.
Elena. (author) from Madrid on April 19, 2010:
Hi Aaron! Thanks for reading! I can't really speak about politics in third world countries, there probably are subtle and not so subtle differences, but I assure you the tips I offered in this article apply to the first world pretty well :-)
AARON99 on April 19, 2010:
An amazing hub once again. This hub gathers some clear and subtle points about corporate world. Though in my personal experience i have seen that this politics are more in third world countries. You should through some lights on this issues also. Well done. Enjoy.
Elena. (author) from Madrid on April 17, 2010:
Violet, I'm glad you think this is good advice, please feel free to pass it on to anyone still in corporate land :-) You are right that the lessons learned in the corporate world can be very useful to run a business, so all is not bad in corp-land! :-)
Now, ruffling some feathers once or twice shouldn't be a big deal, I mean, people should get over it, but somehow in corporate land ruffled feathers tend to stay ruffled for some odd reason! :-)
msorensoon, thank you, appreciate the feedback!
Candie, I think I know what image you mean, it's one that gives me a bit of a headache but it is VERY much apropos here indeed :-) Maybe I'll fetch it yet!
This series I did in the very beginning of being here in HP, and somehow lately I felt like airing it again. I suppose I started writing on the corporate land subject because it's something I know pretty well, though I later found out it isn't the most popular topic here :-) Thanks for reading!
Candie V from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure! on April 17, 2010:
You are a great one to write about these 'corporate climate' hubs!
I was looking at the 'you can, you can't' picture.. if it was my list, I would have doodled all over it! One thing that's missing is a flow chart showing all the boxes with 'dance steps' all shuffling back to the center square which is 'YOUR RESPONSIBILITY'! Hahaha! Great series Elena!
Now.. WAKE UP and Weigh-in!!
msorensson on April 17, 2010:
Great educational hub, Elena.
VioletSun from Oregon/ Name: Marie on April 17, 2010:
Again, as I mentioned in one of your hubs on bosses, that I wish I had read this when I was in the corporate world (28 years). I was too blunt and ruffled the feathers of a few in authority over me, and didn't help me in the long run.
You have given great tips! I so understand the rules nowadays. I am thrilled though, I am no longer in the corporate world but self employed, as my mate and I purchased a business last year. Its a 7 day job, but we only have the two of us two deal with when running the business, and we get along very well even business wise. One thing about working in the corporate world is the skills that are developed, translates well when managing a business.
Elena. (author) from Madrid on April 17, 2010:
And I thank you for your comment, Hello, Hello! Glad it was something useful!
Hello, hello, from London, UK on April 17, 2010:
Fabolous hub with lots of points, advice and ideas. One can learn a lot from it. Thank you very much.