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How to Navigate Office Politics and Build Influence

Political awareness is an understanding of the power and influence webs in your organization and an ability to navigate them to achieve your goals and get things done.


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David Owasi

2 years ago | 9 min read

Organizational politics occur in any group, team or organization, whether social, commercial or voluntary. It has very little to do with the official organizational hierarchy, it is about people and in particular, building relationships, understanding different personalities and leveraging both dynamics to build influence.

Every organization and work environment has its invisible system and network of connection and influence. Many people are oblivious to this below-the-radar world, while others have a good mastery of it.

Skills in reading the currents that influence the real decision-makers depend on your ability not only to relate and build relationships on an interpersonal level but also on an organizational level.

Political awareness is simply an understanding of these power and influence webs and an ability to navigate them to achieve goals and get things done.

People who maintain rich personal networks in their organizations typically have a good grasp of what is going on, and this social intelligence extends to understanding the larger realities that affect the organization. Outstanding performers understand this ability, and the higher up the organizational ladder you climb, the more important this quality becomes.

Political awareness is simply an understanding of the power and influence webs in your organization and an ability to navigate them to achieve goals and get things done.

Office Politics 101

Your ability to read political realities is vital to the behind-the-scenes networking and coalition building that allows you to wield influence in any professional role or setting. Average performers lack this type of social awareness and are unable to show any type of political savviness.

Having this type of social awareness typically helps high performers to read situations objectively, without the distorting lens of their own biases, emotions or assumptions. Competence in political awareness builds on both emotional intelligence skills of self-control and empathy, both of these skills will help you to see clearly and from multiple perspectives, rather than be swayed exclusively by your singular point of view.

It is important to understand office politics not just in terms of getting things done but also in terms of your career advancement. In Harvey Coleman’s book “Empowering Yourself”, he asserts that how well you do in your job has little to do with how well you will do in your career. He asserts that your career performance is based on a combination of performance, image and exposure.

  1. Performance (10%): This is the day-to-day results you can deliver
  2. Image (30%): This is what other people think about you. This is your reputation, personal brand and how you are perceived. Are you someone who is enthusiastic and brings a positive vibe to group projects or are you someone who finds it difficult to collaborate and work in teams?
  3. Exposure (60%): This is who knows about what you do. No matter how brilliant or talented you are, you won’t make much career progress if no one knows about you. Are your abilities and work seen by the right managers and peers? Are you recognized by your colleagues in your industry?

To successfully navigate office politics, you need competence in political awareness. This competence helps you to accurately read key power relationships and detect vital social networks. Also, competence in this skill helps you to understand the forces that shape views and actions of stakeholders like clients, customers or competitors and accurately read organizational and external realities.

Political Awareness Model

Baddeley & James, 1987
Baddeley & James, 1987

Simon Baddeley and Kim James’ research provide a model for political awareness. This tool is useful to understand who is playing politics, and the motivation of the players — are they doing it for self-gain or the good of the organization? The model works by considering two dimensions:

  1. Reading: This is the skill to read and understand the world around you. This dimension is on a spectrum from “politically aware” to “politically unaware”, and measures your ability to ‘read’ your organization’s processes, agendas (hidden and stated), the location of power, and culture. Reading is all about having the awareness and intuition to turn outwards and understand the context of what is happening around you. The two ends of the spectrum are defined as ‘clever’ and ‘innocent’. Clever people are those who understand and use political power within an organization, and the innocents are the ones who are oblivious to its existence.
  2. Carrying: This is the skill to understand and manage what you are carrying into a situation. This skill is about your internal understanding of the situation, what you bring to the situation and what you intend to do about it. Carrying is all about the strategic awareness and understanding of your actions. The two ends of the spectrum are defined as ‘acting with integrity’ and ‘playing psychological games’.

Now let’s examine each quadrant of the model.

Innocent behaviour (The sheep): The sheep approach is built on a foundation of implied innocence. ‘Sheeps’ are suspicious of politics and want everything to work out well for all concerned. They are often oblivious to office politics and because of this struggle to get anything done. Many people begin their careers as ‘sheeps’, some people stay this way for their entire career. However, if you want to progress, you need more than just integrity, you need to understand group power dynamics. What are typical “sheeps” likely to say?

  1. “Could we get on with the main task of this meeting?”
  2. “If only they would simply tell us what they want, then we could do it.”
  3. “Well in strict hierarchical terms, I think it is X’s decision.”

Inept behaviour (The donkey): The donkey approach is similar to the sheep, they are politically inept, but they lack the integrity of the sheep. “Donkeys” are determined to get what they want, but because they aren’t politically astute, they will ignore the established political power bases when trying to achieve something.

This often means that they have a reputation for saying or doing things that embarrass or upset others. The donkey’s approach often leaves them lacking in team support and leaves them vulnerable to being taken advantage of by someone who is more astute or shrewd. What are typical “donkeys’ likely to say?

  1. “Let us decide what we want and I’ll sell it to them as what they want”
  2. “Well, we all know how he got his job, don’t we?”
  3. “You know me; I’ll just have to tell them they can’t have it.”
One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. — Plato

Clever behaviour (The fox): Foxes are politically astute but they use this intelligence for their gain. They are good at forming coalitions and winning support for their ideas. “Foxes” are excellent at manipulating situations so that they are never at fault, they are unprincipled, but excellent at exploiting a weakness in others to get what they want. What are typical “foxes” likely to say?

  1. “Leave it to me, I will have a private word with them.”
  2. “I have discussed this with all the decision-makers and everyone verbally agreed.”
  3. “I think it would be smart for you to take this one, it is very delicate and you know you are good at stuff like this”

Wise behaviour (The owl): Owls understand the politics of the organization, but their ethics make them use this political awareness for the benefit of the organization and themselves. “Owls” like to create win-win scenarios, unlike the foxes, they are not afraid to share their emotions and show vulnerability. They are overt and willing to openly share information where appropriate. They are guided by both ethics and doing what is right for the organization. What are typical “owls” likely to say?

  1. “Let me repeat what you are asking for back to you, so I can make sure I understand you correctly.”
  2. “Let’s try and examine the underlying concerns behind your objections.”
  3. “Let’s look at ways we can accelerate this work and mitigate the obstacles.”

The owl-like behaviour is clearly the quadrant you want to frequent if you are serious about wielding strong and sustained political awareness at your organization. Here are some specific directions to help you get there:

  1. Be guided by your values: You must be able to unite what is important to you with what is important to your organization, you can then align your politicking with these goals. You need skills in self-awareness to understand what is truly important to you. First, write down your top 5 priorities for your organization, then your top 5 career priorities as a member of the organization. If your goals and that of the organization align, the next step is to think about who needs to be aware of your achievements and progress. Now, the temptation is to keep your head down and work hard, that is a “sheep” kind of thinking. You need the right people to see your achievements because exposure, image and reputation are important to get ahead in your career.
  2. Build the network you need: Successful politics revolve around communicating your ideas and ideals and networking. When building relationships, endeavour to add value to others and earn “social credit”. You can earn this by helping people without expecting anything in return, others are more likely to return the favour when you need it. When building your network, target people with more political capital or influence than you as well as people at your level and below your level. A strong network is made up of a combination of all of these groups, If you are neglecting any group, make a plan to rectify it.
  3. Observe your environment: You need to keep scanning your environment and asking yourself good questions; Who holds power and influence? Who holds little formal power but has lots of authority? Who does everyone seem to listen to? Who is being promoted? Who is being ignored? What do people in power like and dislike? Observing and trying to answer these questions can not only help you identify who could make a strong ally, but it also helps you determine the organization’s culture and how you can contribute to the culture and be recognized.
  4. Promote yourself with tact: Being a narcissist and show-off won’t win you allies. Practice the subtle art of letting your work and result do the talking- show but don’t tell. If you’ve had success and achieved a positive outcome, instead of bragging about it, offer to help others achieve a similar outcome. If you are talking about a recent accomplishment, describe it as a “win for the team” and for “us”. Of course, everyone will acknowledge your success, but more importantly, you will earn respect, trust and loyalty of everyone and build a strong reputation. Reputation is gold and is a valuable political capital.

Conclusion

You have to be cautious while working towards increasing your political influence at your organization. It is important to always have the right motivation. Those who live to play the games of organization politics solely in pursuit of their self-interest and advancements often create blind spots for themselves by ignoring information that does not bear on their agenda.

Just like “the fox” from the model above, people like this will often tune out the feelings of those around them except when it is pertinent to their ambition. “Political animals” like this often come across as uncaring, shallow, insensitive and self-centred. People like this can’t build true influence.

Disinterest in organization politics is also a liability, those who lack political astuteness more often blunder their efforts in trying to mobilize others to their cause because their attempts at influence are misdirected or inept.

An accurate understanding of the formal structure of the organizational chart is often not enough, what is needed is a keen sense of the informal structure and the often unspoken power centers in the organization.

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David Owasi

I am a business owner, consultant and creative entrepreneur. I bring a lot of energy, passion and optimism to any project I am involved in. I drive to maximize my talents and potentials alongside those I work with. I bring a wealth of business ownership and coaching experience.


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