Aristotle noted, “Man is by nature a political animal.” Plato stated, “One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” A constant theme of my coaching the past 20 years has been clients’ resistance to engage in “Office Politics” on essentially moral, ethical or other philosophical grounds. Regularly, I find myself explaining this supposed “political abstinence” is only a self delusion, and that everyone plays politics whether they want to or not. Previously, I’ve espoused the value of “true grit”, but hard work will always be subject to your ability to play politics as a senior leader. Your ability to proactively and constructively engage in work politics will determine how high you climb the corporate ladder as an employee, and aspiring leader. It will also determine how supportive and productive your business ecosystem is as an entrepreneur, business owner or business leader.

Dirty, Stupid & Smart Politics

As far as I see it there are ostensibly three types of politics – Dirty, Stupid and Smart. “Dirty Politics” is the meaning most people commonly associate with the generic term “Politics”. It reflects the kind of politics that people refer to when they say things like, “I don’t like office politics”, “I don’t engage in office politics” or “I don’t like to play the game”. Dirty Politics refers to politics where people are purely self-serving at the expense of others, and at the expense of good business. Dirty politics can destroy the best resources, best cultures and best teams, whilst limiting success. Dirty politics is playing the game selfishly. Stupid Politics is simply sticking your head in the sand and denying that politics exists. It’s thinking that office politics don’t effect you, or that you don’t need to play them. Stupid Politics is playing the game badly. Smart Politics on the other hand is the politics that facilitates productive relationships. It can overcome a shortfall in resources, people & products, and creates success. Smart politics is playing the game well. As a businessman (using the term ubiquitously), it’s fundamental and mature that you acknowledge Aristole’s point – when you get two or more people, you get politics – so it’s unavoidable, and it’s important you know how to navigate them. Subsequently Plato’s point also holds true – it’s immature, naive and self-sabotaging to think you can avoid politics. To this end, you can work as hard as you like, but if someone is working politically against you, and you think you’re not “playing the game” – then you’ll lose. The question IS NOT whether you are “playing the game”, IT IS whether you are “playing it selfishly”, “playing it badly” or “playing it well”. My own sense of ethics and values means I promote the idea of “playing it well”, which fortunately also speaks to the needs of my clients. Obviously, many alternatively choose to play it selfishly or badly – both of which I do not advocate. Ferris et al in 2005 examined the nature, impact and inventory for office politics. They concluded four key components will determine your success in the political work environment:
  1. Social Astuteness – your ability to read others & how they see you
  2. Interpersonal Influence – your ability to align your agenda with others & get them to act in alignment with yours
  3. Networking Ability – you capacity to form mutually beneficial working relationships.
  4. Apparent sincerity – the appearance of being sincere
Unsurprisingly this inventory of Political Skills maps neatly to Daniel Goleman’s work around EQ, Social Intelligence & Empathy.

In summary EQ has the primary components of:

  1. Self Awareness – understanding why and how you feel what you feel
  2. Self Regulation – understanding what is the appropriate & most beneficial response to how you feel

Social Intelligence has the primary components of:

  1. Social Awareness – understanding how the people around feel about you, others & circumstances
  2. Social Facility – being able to influence the people around you towards the direction you’d like

Empathy has three key components of:

  1. Cognitive Empathy – understanding someone’s perspective
  2. Emotional Empathy – understanding how that perspective makes them feel
  3. Empathetic Concern – given how they feel, understanding what is it that they need
These theoretical frameworks are both clever and helpful, but when it comes to politics you need more that a set of Emotional & Social skills – you need a practical and effective strategy, process & method. So how do your bring them altogether? Over the past few years I’ve noted and developed a 6-Step political playbook which I call “SMART Politics”. It’s designed to help guide my clients through the tricky and unavoidable political work landscape. It assumes that their intentions are honourable and designed for the betterment of themselves, others and the entire organisation. In my experience this assumption holds true for most people, but not all. It also provides a vehicle for you to apply the learnings and insights of both Ferris et al and Daniel Goleman.

SMART Politics in Summary:

  1. S – SITUATION – Accept & embrace the political situation, its landscape and factors. Use your Self Awareness & Self Regulation to understand how you feel and should respond. STOP RESISTING THE NEED TO PLAY THE GAME.
  2. M – MINDSET – Adopt an “Active Political Mindset” & play the game consciously with empathy, strategy and skill. Be mindful, patient and purposeful. STOP BEING A VICTIM TO THE IMPACT OF POLITICS.
  3. A – ANTAGONISTS – Identify the Key Political Players whom are part of your political struggle – the Stakeholders & Influencers whom are part of your cause and your ecosystem. Utilise your Social Awareness & Social Facility skills for understanding the players. STOP INVESTING IN THOSE THAT WILL NEVER SUPPORT YOUR CAUSE.
  4. R – RATIONALE – Understand the Key Players personal rationale, motivations & agendas. Align your cause with theirs. Use your Empathy, Social Awareness & Social Facility skills to create alignment. STOP THINKING THAT DOING A GOOD JOB AND PLAYING NICE, IS PLAYING POLITICS.
  5. T – TRANSITION – Influence, Minimise or Exit the Key Players according to your agenda – Transition those in whom are aligned, and transition those out whom are not. This is where the apex of you Social Facility comes into play, and you will necessarily have hard conversations and confrontations. STOP RESISTING THE NEED FOR CONFRONTATION & THE NEED TO MOVE PEOPLE ON.
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