March 2016 | 

Mastering Organizational Politics: How to Avoid the Three Biggest Mistakes

Mastering Organizational Politics: How to Avoid the Three Biggest Mistakes

In this presidential election year in the United States, politics are everywhere. The only way to get a break, one might think, is to stop watching the news and go back to work.  But there is no escape: politics are as much a part of organizational life as they are a part of national life.  They can’t be avoided, so the only question is whether you can deal with them skillfully and ethically — or hide in your office and pretend they are not there.

“Many people find politics objectionable and unseemly,” says Wharton professor of legal studies and management Richard Shell. “They see it as inauthentic, about playing games when you should be telling the truth. But no matter what you think about it, you can’t opt out. It’s not a question of whether it’s there, but how good you are at it.”

Shell, a renowned expert on negotiation and persuasion, says at the heart of organizational politics is relationship-based persuasion. It’s what he and co-author Mario Moussa call “The Art of WOO” (winning others over). In Strategic Persuasion Workshop: The Art and Science of Selling Ideas, they draw on lessons from their book to help participants strengthen their political skills.

“Our program helps people think about the process of getting buy-in. It’s about finding allies, crafting a compelling message and then adjusting it for different audiences, building coalitions, and gaining consensus. Mastering organizational politics means understanding how the group process works,” Shell explains.

When asked about the biggest mistakes executives make, he doesn’t pause. As academic director of the program for many years, he has hundreds of examples to draw from. “There are three common errors, and the program addresses each of them. First, they blurt out their idea before they frame it strategically. Second, they impinge on someone else’s turf or disrespect another person’s function. If they go directly to their boss, jumping over someone in the process, they create an enemy even if that person might be sympathetic to their idea. Third, they’re too impatient. The idea-selling process rewards patience. It is one day, one mind, one ally at a time.”

All of these errors, says Shell, have something in common — they’re the result of not having mastered internal politics. Here, he shares his tips for avoiding them:

1. Speaking before you think about how to frame your idea.
Tip: “Think first about the special culture and language that your firm respects. Use your firm’s culture as a following wind instead of running contrary to it. Frame the idea to appeal to that culture, in a language that everyone will understand.”

2. Talking to the wrong people in the wrong order.
Tip: “Who is the person you know the best, who you think will be sympathetic to the idea? Start there. Even if they don’t have a role in the decision, they can help coach you for the next person as you practice verbalizing the pitch. Instead of jumping straight into the fire, start with your friends.”

3. Being too impatient.
Tip: “Take a deep breath and try to get it done thoughtfully and correctly. Instead of focusing on the final victory, think of advances as victories. An advance is getting one more person to meet with you, or to introduce you to someone. You get to champion the idea to someone else; someone agrees to hold a meeting that will allow you some time to talk. Celebrate these advances and let the end take care of itself.”

Ultimately, Shell notes, “preparation is the antidote for almost every ill, and it’s especially true for strategic persuasion. Think and plan before you make a move. That’s how to win others over.”