August 2017 | 

Mastering Organizational Politics: The Four Strategies Every Leader Needs

Mastering Organizational Politics

John Eldred says workplace politics has a bad rap. “People who aren’t good at it see it as a toxin or a threat, something to avoid at all costs. Over time, they typically begin to realize they can’t hide from it forever, and start to engage selectively. But it’s still perilous, and when a situation doesn’t work out, they use politics as a handy excuse. We’ve all heard it: when we win on an issue, we call it leadership. When we lose, we call it politics.”

On the other hand, those who’ve mastered organizational politics know when and how to engage. Eldred, who teaches in the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Organizational Dynamics program and in Wharton Executive Education’s Leading and Managing People, says “mastery means increasing your options for effective results. It’s not about winning at all costs, but about maintaining relationships and reaching your goal at the same time.”

How does that work, and how do leaders — many of whom have spent years thinking every battle must be fought and won — master politics? First, Eldred says, you have to know what your goals are, and be able to take a wide view of the issue or conflict you’re facing. “Slow down, get out of your reactive mode, and reframe what winning the situation means in terms of your goal. There may be a political mess, but if it’s irrelevant to your goal, why engage? It’s so easy to get distracted in highly political situations, and it’s not always worth it to get involved.”

Even when a situation is relevant, it still might not make sense to engage. “You can’t take on everyone,” says Eldred. “Be selective about when you’re willing to fight. There are antagonists in every organization, and you shouldn’t allow yourself to be dominated by them. But you’re also not responsible for taking on every antagonist.”

Once you’ve decided you need to get involved, Eldred says there are just four strategies to choose among. Deciding which one is called for means understanding two critical dimensions: the balance of power and goal confluence. Eldred says many of the executives he works with begin by saying they don’t think they have power, “But that’s often just a feeling. They might have an excellent track record and reputation for getting things done. Those are strengths you bring to the table. Understand how much power you have relative to the other person, and, if it’s unequal, which of you has more power.”

The second dimension is about whether your goals flow in the same general direction. “They don’t have to be the same, but are they in alignment or are they at odds with each other? Once you’ve figured out how power and goals line up, that dictates how you should respond.”

In the first scenario, both power and goals are out of alignment. “The appropriate strategy here is domination. It’s not something people want to talk about, but that’s the way the world works. The powerful person gets what he or she wants and isn’t concerned about whether the other party gains or not.”

If your goals are aligned but power isn’t, the right strategy is influence. “Here, the more powerful person works to influence the behavior of the other.  You have more power and capability to get things done, so you work to get others to go along with you.”

In the third scenario, goals are not aligned but power is balanced. “This situation calls for negotiation. You’re both key players, but you can’t agree on which way to go. You have to negotiate.  In my work with management unions, we have stayed away from nice words like ‘buy-in.’ Negotiating is tough and time consuming — which is why it’s an appropriate strategy only in this scenario — and you can only do it if the other party wants to.”

Finally, says Eldred, when goals are confluent and power is relatively equal, you need to cooperate, building a coalition to achieve your goals. “You have to be good at all of these strategies,” says Eldred, “but you don’t need to be great. Don’t pick a favorite and practice it no matter the circumstances. Think about power and goals, and then choose your strategy. Politics really doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.”