“Workplace politics” is hard to define, yet we have all experienced it because it’s about human behavior, power, authority, and influence. In its most positive incarnation, office politics is about balancing the many diverse views of interested parties.

“Workplace politics” isn’t necessarily a negative term.

At worst, however, office politics is about self-serving methods to acquire or maintain influence or authority, and it can destroy an organization from within. How leaders handle office politics is one of the most important determinants of how well the leaders succeed and how well the overall organization succeeds.

It’s no use ignoring workplace politics, or pretending that it doesn’t exist. Even the most smoothly functioning businesses have internal politics. The difference is that the good companies use it positively, to oil the gears that make the company operate. Leadership training programs cannot ignore the importance of workplace politics and must equip current and future leaders for handling it adroitly.

Bad versus Good Politics

“Bad” office politics can be identified by the verbs used to describe people’s behavior. They “angle,” or “maneuver,” or worse, “backstab.” In offices with bad politics, people are metaphorically “thrown under the bus,” or otherwise sacrificed in others’ attempts at personal advancement. Sometimes the only way to “cope” with such a toxic work environment is to leave.

Good politics still involves advancing individual interests, but not at the expense of others’ rights or the legitimate organizational interests. Actions taken in a positive political environment serve a higher purpose and invoke criticism constructively. They don’t advance one person’s interests by trashing someone else’s.

Understanding How Decisions Are Made

Leaders and team members alike must understand not only who makes decisions, but how decisions are made. It isn’t always obvious who calls the shots, but understanding how decisions are made is invaluable to every team member. For example, a company may have to change the decision-making process upon receiving a government contract in order to fulfill regulations. When this happens, it’s essential that everyone understands why certain steps must now be taken, and who must take them.

People need to understand not only who makes the decisions, but how the decisions are made.

Learning how decisions are made is part understanding roles and company organization and part listening and observing. When every team member understands the decision-making process and the decision-makers themselves, it’s easier for people to know how to develop their ideas and get people to listen.

How Effective Leaders Manage Politics

Workplace politics is too broad a canvas to address with one-size-fits-all guidelines about how leaders should manage it. However, it always starts with building relationships, and requires an understanding of several key concepts:

  • Understanding that the meaning of action depends on perspective – in other words, a decision looks different to different people in different roles. Therefore, understanding of all team roles is critical.
  • Understanding the importance of process, policy, and structure, and knowing when these constructs are inadequate.
  • Realizing that no workplace is devoid of emotion, and that knowing how emotions are elicited and what different emotions do affect productivity and morale.
  • Determining that actions must be aligned with intentions, and determining that people need to know how certain intentions line up with actions and choices.

The best leadership training programs produce leaders who lead by example and act with integrity. They account for realities like today’s geographically scattered teams and remote workers and help leaders develop the listening skills and techniques that work in an era when much communication is done electronically rather than face to face.

And finally, leadership training programs help leaders understand the importance of exploring perspectives other than their own. Understanding others’ perspectives won’t necessarily change how things are done, or what decisions are ultimately made, but it will set the stage for clearer, more constructive communication, which is one of the most important ways to address bad office politics.

Leadership training is closely intertwined with organizational culture.

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