By Ryan W. Quinn
Politics is not bad. Practicing managers always seem surprised when organizational behavior scholars tell them this. But politics is just the activity of using power—something all of us do in big ways or small ones every day. Every relationship is, in some way, a power relationship. It’s not exerting power that is bad, but the way people choose to wield it.
When practicing managers and other employees use the term politics, they are seldom referring to the generic (and less charged) definition of politics as the use of power. Instead, they are referring to the unacknowledged organizational games people play to get what they want, irrespective of whether what they want is the best thing for the organization or for other people.
Getting Caught Up in the Games
I don’t like to think of myself as the kind of person who plays games that are selfish and not transparent. One day, however, I was surprised and a little ashamed of myself to discover that I had fallen into that trap.
In one of the organizations I’ve worked for, it was common for people to jockey for permission to hire people into their department each year. Only so many people could be hired annually company-wide. If another department got to hire, then our department was less likely to be able to.
After a few years of working there, I had seen requests made and accepted or refused based on reasons that appeared to have more to do with leaders’ preferences than with clear principles or well-analyzed arguments. This looked like a game to me. So in one meeting I suggested that even though we had no immediate need to hire someone, we should put a request in, because we did not know if later, when we needed it, we would be able to do so. I was advocating that we enter the game.
“I would rather not do that,” said one of my colleagues, a recent hire. “I think that if we don’t have any reason to hire, we should not ask to hire. And when we do need to hire, we should ask for it and expect to get it.”
When my colleague finished speaking, I was embarrassed. He was right. I had not been thinking about the good of the organization or the good of the other departments. I had only been thinking about what we wanted and how to game the system so we could get it. And, implicitly, I was choosing to think of my leaders and colleagues in other departments in negative ways. I instantly made a commitment to change and thanked my colleague for his perspective.
In taking this stand, my colleague exerted, and was planning to exert, power—not the power of getting what he wanted at any cost, but the power of big-picture leadership. If power is about making things happen, then my colleague made something happen in that meeting by persuading us to not request a hiring slot. He was planning—when the time came that we would actually need to hire—to use power later to get the position we needed.
Yes, politics is happening all the time, and my colleague was engaging in it. But not the kind of politics people complain about.
A key to positive politics—perhaps the key to positive politics—may be self-honesty. Recently, in a class I am teaching, a number of students received lower grades than they are used to getting and were understandably upset. Part of this was my fault because I did not fully understand the system and expectations of the new school where I am teaching. Nor did I manage the students’ expectations as well as I should have. Part of this was also, however, a result of students’ preparation and investment. I apologized for my errors and made whatever amends were possible. But I also let them know I still had high standards for them.
At about this time, I received an email from one of my students. He describe some previous classroom experiences similar to the one he was having in my class, and then confessed he had expressed negative things about my class with some of his classmates. In other words, he was exercising what power he thought he had to discredit my class with his peers. This, I think, is a common way to engage in the political game.
The rest of this student’s email, however, impressed me enormously. He went on to say that after complaining to these other students, he went back and read the syllabus for my class “for the first time.” In the syllabus, I outlined the unusual nature of my class, how the grading would work, and how the key to having a good experience in my class would be to engage me when things seemed tough, ambiguous, unfair, or negative in any way. I asked the students to reach out to me rather than complain to other students and promised that they would find me flexible and willing to work with them, even though I would hold them to high standards.
After reading that, this student felt bad about complaining to the other students, expressed it, and committed in his email to speak positively about the class and to communicate with me directly if he thinks change or clarification is needed. I was deeply impressed by the self-honesty and maturity this student showed. I think he is learning how to be like my colleague who refused to play political games as a way to get permission for a hiring slot. If he can maintain that self-honesty, I expect his use of politics to be exceptionally positive.