Two men are walking through a forest. Suddenly, they see a tiger in the distance, running towards them. They turn and start running away. But then one of them stops, takes some running shoes from his bag, and starts putting the on.
“What are you doing?” says the other man. “Do you think you will run faster than the tiger with those?”
“I don’t have to run faster than the tiger,” he says. “I just have to run faster than you.”
For many ‘politics’, whether applied to government or business, will often be a dirty word. The phrase “Good Politics” may therefore seem like a contradiction in terms – particularly when applied to organizations. Here, the word will probably bring to mind dark Machiavellian plots of back-stabbing and infighting that poison organizational cultures and lead to toxic working environments where only the most ruthless survive. “Et tu, Brute?” and all that. In reality however, politics are a necessary part of any functioning human organization, and are an important part of how things get done.
Let’s think of the two ends of the political spectrum as: “What you know” vs “Who you know”:
- At the what-you-know end, the belief is that knowledge is power, and the work it produces should speak for itself. This is a meritocracy, and here politics could only get in the way of progress.
- At the who-you-know end, work is secondary, or perhaps even irrelevant, and the strength of your personal and professional network, and the level of influence contained within that network, will be the determining factor in progress. People are power.
Early in our careers, fresh out of college, crammed full of knowledge and eager to do great work, we’re pretty much working at the what-you-know end of the spectrum, and for a while we’ll make good progress as a result. It can be easy to believe that this is indeed how the world works, and to largely ignore the need to build relationships and to exert influence outside of the ‘work’ itself. For many however, there will come a moment: perhaps when a project is cancelled mid-stream and seemingly without warning; or, when they’re once again passed over for deserved promotion; or, when they receive a performance review, delivered shortly after yet another change in manager, that seems to discount all of the great work done this year. It’s the moment that the what-you-know bubble will inevitably burst.
In that moment, we have a choice: We can double down on the work and hope that next time it’ll be different, or we can begin to embrace some of the more ‘political’ activities that will actually (1) help to mitigate the risk that this will happen again in the future, and (2) allow us to have a far greater impact than is currently possible.
This is where “Good Politics” can make all the difference. Building and maintaining a strong professional network within (and outside) the organization has always been a good idea, and politics is about how you use that network to exert influence. If you’re using that influence to further your own self interest, then you’re all the way down the who-you-know end playing pure p*litics and that’s a dangerous game. However, if you’re using the influence to help ‘sell’ a new innovative product idea to key stakeholders that could be a part of the future revenue stream of the company, or you’re promoting your ability to have a greater impact that you’re having today on the success of the company, then you’re using Good Politics.
Getting the balance right is challenging, but it’s important to understand that an imbalance on either side of the spectrum will, in most modern organizations, limit your impact, your career opportunities, and your growth as a leader.