Politics, work and success

Just because you do not take an interest in politics, doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you” – Pericles.

In the game of chess, both players map out every move before the first piece is even lifted. Great players have several games planned so they can respond to any unexpected moves from their opponent.

Knowing the outcome and all the moves needed to achieve it requires deep and considered thinking. Chess champions apply core principles of strategic agility as they navigate games and defend against their opponents’ moves.

Strategic agility is a core contributor to high-performing individuals and workplaces because it puts people at the centre of an organisation. Just like a chess champion maps out all their moves, we need to know how to navigate the people side of our workplace to be strategically agile.

People are political creatures and knowing how to form productive relationships with colleagues is an essential skill. Workplace politics are often thought to be difficult. I don’t believe they have to be.

I really admire Cathy McGowan AO, who became the first independent member for the electorate of Indi, in Victoria. She was also the first independent woman to sit on the federal crossbench and her grassroots campaign style opened the door for many other community-based politicians. McGowan believes trust is the one of the keys to political success, and that trust comes from respect.

This approach is just relevant if you’re negotiating from the federal crossbench or navigating a corporate environment.

Just like becoming a champion chess player, it takes time and effort to learn how to be political and navigate personalities in the workplace. Unfortunately, some people can be perceived as pushing agendas which are more aligned to their own personal gain than corporate success. Their colleagues take this personally and feel manipulated instead of having a sense they’re working together towards common objectives. This gives politics a bad name.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Let’s return to Cathy McGowan.

“Never be afraid to talk to people and be willing to ask if you want to know how something works. That’s not only because it’s how you learn, it’s how relationships are forged, and ultimately, they’re what count.”

It’s not what you know…

Being political will help smooth the way for you at work. Doing favours for others is a positive behaviour in the right context. Working with other people, their agendas and complexities is so much easier than working against them.

Influencing people is critical to getting sh*t done, which ultimately is why we’re employed. In part, we’re also employed to share our ideas and experience, which comes with the need to influence others.

Ensuring our voice is heard above the noise of others is fundamental to our own success and your team’s. Understanding your colleagues’ priorities and context will help us position our own agenda appropriately in discussions with them.

Politics at play at work

Here’s an example of how I developed my political strategic abilities to achieve great outcomes personally and for my organisation.

I was given accountability to merge business units into a single team, as part of a $15m restructure. I needed to report to the executive steering committee and ensure I met my objectives. I’ve got to be honest: my first few steerco meetings were terrible. Executives from other business units resisted the changes I was responsible for implementing. They rejected my ideas and requirements, even though they would benefit the whole organisation.

I met with one of the executives to seek feedback, and he shared his strategy of meeting with stakeholders before key decision-making meetings. Just like a chess grandmaster, his approach was to know all the necessary moves to achieve success.

I followed his advice, and these one-on-one conversations enabled me to speak directly to any concerns and cover the benefits of the merger. Sure enough, the following steering committee meetings were smoother, and my suggestions were increasingly endorsed.

Ultimately, the business units merged and had a positive impact on people and business outcomes. I also developed great relationships with executives I hadn’t worked with before and this served me well as I took on more complex work at higher levels in the organisation.

There were four key political moments in my strategy:

1. I was clear on what I needed to achieve and defined an inclusive approach that would be successful.

2. I retained my focus on business outcomes. The one-to-one conversations with executives meant I could tailor my recommendations to their needs, which turned them into advocates for the change I needed to deliver

3. I recognised I needed to bring each of the executives on an individual journey to achieve an outcome that was good for the whole business.

4. I was authentic in my conversations with the executives and was clear that my agenda was to achieve the organisation’s goal first, and my own second.

Being a good political operator means you need to be a strong communicator and can engage with colleagues from across your organisation. These are both key aspects of strategic agility. Developing your political capabilities and communication skills will lead to success for yourself, your team and your organisation.

Other articles in this series on strategic agility:

Growth mindset

Making fast decisions

Balancing priorities

Other resources:

Lead to Soar

Similar Posts