Managing politics

Organizational politics come in two forms – healthy and unhealthy.

Politics is about the exercise of power and influence. When this happens out in the open, based on honesty and trust, it is the healthy exercise of persuasion and influence. People change their minds, or vote one way or another, based on their assessments of what is best overall for the team or organization. Teams and leaders need to be able to exert influence in this way - see our development exercise "How to influence stakeholders" for some useful tips.

Evidence shows that the best-rated leaders have a positive impact on people way beyond their position in the hierarchy. Because they use their powers of influence with integrity, respect and concern for the overall success of the organization they command respect.

They appreciate the genuine interests of different stakeholders and can relate to concerns. They have a talent for knowing who to persuade and how to persuade them.

Politics as intrigue and sabotage

The unhealthy side of politics comes into play when people don’t trust each other.

Sometimes people say one thing to your face but leave a meeting and do something quite different. They have hidden agendas.

Sometimes you or your team have “previous” with someone you need on your side.

How do you deal with this darker side of organizational politics?

Handling unhealthy politics

As a leader, your first focus will be to rebuild trust and to promote a culture of candour and transparency. You should be explicit that this is your goal.

What you do is even more important than what you say. Showing integrity, treating people fairly and keeping promises over a period of time will build a healthy culture based on trust.

But, in extreme cases, you may find yourself facing dirty tricks. Up against people, or a person, you feel you can’t trust.

These people sap our energy and can take up a disproportionate amount of our thinking time.

When this happens, it helps to take time out. Grab a sheet of paper (you’ll throw it away later) and fill in the trust-agreement matrix . Carefully!

Using this matrix will help you to assess just how serious the problem is, so that you can decide with a clear head what action you need to take to rebuild your relationship with this person or group – if that’s possible. And how to handle them if it isn't.