Beware the political quagmire!

Now this is a tricky one!

“Politics” at work are inevitable—everyone has motivations, everyone is trying to get something for themselves or take something away from somebody else. Sometimes the motivation might be pure, but the rationale might not make sense for the greater good. Sometimes both the intent and the outcome are ill-conceived.

Regardless of the situation, it will be critical in your career to be aware of political dynamics, if for no other reason than to avoid being at the center of them. Do your best to take a step back and break down the scenario objectively—the players, their motivations, and what’s at stake. And make sure to achieve it in a detached way, keeping it all in perspective.

The goal here is to take something that might be the toughest challenge you’ll face throughout your career journey and break it down into consumable parts while also providing concrete things you can do to gain control and be effective all along the way. Moreover, I want to help everyone look at something that’s emotional and subjective and can tend to get the best of us and help you achieve a paradigm shift—both in yourself and the broader ecosystem of stakeholders. It’s human nature in these situations to get caught up in and defeated by the interpersonal stuff, the chemistry and the “I like him but not her” dynamic, the emotion of it all. So, let’s all figure out how to be bigger and better than that. Let’s think of ourselves as the serving focused leaders we know we can and should be.

One exercise that might be worth trying in the more challenging situations you face is to map out on a notepad or white board who’s involved, first noting two things:

  1.  What outcome are they aiming to achieve?

  2. Why do they want that outcome? (Note: there’s almost always a “real” reason vs. what they might say on the surface.)

Once you have the players charted on the diagram, layer in some additional dynamics, including:

  1. Who has more or less power or leverage in the situation?

  2. Who is more open to listening to others and potentially changing their point of view?  

  3. How will the “movie” likely play out?

From there, try to take notes on the steps you might take next—what you can do and what’s in your control that will help evolve the scenario in the right direction.

If possible, your best option is to remain neutral and removed (but even this strategy requires being smart about everything that you just laid out on the board). If this is a situation where 1) you don’t have a vested interest and/or 2) it’s too politically explosive, my advice is to stay out of it, even if you a point of view about who’s right and who’s wrong.  

Most important in these situations is that you remain focused on what you can control, avoiding non-value added interactions in the pettiness that will waste your time and potentially compromise your integrity and relationships. If you have the opportunity to cleverly and positively help everyone else get their heads out of the drama and back to what’s really important, then by all means work your magic. If you cultivate the ability to do this well, it can be a hugely powerful skill over the longer term throughout your career.

In the event that you do have a vested interest in the political quagmire, your best option might be to connect with the individual players to talk through what they want to achieve and understand more deeply where they’re coming from. This will give you valuable information that you can use to build your case. Think of it as an interview where you’re aiming to listen more than you talk, asking things like:

  1. What’s their history/background with the situation?

  2. What have they done or seen that’s worked or not?

  3. What’s their relationship with/thoughts on the other stakeholders in the mix?

  4. What do they think the right thing is going forward?

  5. What do they recommend you do to achieve the goal?

You’ll be amazed what you can achieve in this process. It’s a great way of:

  1. Uncovering the big motivations that you might have missed or misconstrued.

  2. Learning about the trial and error of those before you—what they have tried to do vs. what you’re pursuing and how they fell down so you can avoid their pitfalls.

  3. Forging relationships and connections with each vested party that you might need to strengthen.

  4. Helping you further build out your case by expanding on the playing field whiteboard/notepad described earlier.

  5. Getting a realistic inventory of what you need to address in your process of achieving your goal. Consider creating an FAQ out of it—both for your own benefit to force a strong thinking through of the entire objective and to create something that you could provide to stakeholders who are involved.

Once you’ve gotten through this process, stay mindful of how you’re going to present your case in a way that isn’t political but instead:

  1. Visionary: Start with presenting a vision for how things can be better.

  2. Data Driven: Back up the vision or story with data and facts.

  3. Positive: Take an approach that is solution vs. problem-focused.

  4. Empathic/Sympathetic: Consider the feelings of and impact on others and address them in a compelling way.

  5. Option Focused: Offer a proposed approach in a way that presents options for people to consider and net out the pros and cons of each.

  6. Inclusive/Collaborative: Bring others into the decision-making process where it ends up feeling like “we’re all in this together” vs. an “us against them” dynamic.

For more tactical advice on pulling it all together into various forms of communication, check out the blog on Saying More By Saying Less.

Good luck!

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