In the land of self-organizing teams, the corporate politician is king

The idea that managers are going to save us all is a twentieth-century fad that nobody mentions in polite company anymore. ‘Leadership’ was supposed to save us from management, but (despite our best efforts) most people don’t seem to be able to simultaneously embody Genghis Khan, Gandhi, and Steve Jobs. Today’s fad is the ‘self-organizing team’ — although exactly how self-organizing these teams are supposed to be is questionable: searching for “self organizing teams” yields the delightful headline “Self-Organizing Teams Don’t Just Happen by Chance”. (And yet, if they don’t happen by themselves, are they really self-organizing?)

In theory, putting people into self-organizing teams will unleash a wave of creativity, innovation, and productivity. Just like managers were going to do for us in the 1980s, and leaders were supposed to do up until recently. The early adopters of the current fad (the ones who immediately saw that it was relevant to their needs) have already adopted it and reaped the benefits. Established organizations that are switching to self-organizing teams this late in the piece have my sympathies, because they’re unlikely to get much else out of it.

And yet, organizations will make the switch, and they’ll replace inefficient and outdated command-and-control hierarchies with inefficient and modern self-organizing teams. Although we can’t predict yet who will succeed and who will fail, there is one prediction we can make in every case: the power of the corporate politicians will increase. Because when you don’t officially allocate power to people, power is held by the people who take it.

Of course, ‘corporate politics’ is an offensive term, because most people associate it with Dangerous Unpredictable Manipulative Bastards. But despite the number of DUMB people in the world, enlightened people take an enlightened approach to politics. This is especially true with internal politics, where the people you deal with will likely be around the next day and will remember how you treated them last time around.

Now is a great time to be a savvy political operator, someone who has relationships they can use to make things happen, and contacts who will keep them up to date with what’s going on. If you can get people to cooperate with your plans without appearing to tell them what to do, you can even make a ‘self-organizing team’ look like a reality.

So how do you become an effective corporate politician without being DUMB about it?

Know what you want

The first principle in getting what you want is to know what that is. Do you want your favourite project to succeed? Or to have a life outside work? To learn a particular skill, or put it to work? Putting some thought into your priorities increases your chances of spotting opportunities to bring them into reality. And it makes it possible for you to start making plans.

Have a political plan, and revise it when things change

This doesn’t need to be the sort of grandiose scheme that gives politics a bad name. But if you want your project to succeed, then you’ll want to prioritize relationships with the key stakeholders. For getting home on time, you’ll want great relationships with people who can do the same work you can do. If it’s a skill you want, then you need good relationships with the people who have that skill, and the people who call for it when it’s needed.

Be a good friend

Mark McCormack nailed it when he said: “All things being equal, people will do business with a friend; all things being unequal, people will still do business with a friend.” Treat people with courtesy and respect, and they might not do the same for you: but they’ll prefer dealing with you over the people who don’t. (For bonus points, find a Mental Health First Aid class in your area, and become someone that people can rely on for emotional support.)

Keep your bribes small and appropriate

The corporate politician I respect most is a woman who works in a public-facing role where people get violent sometimes. One of her biggest priorities is to make sure that the security team comes quickly when she needs them. She noticed that the company doesn’t supply them with snacks, or milk for their coffee. Putting those things in the fridge for them isn’t going to compromise anyone’s integrity, but it does mean that patrols stop by her fridge (and therefore her part of the workplace) a little more often than they otherwise might.

Respect confidentiality and privacy

DUMB politicians think that knowledge is power because you can use it as blackmail, or to fuel the rumour mill. Enlightened politicians know that knowledge is power because it gets you to the right person quickly. It helps you understand what’s happening, and therefore to be effective in doing your work and in helping others.

The easiest way to get information is to have people tell you things. And the most reliable way to have people telling you things is if you’re someone that it’s safe to talk to. That means respecting confidentiality (the expectation that you won’t tell people things they shouldn’t know) and privacy (the expectation that you won’t demand information you shouldn’t have).

The fundamental principle

While there are many specific techniques that you can use to get human nature to work in your favour, there’s a fundamental principle that should guide people when they engage with internal politics. When you’re dealing with the same people every day, they’ll form an opinion of your intentions based on your behaviour. You want to be perceived as someone who is looking out for the interests of the collective, and also of the individuals you deal with. The best way to create that perception is to maintain a clear and consistent focus on the interests of the collective, and also of the individuals you deal with.

I hope this article encourages a few people to actively pursue an interest in mastering internal politics and making it a force for good. If there are topics you’d like to see me cover in more detail in a future article, please contact me and let me know. (Feel free to email if you’d rather not leave a comment here.)

Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals.

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