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Tooling Up: Be Politically Astute, But Don't Play Politics

I recently lost a placement when my candidate accepted an offer from another company. This happens regularly to headhunters; it's a part of their job. I'm usually the first to wish a candidate well if the company I was representing isn't the best career move. But in this case, my client lost their preferred candidate because of some rather sneaky business. As it turns out, my candidate was a master of political gamesmanship.

Political players put you in the position of being a pawn in someone else's game. The fact that you've played by the rules and managed your relationships in a professional and respectful manner doesn't count for much. In my case, our client company was just a part of a three-way negotiation the candidate mounted in order to maximize his personal gain. Offers and counteroffers were in the air for a week. He got what he wanted, but in the process, he convinced me that he wasn't the right man for the job anyway.

In this month's "Tooling Up" column, I'd like to debunk the myth that some employment locations are free of political maneuvering. Some scientists mistakenly believe that start-up biotechnology employers have fewer political players than academic labs or larger corporations; I can tell you this isn't true. Every company--every industry--is staffed by a mixture of people who abhor politics and others for whom it's a modus operandi. It's always a mix of both.

The success of a business is often determined by whether upper management rewards the practice. Yes, many well-known employers are rife with politics. But, if you take a look at the most-loved employers--highly successful firms--they do not foster an atmosphere of corporate political intrigue. Nevertheless, every company has political players, so your individual success is going to depend in part on whether you are politically astute. You may not want to play the games--you shouldn't--but you do need to be able to hold your own.

Know what you are up against

Recognizing a Politically Charged Environment

  • Communication is indirect, unclear, controlled, and often manipulated.
  • Conflicts occur behind the scenes and are unacknowledged.
  • Decisions are made by small, powerful cliques.
  • People, actions, and decisions are judged as either good or bad.
  • Employees lack direction on what is expected of them and how to behave.
  • Information is disseminated by gossip.
  • Management is isolated, keeping employees in the dark about what is going on.
  • Promises and rosy pictures of the future distract people from an unhappy present.
  • Rather than seeking the causes of problems, management seeks scapegoats.
  • Relationships and alliances are built upon secrecy.
  • Resistance to policies ranges from passive to overtly destructive.
  • The mundane is overblown; significant issues are often minimized.
  • When things go wrong, people blame each other.

Adapted from Bobbi Linkemer's multimedia CD-ROM/book for AMACOM, Polish Your People Skills.

In the box above, author Bobbi Linkemer describes the traits of a dysfunctional, "politically charged" employer. Just like being raised in a dysfunctional family, an experience like this can alter your behavior far into the future. Unless you are an expert politician, if you are out interviewing and you discover an employer that seems to have these characteristics, it's a good idea to run--fast--in the other direction.

But some politics exists in every organization, so it's important to know how to thrive in a political environment. How can you compete with this kind of behavior without playing political games in ways you don't feel good about, and that you may come to regret later? Start by recognizing that there are two types of office or lab politics; one is nasty and the other is actually expected of you by your boss and others who wish for you to succeed. In fact there's a close connection between this latter type of office/lab politics and all those skills we're always talking about in "Tooling Up"!"

"The trouble with the words 'office politics' is what they connote to most people: nasty, sneaky, backstabbing intrigue. 'Let's form a cabal to eliminate old Fred and get ourselves promoted.' 'Let's wrap Helen, the new hire, in a net of bureaucracy then roll her off a cliff,' " wrote Walter Kiechel, columnist for Fortune magazine, in a column. "To be sure, plenty of skullduggery goes on in the corporate world. But it's my conviction that such behavior doesn't usually pay off." In his column, Kiechel often focuses on company politics, but he deals with politics as a legitimate practice, one that is necessary to move up the ladder.

"There is a higher office politics sufficiently honorable that it probably shouldn't be tarred with the name. Enlightened practice in this arena begins with the recognition that to get a job done, much less to get ahead, you have to be able to work amicably with other people," Kiechel wrote in an early column that I keep by my desk.

With that quote as an introduction, I'd like to offer you these suggestions for becoming politically astute without being too political.

Suggestion #1--To work amicably with others, honor the spirit of the Golden Rule--not the literal translation.

Different people communicate in different ways. One important lesson I have learned is not to follow the Golden Rule too closely. Does this surprise you? The golden rule, in case you've forgotten, goes like this: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

The reason that that rule doesn't always work is that not everyone wants things presented the same way that you would. I am a very direct person who doesn't like to waste time with might be considered "idle chitchat." And yet, one of my colleagues is the sort of person who prefers to warm up a conversation with a bit of friendly dialog beforehand. Is it "dirty politics" for me to consider this before I enter her space and talk to her about something on my mind? Hardly.

This woman would not appreciate it if I came into her space with communication in the "wham-bam" direct style that I prefer. So when I'm talking to her, I soften things a little. Likewise, she knows me well enough to get right to the point when she has something to talk about. Sometimes you have to do unto your workmate the way they would want, not the way you would want. It seems that being "political" is just good social and communication skills.

Suggestion #2--Know your strengths and be prepared to talk about them when it counts (or you'll get run over by others who have this ability).

One of the themes of my articles over many years in "Tooling Up" has been the use of self-promotion at the appropriate time. Many people trained as scientists feel that self-promotion is a dirty political trick. It isn't. Your ability to talk about your strengths and effectively sell what you do is a critical part of your skill base when you move to industry. Just as you are expected to do good science, you are expected to be able to talk about your strengths.

Not all scientists are uncomfortable talking about their abilities; some are too comfortable--but bad at it. They do it in a way that's likely to turn others off--which is not politically astute. They always sound like they are bragging. Being politically astute means little more than being aware of, and managing, how you are perceived. It can be taken too far, and then it becomes too political. Remember, it's always a balance.

Many companies start to scan their applicants for this ability in the job talk during the interview. Those presentations aren't done solely to view the slides and discuss interesting research work. The company is watching for signs of how well the candidate can relate the work, and her strengths, to the company's needs. This will become critical later on when it might be necessary to sell management on a project, or to rally the team toward an important goal. Today, no one wants to hire a technical person who can't communicate well about his strengths. No one sees this as being political--just politically aware.

Suggestion #3--The nasty side of company politics has a way of staining everyone involved. Steer clear of anything that makes you uncomfortable.

Honor your gut feelings and intuition. If something doesn't feel right to you, don't participate.

I remember being asked to be a part of a small group at work that was bringing forward a list of grievances about the supervisor of the department. A lot of pressure was applied to me, as I was one of the more senior members of the team. Although I felt it could all be worked out in a better way, I went along with it; I actually felt honored that they needed my support. It was a highly political move by one of the other senior people, and everyone involved ended up being affected negatively by their involvement. My relationship with management was never the same after that.

Make sure that you are ready for any result when you gamble with an obvious political ploy that can backfire. Better yet, don't even participate.

Suggestion #4--Don't spend time "buttering up." Instead, work at being as effective as you can be and let the rewards follow.

If I asked you to think of someone who really knows the dirty side of company politics, you'd probably picture someone who spends half their time working on pleasing the boss. That's one of the most common traits of the political player.

Just think how effective that person could be if, instead of investing all that time and calculation on "managing up," he spent the same energy trying to figure out the optimal solution to whatever task he has been assigned. No matter what environment you work in, company or academic lab, if you develop yourself as an effective person--if you become known as the "get it done" type--your stock will rise and stay high.

Put your real energy--your main effort--into being effective, into getting your work done and doing it well. But be aware of what other people are up to and how you are being perceived. Manage those perceptions to the point at which you get credit for the good work you're doing--but don't put appearance ahead of substance, because that's when your good work gets labeled as bad politics.

As a recruiter, given a choice between someone who is known for their effectiveness versus one who is known as a political player, I know which person would get my recommendation in a heartbeat!

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