Three men walked into a bar…..

22nd January 2015 | Posted in Management

EL KapitanThe title of this piece isn’t referring to a casually racist 1970′s joke but an observation from my friend @flipchartrick on twitter the other day. He responded to an HBR article on Office Politics by quoting Bernie Rhodes saying ‘politics is three people in a room’. It got me thinking about politics, people and purpose.

I wrote about politics at work here nearly five years ago and I’m pleased to notice both that I agree with my earlier self and that my thinking has evolved. My old article is close to the HBR piece (thanks to @mjcarty for pointing it out) in saying that politics is just what happens when people get together. Objecting to the existence of politics is naïve. Politics gets more prominent when people are trying to do things and they’re surrounded by other people trying to do things as well, so it’s part of the working day of managers and leaders. ‘Get used to it’ sounds like good advice, ‘though perhaps the HBR article is kinder in calling politics ‘influence’ which re-frames it in a way that is probably more helpful.

Because however inevitable it may be, politics can be rough. It’s no fun to have a view that’s not accepted; it’s hard to influence and not get what you want. It’s even harder to argue your case, not gain agreement and then have to implement someone else’s idea. And the way that people behave in order to exert their influence in an organisation can feel rough. I used to know a classic narcissist who’s behaviour illustrated the HBR article in demonstrating so little emotional intelligence that she was never aware that others described her as political. In her eyes, her behaviour was only ‘doing the best for the business’. In the eyes of others she was devious and manipulative.

Which brings me to the way my thinking has evolved.

I’m fortunate in working with the people at Bridge and TOWARD in thinking about how we develop leaders where I go to work every day. What we’ve arrived at is something that says developing resilience in leaders is the thing that gives them the toughness to handle the roughness of organisational politics. The TOWARD folks have written on it here. And what we’re agreed on is that a sense of purpose in an individual is one of the things that allows them to deal with the roughness of organisational life. A sense of achieving something more than getting your own way. A longer view. A foundation on which to build the determination to accept the politics that happens when people get together in groups, to not take a reverse as a defeat and get on with doing the things that are important to you. Something the narcissist, by the way, could never, ever manage.

Five years ago my best advice was ‘get used to it’. With the help of Bridge and TOWARD, I can now say ‘get used to it: here’s how’. I’m pretty pleased with that.


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