Navigating Organizational Politics
Like it or not, navigating organizational politics is unavoidable for leaders. But you can learn how to do it in a healthy way.
In this episode of the Leadership 480 Podcast, Eric Hanson, an executive consultant at DDI, joins us to discuss navigating organizational politics in the workplace. Learn how to develop healthy relationships and build your influence strategy, even in the most difficult political office environments.
Hi, leaders. And welcome back to the Leadership 480 Podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. And today, my topic is about the thing a lot of us hate most about work, but really can't avoid, organizational politics. And I think if you ask a lot of leaders about the number one thing they hate about their job, this would come up a lot. You're out there focusing on just getting your job done. You want to accomplish things and then you've got to navigate all these politics that are going on behind the scenes, and it gets really messy, and it gets messier the higher you go in leadership. It's frustrating and can feel like a waste of time.
So, to help us guide through this sticky, sticky topic, my guest today is Eric Hanson, who is an executive consultant at DDI and has guided many of the world's top CEOs, senior executives, and board members as they navigate the incredibly complex world of executive leadership. Eric has really seen it all in what goes on behind the scenes. And you would be surprised at just how much time and effort even the very best leaders at top organizations spend trying to figure out just how to deal with each other. So, Eric, welcome to the Leadership 480 Podcast.
Thanks, Beth. It's great to be here.
So, a lot of people who are wonderful leaders might say that they do everything they can to avoid getting involved in the politics of their organization. They just want to focus on moving forward. They don't want to get mixed up in all the nitty-gritty factors of dealing with other people. So, I have to ask, and maybe this will make this the shortest podcast we've ever done, but can you do that? Can you just opt out and say, "Listen, I'm transparent, you know what I want, what I'm trying to accomplish, I'm not dealing with the political stuff?"
Yeah, for sure, I get that. And it's the reality of pretty much every work environment. Certainly, some are more political than others I suppose, but it's really the reality. We're human beings and a variety of human beings. We have different personalities and you're going to see those different styles show up in a work setting. And so, in some respects, I think about it as a continuum. You think about the "politics of an organization." Well, there are also just relationships that you have to manage as a normal course of doing your work.
And so, yeah, I suppose you could look at it as a continuum between just managing relationships and trying to get people to buy into things or influence and so forth to being "political." And some people can be very maneuvering and manipulative, sure, but you're just not going to be able to avoid it. I think it's in any environment naturally.
So, you mentioned that this is really about building relationships, and I'm wondering is that the same thing as organizational politics? Is one a euphemism for the other depending on where you stand? If I like doing this, it's about building relationships. If I hate it, this is just all politics.
Yeah, you could absolutely look at it that way. I think it starts with your own personality, your own disposition. Do you tend to be a person who's outgoing and naturally inclined to be relationship-oriented? I suppose it can start with who you are and what your personality suggests. But yeah, I think it's one person's developing relationships and managing relationships might be another person's politics in a way. But there's no doubt that some environments are dicier politically. There are a lot of connections, there are a lot of undertones and you have to be also on the lookout for those situations.
So, when you say that some organizations are more political than others, how do you see that often appear? Are there organizations where this is normal? How do you know if it becomes a toxic level of politics?
Well, that's a great question. I think you have to look at what are the indicators. Is there a lot of maneuvering by people to try to get favor with certain senior leaders or try to advocate for their point of view in ways that says they are not transparent? Are there a lot of meetings before the meetings, a lot of stakeholder management?
You're going to have to have some of that naturally to get, say a big proposal for a budget item, a capital expense or whatever it might be. You have to understand how those decisions are made and what is going to be a winning influence strategy to get that over the finish line. But there certainly are effective transparent ways of doing that. And there are some sort of political ways that are, let's say, not so savory.
So, when you bring up things like having a lot of meetings before the meetings and all that kind of stuff, I have to admit, it triggers me to be like, oh, my god, that sounds terrible. And I think there's a lot of leaders out there who feel like that's where this becomes a lot of fluff of I'm just trying to get stuff done.
So, if that's your tendency of I don't want to spend time in meetings before meetings, this feels like a waste of my time, what are the consequences of avoiding all of this, of trying to skip those steps? And I'm sure you've coached executives and leaders at every level who are like, can I really do this and skip some of that because it is weighing me down?
Yeah. You get to a point where you think this is just a lot of time and energy, and we could be doing as an organization, as a team, we could be doing things that might feel a lot more productive. And it's really a judgment call. There's no question. You just can't avoid it. You have to understand who the stakeholders are and what's going to be important to them. But to sit on the sidelines is you're probably not going to get your interests heard. You're not going to see things, programs, and so forth that you're trying to advocate for getting over the finish line. It's just going to become very difficult.
So, there's a certain level of relationship management that you're simply going to have to do. It's a judgment call as to whether are you so mired in the details of that and the inefficiencies of that, that it's becoming dysfunctional. It's a tough call to make and there's just no way to avoid it. But we certainly know when it gets to be an excess of relationship management.
So, as you're talking about this, what I'm thinking is there's obviously some implications for me as the leader. If I'm not getting my agenda across, it's going to hurt my chances for advancement, it's going to hurt my ability to get the visibility I need in front of my boss and everything like that. And some people might even say, I'm fine with that. I've reached the level I want to reach. And if I'm not able to get ahead, fine.
But I'm also thinking about if you are bad at organizational politics, the effect that's going to have on your whole team. If I'm working for you Eric, and you're really bad at navigating this, I'm thinking that's going to end up being very frustrating for me when we're all being left out in the cold because you're not doing what you need to do.
No, that's totally right. People will lose out both for themselves as well as for their teams. There's no question. So, a couple quick instances or examples. So, I'm working with one executive who shies away from some of this and is really going to need to get better connected with one constituent in particular. And he's been avoiding it. And I think he has some realistic perceptions of it, but he's going to hold himself back unless he develops that relationship further.
And then you said, you talked about as a team or a group, if you're not advocating... I've worked with another couple of executives in another organization where there were some frictions between groups and so forth. And the leader I was working with was trying to work out better arrangements with some colleagues in other parts of the organization. And because they were having a difficult time with it, it was creating more work for her particular team. So, while she was trying to make progress, her barriers or her obstacles in doing that created for the time being a lot more work for her team and they became overworked.
That's really interesting. And as I'm thinking about that too, there's a lot of leaders who struggle with, for whatever reason when it comes to politics, it feels like they've got this stakeholder in the group. And it might happen for a variety of reasons. I don't know, they share a certain background, they golf together or maybe they just came up in the organization together.
So, they've all been working together for 15 years and you are new or you're new in your role or you're younger, or whatever it is. And you might see some things that start to go on. So, if you are the outsider there, I see, okay, this group all has, I don't know, the COO's here or this senior vice president's here, and he or she is listening to this group and I know that they're saying the wrong thing here.
I want to do something to change this because I don't think this person's getting the information they need and it's hurting my agenda. How have you coached leaders to approach those situations and start to make inroads in those really tough political atmospheres of I don't have this longtime relationship with the person and I've got to tell them something they don't want to hear?
So, it's super hard, of course, when you're coming into a new environment, new team, established relationships. The first thing that I go to with people is to examine what their relationship is with these constituents. And you mentioned maybe there's one in particular. But I think one of the first places to start, first of all, reading the environment is what you've established there as a baseline.
But it's I think a matter of having some quality time with these constituents and getting to mature the relationship. It's not going to happen overnight. But the first place I go to is, well, what do you know about that person or that grouping of people? If you meet with an individual, are you seeking to understand where they're coming from? What's their agenda? What are the goals they're trying to accomplish? What are they being held accountable for?
What are the barriers that are getting in their way? So, what do you feel are some of the key motivators for that person? So, the more you understand about their point of view, to the extent that they're willing to share, the more you have to connect to, to come back to when you are bringing issues up, when you are trying to, as you said, maybe give feedback and so forth.
What are the things that that person's going to resonate with so you're making a stronger connection, versus just throwing out information without any idea as to whether it's going to stick or whether it's going to make a difference for them? So, I think relationship development, finding out, and seeking to understand, are really important places to start.
That makes so much sense in the making sure you're looking at what this person is being held accountable for, the, "What's in it for them?" to help you solve your problem.
And I'm thinking about how crucial that must be in building trust in these relationships. Again, if I'm worried that you are listening to somebody else, you trust them because you've worked with them for a long, long time and I'm coming in with uncomfortable, something uncomfortable or contrary, making sure you're building that relationship and understanding of, "Hey, I'm telling you this because I know you're going to be on the hook for this or you're going to be in trouble if you don't look at this perspective," maybe can help you quickly get that person's ear.
I'm curious if executives or other leaders have come to you and said, "I'm getting held back and I don't know who it is or where it is that's going... Where I'm getting held back." Every time I go in a meeting, I'm getting kind of stonewalled about my agenda and there's someone maybe who's behind the scenes who's not lending their support or is maybe even actively working against you or something like that. How do you coach leaders to go about finding out maybe where those sticking points are that you might not realize or might not be an obvious stakeholder to your project?
Yeah, that can be a real challenge for sure. I am thinking about a situation I came across recently with an executive who was in a meeting and had a few colleagues chiming in with some concerns that he felt weren't necessarily backed up by a lot of good data. And so, sometimes people can feel maybe sabotaged a little bit, so I certainly can understand those kinds of situations.
And so, I talked a moment ago about seeking to understand and understanding your constituents. And I don't mean to just come back to that point, but it's something that can't just happen once. But I think that leaders need to understand what their network is. And they oftentimes limit themselves, especially as they ascend the ladder if you will, and maybe enter into their first executive role. The terrain changes dramatically and there's so many more relationships to be thinking about.
And what I think holds people back sometimes is they tend to keep their sphere a little bit more limited and they need to be thinking about, who do I need to be connecting with? Who are some of the players? And I don't mean to say that you need to be overly political, but you have to read the environment. You need to know who some of the influencers are and go and find out, and develop and mature relationships with those individuals.
Because if you're just guessing or speculating, you're going to be in a real tough spot. So, it's really being actively involved in your networking, casting a broader net, understanding who those stakeholders are, and developing those relationships and a level of trust. Again, like I said earlier, it's not something that happens overnight, has to be something that takes place over time that's proactive and thoughtful. I think oftentimes people are almost reactive and networking is not something that a good number of people prioritize.
That is an excellent point. And it's not complicated to think about, but you get into a role and you're so used to like, oh, I have to talk to this person about X, Y, Z and I have a reason to connect with these certain people. And you're not thinking about that larger network of all the people who really are influencing and pulling the strings behind the scenes of who's listening to who.
If you haven't developed those relationships, you may end up struggling. And one of the things that comes to my mind that you had mentioned earlier too is that you talked about just personality. Some of us are more naturally prone to do some of these things. You're gregarious, you're outgoing, you want to talk to anybody and everybody about everything and other people, that's a lot harder.
And the phrase I often hear with people is, I've got to deal with a lot of big personalities, but the assumption of I don't have a big personality, they all do. So, how much does personality come into play with politics and how do you use both, understand both your own personality as well as get to know your other colleagues to start creating an influence strategy?
Personality, personal style really has a lot to do with things. It starts with your own, what is your own position based upon, your preferences, your style, and so forth. If you tend to be somebody who is somewhat reserved, likes to do things, and work on task more individually versus in groups, and so forth, that's going to be maybe challenging.
Because that's a person who, if they're more introverted, they may not necessarily be the person to proactively reach out to understand other people's agendas and so forth. You talked about big personalities and we certainly could all think about people in our work lives, and past, and present of people who are very attention-seeking, tend to be very sociable, tend to be really inspired by recognition. So, they want to be the center of attention, et cetera.
So, we know that type of person. And so, the person who is going to be, let's say more sociable, is going to be much more comfortable reaching out as I mentioned earlier. So, personality does have a lot to do with it both in terms of how open we are to developing relationships, to networking, to being proactive, as well as dealing with people in our environment who tend to be, let's say the louder voices. So, there's no doubt that personality has something to do with it, both for the individual as well as in the environment.
That's super helpful to think about. And I think a lot of times you start to label personalities as good or bad or I don't like this. But as you start to flip that switch to, it's not that it's good or bad, but I'm trying to understand you and what you want, you can be much more successful I imagine in your approach.
And one of the things I wanted to ask you about along those lines as well is that, in addition to your work as an executive coach, you've also been one of our executive assessors, which for those who don't know, at DDI that means that we have a simulation that we have executives go through to demonstrate their skills, maybe even up to they are gunning for the CEO job. And one of Eric's roles would be to observe them.
How have you observed in these hundreds of assessments over the years, how have leaders struggled with actually practicing this and managing politics and demonstrating their strategic influence? Where do they go wrong, which is about 10 questions in one, but where do they tend to go wrong as they try to demonstrate this?
Yeah. It's a great question and we do observe a lot of behavior in our assessments. And our focus here is really on relationship skills and competencies. So, things like cultivating networks and partnerships, strategic influence, emotional intelligence essentials, so some of the things that really are going to be important here. And so, you really see some differences.
And we talked a moment ago about personality and I think that bears out in behavior, but it's not always the determinant. So, in other words, we'll see people take different approaches in terms of how they look at relationships. If there's a meeting that they need to be in as part of the assessment, what's the degree to which they are taking a personal interest in the other person? Are they just centered on the problem to be solved and then they want to dispense within and get on with the other tasks that they need to address?
So, you see what's the interpersonal approach, are they interested in other people? Are they asking good questions, drawing them in, and developing almost a sense of rapport and trust, or are they just diving into solving a problem and moving on? So, not to say that there's always that contrast, but we'll also see the degree to which people are thinking about their network. Are they looking at who they might need to connect with? So, we use a simulation assessment and that's what I'm speaking about here is what behavior you see in terms of how people would actually navigate themselves in a new situation.
So, again, in those meetings, what's the extent to which they're asking good questions that draw the person in, that take an interest, and understand the motivations of the other party? So, we see it in a variety of ways. And what's the degree to which they're demonstrating or showing empathy and just attending to some of the personal needs of others? So, there are all kinds of things that we see. Some are more effective, some are less effective, and you can probably guess which would be which in some of the descriptions I just provided.
So, in line with that of what's more or less effective, but also earlier you mentioned you see people go about managing politics and there's a way to do it in a very healthy way and then there are ways that you've seen this happen, which are the more unsavory ways and things like that. Obviously, ethics is a big concern and how you approach politics from a really positive and effective standpoint is crucial.
So, maybe this is obvious, but maybe it's not. How do you start to draw the line between this is what's a really healthy level of thinking about how I manage politics and my relationships versus what starts to cross the line of, you start to see some of these behaviors and you're like, this is where it's getting toxic and it's really bad?
We know it when we see it. To articulate, it's a little bit more challenging. But when you see factions certainly between groups of people and the back channel gossip lines, so you definitely can see some of those things that are dysfunctional, purposely edging somebody out or not including people.
That's why it's important as leaders to really read what's going on and to be aware of, are there dysfunctions that need to be addressed? Is there greater transparency that needs to be provided? And so, it's really an important responsibility of leaders, executives to step in and create the right kind of environment. In fact, it's interesting, I've worked with an organization in the recent past where the CEO actually wanted to create in some sense a bit of competition.
And so, that's not all that bad conceptually, but the potential fallout of that is unhealthy competition. And so, where there's disharmony in the executive team, where there are different agendas that are being advocated for, et cetera, where you create organizational dysfunction.
So, that's obviously an extreme example. But it's all a matter of balance. I mean I think it's important for senior leaders, CEOs, et cetera, to set a high bar and create maybe an environment that fosters some healthy competition, but certainly keeping a gauge on where that's going and being careful about some of the negative consequences, is really, really important.
I think that's so interesting. Because yeah, I mean the competition thing, that's not necessarily driving everyone forward. But I'm sure when you start to see some behaviors of people, I'm going to intentionally leave out this other colleague who I know is gunning for the same job and things like that. I imagine you also start to see a tremendous drop in effectiveness as you're more worried about leaving out your competitors than you are about actually getting the job done.
Yeah. It certainly creates dysfunction in the sense that organizational goals are going to suffer as a result of that. And that obviously is one of the things you want to guard against.
So, one of the things I would ask Eric too is, so even if I recognize I've got to play the game to influence other people, somebody else is sitting there thinking this about you. They're thinking, they're sitting here there and thinking about how am I going to influence Eric. I know he wants this and other things, and sometimes that's uncomfortable. We don't want people playing politics with us. We're going to do it with everyone else, but we don't want them trying too hard to influence us.
So, if I'm a leader who says, I want to set a tone, I recognize there's going to be some influence going on, I recognize there's always going to be a level of politics, but I want to reduce a lot of that. So, the opposite maybe of the CEO you're talking about who's creating a little bit of that friction between people, I'm saying I want to be as transparent as possible and I don't want people telling me what I want to hear. I want them telling me what's really going on. So, how do you set the tone to essentially minimize politics to the degree that you can?
Great question. And the first thing I would go to here is with regard to what people are telling you, what's the fact base behind that? And can you ask some probing questions to make sure that what you're getting is more of the truth versus maybe a story if you will? So, I think that's the first place that I think about.
And then also being aware of what people in the environment are working on and getting a gauge on what people are saying about what's going on and what other people are doing. And just to ask some probing questions to at least understand what some of the dynamics might be and where there might be some dysfunction potentially under the surface. So, it's going, and again, reading in the environment I think is really important. And being aware of some of those indicators. You don't want somebody to be just placating you as a leader, agreeing with all of your ideas.
And so, another point of view here is to challenge people or to invite contrary feedback, what they're willing to say and so forth. You certainly don't want to be played by others, no question about it. And the other thing I think about is, what is the environment that you're creating intentionally or unintentionally? Are you hearing all the voices that need to be heard? Are you fostering debate?
And one of the things I was going to say earlier is, you mentioned the notion of "kumbaya." You don't want over agreement. There are problems associated with that. You want harmony, but you know inherently there is going to be conflict, there are going to be disagreements.
So, you have to recognize that you're going to have those things and create an environment where there's healthy disagreement, where you're being respectful and using facts and data and so forth. And we work with teams oftentimes to determine, executive teams, how is it that we want to operate when we have conflict? What are going to be the rules of engagement? And so, as an executive or leader at any level, you can proactively determine what those rules of engagement are and be purposeful about the environment that you're creating.
Oh, I think that's so important. I love the emphasis here on creating space for healthy disagreement and managing that among your team of, I don't think you do want everybody who, yep, we all agree, everything is great, because you can't possibly be considering any other points of views if you're going down that road. You're probably really tunnel vision on that.
So, really, I think a powerful place to be and how you kind of manage that healthy level of politics. So, the last question I have is one that I ask all of our guests on this show, and it can be about politics or it doesn't have to be either. But can you share with me a moment of leadership that changed your life, whether it was a good thing and inspired you or even a bad thing where you're like, I'm going to do something to change that and I'm never going to be like this person ever again?
Oh, wow, that's a good one. It's tough. You're putting me on the spot. But the first thing I guess that comes to my mind, it's a quick reaction and it happened many, many years ago. I was working for a small company privately held and things were slow at this time and there were some ideas that I had for enhancing a product.
I can't remember the exact example or what I was working on. And I brought this idea to basically the president or owner of the company. And the response I got was, why are you working on that? And basically, go back to your corner.
Stay in your lane.
Stay in your lane. So, that was an example of a leadership trait I did not want to have. I decided that I was going to be the kind of leader who would foster and encourage people's ideas and bring them forward. And maybe they're not exactly fine-tuned and polished, but you're going to create a much more positive environment by rewarding people's innovative efforts versus crushing them. So, it was an important lesson that I learned early on.
That's such a great moment that can cause you to change path in your career. And I think relates too even to our topic of politics today, of how do you create that environment that people can come to you and that you're listening and you've got the trust.
So, Eric, thank you so much for being here today on the Leadership 480 Podcast. I think you've helped a lot of our listeners navigate what is probably one of the more unpleasant parts of the job, or maybe that's just my reaction to it. Maybe everyone else is loving politics, but I think you've offered a lot of really great tips for people. And thank you to our listeners who took part of their 480 minutes today to be with us and remember to make every moment of leadership count.