A beginners guide to (virtual) organisational politics
Updated: Mar 29
Fun fact: the word 'idiot' comes from the greek word idiotes, which means 'private citizen'. Around 2700 years ago in Athens, it was used as an insult for someone who wasn't interested in politics.
People often use the term office politics to describe the less desirable interactions and influences which distract us from our jobs, but politics actually covers the way people make decisions about how to work together in all kinds of groups, big or small (Usborne, Politics for Beginners)
Clients often tell me they don't do workplace politics . They are high performers, excellent at task-based work. They note with surprise: it's strange that to actually get things done, it's more about your relationships in the organisation than the work you do, it shouldn't be that way!
In fact, this this exactly what it means to be in an organisation. A huge part of your job is nurturing those relationships in a way that supports you, your team, and the organisation. This becomes increasingly important as you progress in your career, but the earlier you do it, the better.
But here’s the tricky bit: There is no reference manual for this. The organisation is never going to tell you to do this stuff. It won’t be fully written into the job description. Organisations reward hard work to a degree, but they are not going to tell you the hidden steps you need to take to get promoted, recognised, or ensure your projects gain traction.
Do it with integrity
Some people understand this implicitly. These people often seem like they don't have to work as hard as everyone else to get where they need to get to. I offer a different lens: these people simply channel their work efforts differently. From a personal career perspective, I’ve found that understanding these unwritten relational laws enabled me to do things in ways that were a little bit different, and accelerated my career far more than hard graft alone.
For those who say “well, politics doesn't appeal to me”, I challenge you to then also accept that you may have to take the long way round/the hard way round to get to where you want to. You’ve got less guarantee of success, because however great your work is, if there is not someone advocating at that table for you and your team, whether it's a project, or a promotion, you're not going to get the traction that you need.
To give a recent example, one client has been incredibly frustrated that her team’s work was not being recognised, because it didn't fit within the organisational priorities. As we drilled further down, what we realised was that it wasn't about their work, and it wasn't about the output. She didn't have a loud enough voice at the big table. She was removed, and therefore unable to represent her team as well as possible.
Finally if you think you’re taking a moral stance here against organisational politics, be aware that others, who may have less integrity, may do it instead – why not instead invest in key relationships with integrity and good intentions?
As a starting point , office politics has a connotation to it, so lets use more appealing terms: connection, relationships, or working with the system.
So here are some simple questions to help you get started – grab a coffee, your journal, and one of your Golden Hours (you do schedule strategic time daily, right?):
1) Map your ‘key people’. Start by thinking who is important in your career, and asking the simple question “who is the person in this organisation, that could have the biggest impact on my career and the projects I’m running?”. Who can act as your sponsor? Do they know who you are? Do they know the work that you do? If you don't know, spend some time figuring it out, because that insight alone is going to be really valuable to you. It's also going to enable you to sometimes prioritise efforts which have an impact on your long-term career.
2) Assess the current strength of relationships How do you currently interact with your key people? And what could you do to improve that relationship?
3) Figure out how you can be of help. What are the pressing needs they have, and what keeps them awake at night? What are the things that you can help them with? That's also critical, because this is going to be a two-way relationship. What are the things that you can do to put yourself on their radar? Is there a committee you can run?
In my case, heading up the Women's Network at KPMG was something I felt very motivated to do. It also gave me a seat at the table with board level members of KPMG, and in the end, this enabled me to be put forward for director roles, even though I was only a manager. I was put forward because they vouched for me.
Another example of this is a client , already the leader of a 500+ function, who is trying to figure out how to get to the next stage within their organisation. As part of that identity shift, they know who could be a good sponsor for them. We worked on identifying the angle that he wanted to take to the sponsor. We discussed how he could be of value to the sponsor, and what insights he could bring. This discussion has now led to a development plan, where he plans to engage more externally, so that he has more of a market understanding, by talking to his external peers. By the way, this is so much easier during the pandemic, because physical office norms make it seem less ‘ok’ to have a 3 pm virtual coffee with someone who is actually a competitor.
On any given day these actions might not seem pressing or urgent, but if like many of my clients, you work hard and want to do well in your career, you might consider re-shifting your priorities away from the short game, towards the longer, relational game.