The Good Guy's (and Gal's) Guide to Office Politics

Even when you're out to get something done - not to do someone in - you have to play politics. Fast Company's five-point campaign manual will help you play to win.

When Cindy Casselman took a communications job at Xerox headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, the company's communications weren't so good. If Xerox made a big acquisition or had a disappointing quarter, many of its 85,000 people read the news in the papers before they got the scoop from the company. Casselman was determined to change things. "I was manager of employee communications," she says. "I took my job seriously."

But Casselman, now 50, didn't have much formal authority. She was, to use an out-of-favor phrase, a middle manager: someone whose boss had a boss who had a boss. So she assembled a makeshift budget and mustered a volunteer team that she called the Sanctioned Covert Operation (SCO) - "sanctioned," because her direct boss tolerated what looked like a modest project; "covert," because her actual goals were more ambitious than she let on.

Today, thanks to the SCO, any Xerox employee can visit the WebBoard, the company's spirited intranet site, and talk to other employees, read up-to-the-minute news about internal developments - and in general get more connected to what's happening inside this vast enterprise. How did Casselman have such a big impact with so few resources? She had a knack for playing politics.

Chris Newell, 47, is founder and executive director of Lotus Institute, a 20-member unit of Lotus Development Corp. (based in Cambridge, Massachusetts) that develops solutions using Lotus Notes software. It's a fun and interesting job - but hardly a position of power. "We generate new ideas about how software interacts with culture," he says. "We're the shrinks of shrinkwrap."

Last year, Newell became convinced that the emerging field of "knowledge management" represented a big market opportunity for Lotus and its parent company, IBM. So he became a major catalyst behind a series of knowledge-management products that Lotus and IBM began to roll out by the end of the year. Newell didn't have the authority to order such initiatives. But he did know how to play politics.

About three and a half years ago, when the Discovery Channel wanted to extend its high-profile brand beyond cable TV, CEO John Hendricks assembled a committee to explore interactive television. Tom Hicks, now 44, thought the company should focus on the Internet. But this was 1994, when pundits were heralding interactive TV and the Net was still an unproven medium. Worse, Hicks ran the division that produced Discovery's magazines. Today the Discovery Channel Online is a much-celebrated presence on the Web. And when was the last time you watched interactive TV? Pushing for this mid-course correction wasn't easy. It meant playing politics.

Office politics. Just say the words, and you sense the disdain. Isn't "playing politics" a tool for people who can't get ahead on merit - who pursue their own agenda regardless of what's good for their colleagues or the company? That's the downside of office politics. But what about the upside? Office politics is a lot like "real" politics. Plenty of politicians launch campaigns simply because they relish the privileges of power. But at least some politicians campaign for things that matter to people other than themselves. Dismissing all political campaigns as cynical and self-aggrandizing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same goes for office politics.

"When people talk about office politics, they usually mean something dirty or underhanded," says management professor Allan Cohen, dean of faculty at Babson College and coauthor of Influence Without Authority (John Wiley & Sons, 1991). "But nobody exists in an atmosphere where everybody agrees. Politics is the art of trying to accomplish things within organizations."

Marilyn Moats Kennedy, a career coach based in Wilmette, Illinois, claims that the underlying logic of office politics is changing - and opening the door to campaigners who want to get things done rather than do other people in. "Workers today," she says, "compete for schedules and projects, for money and training. But they rarely compete for power - especially when that means power over others. Instead of power, people want assignments that build skills valued by the market. Learning experiences are what's really important."

Herminia Ibarra, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School who teaches a popular course called "Power and Influence," offers yet another perspective on office politics: You don't have to be a jerk to make things happen. "Integrity," she says, "can be a source of power."

So throw your hat in the ring! If you've got an idea worth fighting for, don't hire a campaign consultant. Consult Fast Company's five-step manual for waging a successful campaign. To paraphrase Plato, that well-known consultant: Those who think they're too smart to engage in politics will be governed by those who are dumber.

Rule 1: Nobody wins unless everybody wins.

Office politics is no different from other aspects of life at the office - or of life in general. Appearances matter. It's usually the best-packaged idea that wins, not the best idea. And the first step toward victory is to position your idea so that your victory is everyone's victory.

"Real political skill isn't about campaign tactics," says Lou DiNatale, a senior fellow at the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts/Boston and a veteran political consultant. "It's about pulling people toward your ideas and then pushing those ideas through to other people. In electoral politics, people overestimate the importance of polls and direct mail. What really matters is, Can you make people want to vote for you? The questions in business are, Can you get people to move? Do people trust your instincts? It comes down to personality and positioning."

Cindy Casselman's campaign inside Xerox illustrates DiNatale's point. Soon after she joined the company, she learned how bad communication among employees had become. She and a few colleagues concluded that a Web site could change things for the better - as long as it was a haven for free speech, not a den of corporate-speak. "Employees were telling us they wanted timely, relevant, honest information," Casselman says. "They wanted the truth, with no corporate spin. They wanted to know where they stood and where the company stood."

Hence the WebBoard - a project that lots of people inside Xerox were just as likely to consider threatening as to find inspiring. So as Casselman stumped for it - whether to recruit allies for her Sanctioned Covert Operation or to raise funds to design and build a prototype - she emphasized the benefits that would accrue to whatever audience she was addressing at the time. "We were able to get some interesting people to join us," says Casselman. "Everybody we asked wanted to do it."

For example, Casselman's two closest allies came from very different parts of the company - and joined the SCO team for very different reasons. Rick Beach, now 49, was the manager of advanced-technology business services at Xerox Business Services (XBS) in Palo Alto, California. He saw the WebBoard as a business opportunity. XBS is a fast-growing division that manages documents for other big companies. For Beach, the WebBoard was a place to test "virtual document delivery" - to explore how digital technologies would affect traditional document management. Plus, it had the potential to improve communications inside a company he cared about. "When I connected with Cindy," Beach says, "the reaction was, 'Here's a big problem and a big opportunity coming together.'"

Malcolm Kirby, now 43, worked in Xerox's information management division in Rochester, New York. He had recently been a lead player in the company's transition from mainframe computers to networked PCs. For Kirby, the WebBoard would showcase this new technology architecture. Plus, the project sounded like fun. "It's unusual in a global corporation like Xerox for three people to have such a big impact," Kirby says. "It's also unusual for people to launch an initiative that poses lots of risk but no personal gain. But that's what this project represented."

Casselman, by positioning her idea in different ways to different people, managed to position it just right, says Allan Cohen. "Always look for ways to get the most for everybody," he urges. "Always try to blend your goals with the goals of the people you want on your side. If you can't do that, package your project by stressing what's best for the organization. Even if someone doesn't give a damn about the organization, that's a hard argument for anyone to counter."

Rule 2: Don't just ask for opinions - change them.

Opinion polls have a bad name, but no serious candidate runs for office without them. Politicians don't use polls just to identify their supporters. They also try to find out who opposes them, how deep the opposition is, and how people's views evolve over time. What goes for electoral politics goes for office politics. You can't change people's minds if you don't know what they're thinking.

John Gorman, a veteran pollster based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, got his start in the field when, as a Harvard undergraduate, he conducted surveys for George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign. His firm, Opinion Dynamics Corp., now conducts polls for the FOX News Channel as well as for a wide range of companies and associations. "Go after basic questions," he advises: "Do people really believe that what you're proposing will benefit the company? Do they believe that what the company says it's about - its mission statement - is what it really is about? Whose help do you need? Whose permission do you need?"

Gorman makes a second point: The process of exploring people's opinions gives you an opportunity to shape them as well. You can ask questions in ways that build support for the outcome you want. The political pros call it "push polling." Chris Newell of Lotus calls it common sense. He was forever selling his ideas to colleagues even as he was testing out those ideas. "I tried to create an internal groundswell," he says.

Jim Krzywicki, 36, Lotus's vice president of worldwide customer support and education, says that Newell never wasted an encounter with him - or with anyone else in the organization. "He had his 'elevator speech' ready at all times," Krzywicki reports. "If he met the president of the company on the elevator, he would have made his point by the time they got off. Chris is continually checking with people. That gives him very sensitive antennae - and it helps him develop broad-based support and understanding."

How persistent was Newell? "Let me put it this way," Krzywicki says with a smile. "My wife's the only one with the number to my car phone. But I remember picking it up once and saying, 'Hi, honey.' It turned out to be Chris. He wanted to bounce an idea off me."

Over time, Krzywicki became a key ally in Newell's campaign. "I would call Jim to test out strategies," Newell says. "But he always gave me more than just information. He became a cheerleader, a champion. He started bringing my ideas to people or into meetings that I couldn't reach."

Gorman also offers a word of warning that many people overlook: If you solicit feedback from the wrong people, he says, you're likely to reach the wrong conclusions. "You always have a bias to go to the easy people first, the people you already know or can get to fast," he says. "You have to overcome that bias. You have to reach out to the hard-to-get people."

Tom Hicks approached the hard-to-get crowd right from the start. He knew his campaign to redirect the Discovery Channel's commitment to interactive TV faced long odds. So he did some polling on how strong the opposition would be. His approach? Go to the toughest constituency of all - the interactive-TV committee. He and two colleagues made a presentation and asked for feedback: "They patted us on the head, said our plan was nice, and asked how we could make money. They didn't see a business model."

Hicks gained some useful insights from that reaction. For one thing, the committee didn't take his ideas seriously enough to fight them. For another, he realized that his proposal had a genuine weakness: the lack of a convincing business model. "We then did what all good groups do," Hicks says. "A bunch of us got together after work, had some beers, and dreamed about how this thing was going to happen and how we could tap the enthusiasm that [CEO] John Hendricks had about interactivity."

Gorman makes one final point about polling your colleagues: Don't let the process of testing the waters sink your ship before it sails. "For the truly creative, brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime idea, opinion research is a deadly thing," he says. "Research is a conservative process. I always remind people that the personal computer didn't research very well in the 1970s."

Rule 3: Everyone expects to be paid back.

Here's the good news about office politics: You don't have to spend late nights at fund-raisers or badger high rollers for big checks. Sure, you need resources. But most people have most of what they need - even if they work out of a small office or hold a modest title. "People tend to underestimate their potential power," says Allan Cohen. "Because they don't know how to get power, they assume they don't have power. Don't think you have nothing to offer people just because you don't have the budget to buy them. Even the 'poorest' people in an office have currencies they can work with."

So what is the most precious currency of organizational life? On this question, all the experts agree: personal relationships. "All favors are personal," says Marilyn Moats Kennedy. "If your boss works hard to get you an assignment, that's between you and your boss. You should understand that the boss is acting personally, not institutionally. Nothing done in the name of the organization earns credit for the organization. Only the individual who did the good deed earns the credit." Cohen has a name for this phenomenon - the Law of Reciprocity. "The secret of the universe," he says, "lies in six words: Everyone expects to be paid back."

How do you turn the Law of Reciprocity into support for your campaign? First, you should never underestimate the power of a good idea. Most people in most companies want to do the right thing. Give them an opportunity to make a positive contribution, and chances are that they will. Second, you should never underestimate the desire to leave a mark. Most new-idea champions aren't in a position to order people to participate in their projects. But people will often volunteer when they see that their work will make a difference - and perhaps earn them recognition in the process. Finally, never underestimate the value of a simple "thank you." Keep expressing appreciation for what your supporters do, and they'll keep doing it. Share the credit, and they may do more.

"You're always working on two fronts: your specific goal, and the relationships you have," says Cohen. "And people always send off messages about what matters to them. It's good politics to make people feel good."

Rule 4: Success can create opposition.

You've positioned your idea for broad appeal. you've tested the waters with informal polling. You've evaluated your currencies. Now it's time for the real work of the campaign: cutting the deals, big and small, that turn your goal into a reality - and reckoning with the resistance that any campaign generates.

"A campaign is really a series of exchanges," argues Herminia Ibarra. "You swap influence and inspiration for support from all kinds of people. You also have to deal with adversaries. Opposition often comes quickly - and from unexpected places. You need to be smart about taking in information and about dealing with misinformation."

Xerox's Cindy Casselman had a ready-made information network in the form of her SCO team. But she needed both money and programming talent. So she launched a deal-making spree across the company. "I met with our CIO, Pat Wallington," she says. "I met with the head of education and learning, Carolyn McZinc. I identified reasons why they would want to help. I said to Pat, 'You spent all this money on a new infrastructure. If you give me a little money, I'll put content there.' I said to Carolyn, 'You enable learning at Xerox. I'm going to provide you with a place to make that happen.'"

Casselman also cut a deal with her boss, Joe Cahalan, Xerox's director of communications: He would allow her to work on the project, but only if she raised $250,000 for the WebBoard on her own. Piece by piece, Casselman got the funds. "I was shocked," Cahalan admits. "I still don't understand how she did it."

But Casselman's very success began to ruffle feathers. And opposition (or at least healthy skepticism) started in an unlikely place - with Joe Cahalan. The closer the WebBoard got to becoming a reality, the more he appreciated the stakes involved in the project. "Up to that point," he says, "I had given Cindy free reign. But I became dictatorial about one thing: I didn't want the site to have a false start or to get a bad name. I didn't want people to visit and be disappointed."

Then came more opposition - this time from Casselman's own department. She'd been so busy selling her idea to other parts of Xerox that she'd overlooked the people closest to her. A few of her colleagues resented Casselman's high profile. And many of them worried about the extra work. "I had this vision," Casselman says. "I saw this as the North Star. But other people asked, 'Does this mean we're doing news? Are we going to have to write for this every day?'"

A compromise emerged. Casselman would conduct a 30-day trial before the WebBoard's public debut. Cahalan could then assure himself of the WebBoard's quality, and the communications department could get a feel for the work. It was a nerve-wracking month for Casselman, but the trial was a huge success. That success was no accident. "The more open you are," argues Allan Cohen, "the better prepared you'll be when opposition shows up. Always work to build a climate in which everybody can put information on the table. The most creative solutions to conflict come from being completely open."

Rule 5: Don't ignore the aftermath of success.

Election day for Cindy Casselman was November 15, 1995. Chairman and CEO Paul Allaire traveled to Dallas to deliver the keynote address for Xerox Teamwork Day. Allaire celebrated the spirit of cooperation at the company. He spoke honestly about a recent round of job cuts. He talked about the future. And he described Xerox's newest internal communications tool - the WebBoard.

"We want this site to become a place where Xerox people come to do work," Allaire said. "A place where you'll find the information you need to do your job and learn new things; a place where there's a community of Xerox people with whom to share information and best practices."

It was a huge win for the SCO team. It was also the beginning of the end for its campaign. The team had never developed a strategy for the aftermath of success. Everyone shared the unspoken assumption that after the WebBoard's creation, Xerox would create a stand-alone team to maintain and improve the site. Bad assumption. The WebBoard never became a formally independent unit. Tight budgets limited its expansion. Rick Beach returned to his regular duties. Malcolm Kirby left the company. The SCO disbanded. "I was so focused on creating the WebBoard," Casselman explains. "Nothing was going to stop me. But once it was up, I couldn't maintain that energy. It's very successful, but I had a much bigger vision."

That said, there's no denying that Casselman herself has benefited from the WebBoard's creation - even if things did not turn out exactly as she expected. In February, she became executive assistant to Mark Myers, the head of corporate research and technology at Xerox. She travels the world as a liaison between the company's senior staff and its research operations. "The WebBoard raised my profile and proved that I could follow through on an ambitious project and form the relationships needed to support the project," Casselman says. "It definitely helped me win my new job."

Tom Hicks of Discovery skillfully navigated the aftermath of his success. When he began his campaign, Hicks was running the company's magazine division. Today Discovery has only one magazine left in its stable. But Hicks is thriving as publisher of Discovery Channel Online, a respected Web site that gets 75,000 visits a day.

"The key to winning a campaign like this," Hicks says, "is to consider your personal ambitions separately from your strategic goals for the company. You'll be validated personally at some point. Meanwhile, you will have moved the company to a place where it might not have gone without you. We helped take the Discovery Channel to another dimension."

Michael Warshaw mwarshaw@fastcompany.com is a senior editor at Fast Company.

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Peter Freeth

    An organisation with around 200 employees working in the public sector asked us to develop a coaching program for their senior managers which would accelerate the implementation of their new strategy.

    An ambitious 10 year business plan needed strong leadership to guide an underlying culture change, shifting the focus of the business from a public sector mentality to one of business and commercial awareness. The CEO had been in place for only a short time, having been promoted rapidly from company accountant to Finance Director to CEO.

    We coached the CEO to develop this strategy, and this evolved into a coaching program for the senior managers, supporting them in implementing the strategy in their own areas of the business.

    From the beginning, the CEO avoided key issues during coaching and inconsistencies began to show during conversations between the CEO and the Directors. During a strategy workshop, Directors closed ranks, recited rehearsed statements about the strategy and looked to the CEO for approval.

    After just two months into the coaching program, it was clear that some managers' ideas to implement the strategy were being blocked, whilst others were contradicting themselves and avoiding accountability. The CEO was continuing to avoid key issues and was making very little progress overall.

    The main issue appeared to be the avoidance of accountability. Staff would avoid work that they were not interested in and their managers would take on extra work rather than make individuals accountable for their actions, so work flowed up the organisational structure rather than down and managers took on a higher workload resulting in longer working hours, greater stress, mistrust and resentment .

    We called a meeting with the CEO and told her that we were closing the coaching program.

    The fundamental issue was that the CEO was manipulating her managers and the board in order to support her own hidden agenda; her early exit. She knew that she did not have enough experience as a CEO to secure her next position, so the only option was a significant achievement in the form of a merger with another organisation which would give her an instant successor from outside the organisation, enabling her to block succession from within. She had already removed two Directors and had identified a third who she was setting up to fail in key performance areas. She influenced board elections to ensure support from new members and gave the impression that she was protecting her team from the board in order to control communication between them.

    This complex system of control and manipulation bred mistrust, avoidance and dishonesty throughout the management team and began to create a barrier to the CEO's own hidden agenda. The business was disintegrating faster than she could orchestrate her exit, and at some point the board would take the exit decision away from her, leaving her with neither the experience nor the achievements to move forwards yet equally unable to move backwards.

    At our final meeting, we told the CEO that we had identified all of this, and that we were no longer part of the game. Although she was surprised at our withdrawal from the program, she admitted to everything that we said. She recognised the risk that she faced, and the danger that she was putting the company in. If we had said nothing and continued to coach her, the coaching would have been ineffective because of her manipulation and avoidance. By admitting to her behaviour, she had taken responsibility for it and no longer needed coaching. Either way, our feedback was more valuable than any coaching ever could be.

    www.askrevelation.com