In the New Economy, many of the basics of traditional business get turned upside down: Bureaucracy gets banished, meetings get reinvented, memos get abolished. But if you think that the rise of fast-paced competition means the demise of organizational politics, well, think again. "Politics is simply how power gets worked out on a practical, day-to-day basis," says John Eldred, 56, a teacher and a consultant. "People in organizations demonstrate power in every conversation, every decision, and every interaction."
For 11 years, Eldred has taught "Mastering Organizational Politics and Power," a popular course that is part of the University of Pennsylvania's master's program in organizational dynamics. He recently added a second course, "Politics of the Virtual Organization." He works with students and with clients of his consulting firm - Transition One Associates, in Ambler, Pennsylvania - who include managers from labor unions and family businesses as well as from such companies as Bell Atlantic, MCI, and Comcast. "The more change there is, the more the political quotient goes up," says Eldred. "I try to help people live amid competing agendas and imperfect information. Politics is not about defeating others; it's really about tapping into possibilities for action that solve problems."
In an interview with Fast Company, Eldred shared his strategies for becoming a political activist at work.
Isn't the promise of the new economy that we can all just get down to work?
The biggest political mistake is to assume that organizational politics doesn't exist. It's often a question of language. When we win on an issue, we call it leadership. When we lose, we call it politics. Practicing politics simply means increasing your options for effective results.
Does politics change in an era of grassroots leadership and distributed organizations?
Only in that it becomes more important. We're all in free-agent mode now. Work is not so much about "managing" people as it is about guaranteeing the performance of peers and peer organizations on whom you depend. You need skills in dealing with conflicting agendas, shifting power grids, and environmental forces for which you have only partial information.
But the ultimate form of politics is what I call "intrapsychic" politics: That involves knowing who you are, what your goals are, and how to handle yourself in the midst of conflict. That kind of knowledge helps you decide which battles are worth fighting.
Is politics still about power?
Politics is a practice. Dealing well with it requires preparation and learned skills. My students keep a weekly journal of moments in their own lives that have a high political quotient, so they can examine their actions and reactions. What political mistakes did they make? Where did they shut down conversation, and where did they open options for themselves?
Politics also involves skills like networking. You can't wait until you're in a bind to create networks. I have my students create two columns on a piece of paper. One is labeled "What I need help on," and the other is labeled "What I can help others with." We post everyone's lists so that students can get and give one another help. Do this at work, and you'll learn three things: You don't really know the people you work with. Everybody has something to contribute. And everybody - even your boss - needs help.
Then it comes down to preparation. A 30-second talk can change the outcome of a situation - if you have the right information and skills on hand. A salesman who took my class learned this lesson well. He brought his regional manager with him to renegotiate a contract with a big customer, who was a tough negotiator with a lot of leverage. They were sitting in this guy's office, getting nowhere, when the salesman said to the customer, "I need to speak with my boss. Would you step outside?" He kicked this guy out of his own office!
The second the door closed, his boss yelled, "Are you crazy?" The salesman said, "No, calm down. The only language this guy understands is power. Let's just sit here for 10 minutes, flip some numbers around, but keep the offer the same." He brought the customer back in, told him what they would agree to, and the guy shook on it right there.
But isn't that playing the game? What about doing the right thing?
Effective politics is about reaching mature compromises. One of my students is a young manager at a big company. Her boss asked her to interview a candidate for a new job. When the candidate asked whether the company encouraged trips to conferences, she felt compelled to respond with an honest answer, which was no. Her boss was irate, and she immediately began defending herself. So what was her political mistake? It wasn't that she told the truth to the candidate. Rather, she failed to use her truthfulness in a way that would change her boss's thinking.
In speaking with her boss, she could have said, "That question presented me with a dilemma. Do I tell this hot job candidate a disappointing truth, or do I paint a rosy picture? How do you think I should have handled it?" Instead of issuing a verdict, you're asking for help.
Politics isn't about winning at all costs. It's about maintaining relationships and getting results at the same time.
Contact John Eldred by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.