In his book Adults in the Room, the economist and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis reflects on an obstacle lots of people face in their jobs: Getting other people to go along with their ideas. Working with fellow economists, Varoufakis developed a plan to get the Greek economy out of its cycle of debt with the Eurozone and the International Monetary Fund. But he ultimately failed to gather enough support for these policies to be enacted.
One lesson from that experience? Having good ideas and convincing others that your ideas are good as you think they aren’t isn’t enough. What really matters is your ability to navigate your organization’s political apparatus. And make no mistake: Every organization has one. “Playing politics” at work isn’t a matter of sleazy double dealing, though. It’s just about gaining the support of people with the ability to put your ideas into practice. After all, getting a group of people to work together and sweat the details in order to pull off a project successfully takes skill.
If you want to improve your organization and make an impact, you’ll need to master that. Here’s the right way to go about it.
Look For How Decisions Get Made (Not Just Who Makes Them)
Sometimes it’s obvious who calls the shots. Other times, it isn’t. Maybe it’s not the people with the flashiest titles who are setting the agenda; instead, it’s the key people who influence their choices who have the real power. They’re the ones who determine the process by which new ideas get filtered up to key decision makers.
Understanding how decisions get made requires a certain degree of access, but a little can go a long way toward providing crucial intel. That means that you want to get yourself invited to meetings where important issues are going to be discussed. If that sounds unlikely, try asking permission to sit in on those talks strictly as an observer, for career-development reasons. After all, you really are there just to learn.
Your aim in these meetings is to listen and watch: Who talks? Whose words are repeated by others? When someone makes a comment and other key players adopt their way of talking about the issue, you know you’re dealing with someone who has quiet influence. You can’t even begin to get anyone to pay attention to your own ideas until you know whom to talk to.
Build Up Goodwill
Ideas are like books. You have to get people to pick them before they can have any impact. How do people decide what books to buy? They often gravitate toward authors they’ve already heard of for some reason. Authors present their work in multiple places–by writing op-eds, getting excerpts published in magazines, going on speaking tours–in order to familiarize potential readers with their work and drum up interest in it.
Similarly, you can’t start cultivating people with the power to implement your great idea at the same instant you have that idea; if your first interaction with someone is a request for a favor, you can’t reasonably expect them to grant it. You have to begin much earlier. From the moment you start any job, you need to develop relationships with people who can help you achieve your goals–which includes but is definitely not limited to your boss.
Get to know the people you work with. Offer to help with projects. Show that you’re willing to support the team’s or the company’s goals. And make sure you actually do a good job with everything you offer to take on (offering to help is one thing; actually helping is another). Building up this goodwill gives you social capital to spend when you need it.
Find Common Ground
Even if you have good relationships with people who can help you implement an idea, they might not be willing to help. Everyone in an organization has goals they’re trying to achieve. Some might be personal (getting a promotion), and some might be organizational (getting a project funded). So while a colleague may offer to help you because they like you or think your idea is brilliant, they’ll only do that in the context of the other goals they’re trying to achieve. And that means you need to find common ground.
Learn what key people are working on. Look for ways to make it easy for them to support you, and explain how what you’re trying to do also advances whatever they’re hoping to accomplish. You may need to be creative in helping them to see the overlap, but that doesn’t mean stretching the truth (suspected bullshitters are not generally successful at working their organizations’ politics). But you will probably have to show people that there’s a way for them to achieve one of their goals in a different way than they’d expected. If you can find common ground in those end goals, you may be able to find flexibility in the getting-there.
No matter what, just don’t expect anyone to be so blown away by the brilliance of your idea that they’ll abandon their own agendas in order to adopt yours.
Know When To Fold
Persistence matters, but so does the ability to be realistic about your odds. One of the biggest mistakes people make while trying to negotiate their organization’s politics is sticking in the game too long. Sometimes there just isn’t a way to get key people to work with you to get your idea across the finish line. Pushing too far past the point of no return can actually hurt your credibility, your career, and your chances the next time you’ve got an idea you want to win support for. Instead, you have a few options.
One is to live to fight another day. If you had one good idea, there’s a high probability that you’ll soon have another. And just because you weren’t able to get one idea taken up by people with power doesn’t mean you’ll always fail. Continue to develop relationships so that when you have your next stroke of genius, you can return and try again.
Another option is to move on to someplace where your idea will stand a better chance of gaining traction. You can learn a lot about the values of people and organizations by watching how they make decisions. In the process, you might discover that your values differ enough from those of the people around you that this organization isn’t the one where you should be devoting your efforts. Maybe it’s time to find someplace where you can engage with people who share your view of the world.
In the end, people often grumble about “office politics” when they don’t get what they want. The key is to remember that it’s really about people. Wherever you go, whatever you do, there will be people you need to convince to come along for the ride.