Last night I was reading John Le Carré’s novel 'The Perfect Spy', and came across these few lines:
"In every operation there is a 'above the line' and a 'below the line'. Above the line is what you do by the book. Below the line is how you do the job."
He was referring to the spying profession, but it struck me that it could as easily describe the way to operate successfully in any organisation. The spy novel context also reminded me that many women regard the concept of company politics in the same light - a murky, divisive, Machiavellian underworld where the normal rules don’t apply. And, because of this perception, combined with the fact that one of the very few differences between men and women is that women over-index on integrity1, many women chose to stick to the high ground and dismiss company politics altogether.
However, it’s important to explore and understand something in order to make a balanced and informed choice about whether to dismiss it in whole, in part or not at all.
So what really is company politics?
It’s a subset of company culture. And by culture we mean the broad range of ways that an organisation chooses to work – the lay-out of its offices (e.g. accessible, relaxed, open plan to closed individual offices); its hierarchical structure (flat to steeply tiered); how decisions are made; how and why people are recognised and rewarded; and so on. Culture is an organisation’s individual identity. To have the best possible relationship with it you need to take the time to understand it.
Parts of an organisations culture will be formalised and imposed, other parts develop informally and this tends to include communications, influencing and the making of decisions. And it is this subset that often comes under the banner of ‘politics’.
The term actually comes from Aristotle’s series of books called ‘Politika’, written around 350BC, which were about governing and governments, and therefore about influencing outcomes where both power and people are involved. And when we think about modern politics and recent UK and US elections, we can see the stark reality of behaviours which seek to influence desired outcomes - from the TV debates with their power-plays and downright lies to the more straight-forward lobbying and targeted communications on the canvassing trail. Each party has their own style but also has to comply with the formalised processes to allow it the chance of meeting its end goal.
At this point it’s probably helpful to distinguish between two categories of political behaviour to make it easier to make a positive choice. You really don’t have to act like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, who exemplify the category called poisonous politics which exists in an entirely separate category to legitimate politics. The distinction is broadly that poisonous politics is working against people (them putting down or treading on them) to try and clear the path ahead as opposed to legitimate politics which is working with people and the way they operate.
Legitimate politics – legitimate influencing of outcomes based on the informal ways people like to work - is wired into the way all organisations really work and the way things really get done. So, if you want to make your time in an organisation the most successful it can be, you have to know both the formal process (Le Carré’s above the line) and how they really get done (Le Carré’s below the line). This is what some call playing the game. You have to know the rules and the moves and the movers to give you the best chance to succeed.
Put simply, if you elect not to participate in the influencing of outcomes that legitimate politics represents, while others do participate, you risk missing the key points where the key support, approval and recognition are gained which inform the outcomes of formalised stages in the decision-making process. Now, it may well be true that following this path takes longer, however the cost of choosing not to invest that time can be the loss of what matters to you and what motivates you.
When you can separate out the poisonous politics from the overall perception of politics, opting into the game of legitimate politics is a clear and easy choice which has no conflict with integrity. The task is then to understand how the game is played in your organisation. And rather than spending all your time developing your sleuthing skills to work this out, you may want to track down someone who seems to have cracked it and buy them a coffee and pick their brains. If you have a mentor this would be a key part of their role.
‘Understanding Culture to smooth the path ahead’ is one of 20 Strategic Enablers explored in my book “The Women’s Sat Nav to Success. How to have your best career”. To be one of the first to read it, sign up here.
You still have time to take The Women’s Sat Nav to Success Survey which is an opportunity to identify where you are against these strategic enablers in order to inform your personal development plan.
1 Though The Labyrinth. Eagly and Carli (Harvard Business Press)