Five Recommendations for Engaging in Honest Politics at Work

How to improve work systems and lead more successfully through honest politics.

Posted Jun 04, 2019

 PublicDomain Pictures/Pixabay
Source: Source: PublicDomain Pictures/Pixabay

I’m writing this particular post knowing I’m going to get some side-eye shade, eye rolls, and maybe even bristly responses, because it’s about “politics” and we’re all pretty much fed up with “politics.”

But before you judge, I hope you’ll stick with me to the end and consider how it can actually help you become a better leader when used appropriately—for the purpose that politics was actually intended. But first, we need to talk about what politics really is.

Formal politics is supposed to be about how governance structures are set up and how these structures help systems make decisions. Usually, it’s applied to federal and state government work. It can include developing formal policies, passing laws, and promoting and moving forward specific views about how to improve systems.

Informal politics are the underlying invisible structures that also influence decisions. These include forming alliances, exercising power, protecting and advancing particular ideas or goals, and negotiating.

Whether it’s a neighborhood homeowners association, a student government group, a corporation, or any group of people, formal and informal politics are the structures that inform how decisions are made for the people in these groups.

In this post, I’m not going to go into the politics of government per se, but rather the more informal politics of any work life, specifically from the perspective of women who experience work politics as a “dirty word.”

When we say, “I’m not going to play games and involve myself in politics,” what we really mean is, “I’m sick and tired of the kind of politics that are corrupt and I refuse to engage in that kind of abuse of power.” The term politics has become nearly completely perverted by ugly, abusive political tactics (i.e., “games”) that are more associated with selfish pursuits of personal power, so we feel dirty even thinking about engaging in politics.

However, politics are part of everyday work life, and talented high-achieving high-potential women who do not engage in work politics often get left out of the important decision-making process.

But you don’t have to engage in dirty politics to be successful. Work politics don’t have to be dirty, ugly, or corrupt to work well and be useful. The difference is to understand how to be involved in the political process without sacrificing your values.

Think of politics on a continuum. For example, one way to think of it is ranging from honest to dishonest interactions in order to achieve outcomes that are either focused on personal gain vs. community gain.

Mira Brancu/Mira Brancu
Honesty and Community Politics Continuum
Source: Mira Brancu/Mira Brancu

In this example:

  • When politics are aligned with the values of supporting an underserved community, and by using honest methods of negotiation, persuasion, influence, and advocacy, that would fit into the green box. Laws and policies that are developed to support those efforts would make a positive difference for many people, through honest means.
  • When politics are aligned with a desire for personal gain and power, using tactics like coercion and lies, at the expense of many others’ rights or success (the community at large), it may end up feeling more “ugly”, dishonest, and selfish, which is the orange box.
  • Honest self-focused politics may use those methods of negotiation, persuasion and influence, but only for personal promotion or advancement. It may or may not benefit a larger group or community.
  • Dishonest community-focused politics may use coercion and lies to reach an outcome. In this box, the leader may believe that the “ends justify the means.”

And there is more in between and on more extreme ends of the continuum.

Now let’s look back on those informal politics to see how they can be useful at work in helping you become a better leader, but in a way that feels more honest:

  1. Forming alliances. Gone are the days when one person can single-handedly create something new and take sole claim for that innovation in a company. The innovations and changes that are needed now are much more complicated and often require a team-based approach. And if you want to have a well-functioning highly productive team, you need to have strong skills in forming alliances with other people.
  2. Exercising power. There are many types of power. My favorite body of research on the topic of power within organizations is by French and Raven. A brief summary is that power can be gained and earned in many ways, and some of the most influential, long-lasting are the kind that is not forced on people and not coercive. Knowing how to gain others’ trust in your work to get things accomplished with fewer obstacles is an important aspect of honest politics.
  3. Advancing and promoting particular ideas or goals. In honest politics, the primary purpose of advancing and promoting ideas is to help your team or organization accomplish its goals. The secondary gain may be something such as personal advancement of your career, but it comes more naturally out of this primary gain. I will talk more in another post about how to effectively communicate your ideas to advance these goals. However, as an example, a TED Talk is one style of presenting honest political communication of ideas or goals. Each TED Talk is set up to advance a specific idea in a clear, focused, inspiring manner.
  4. Making Laws. In a work environment, making “laws” is the same as developing and implementing a new policy or rule about how decisions are made and implemented. The difference between dirty vs. honest politics when making laws is that honest politics are focused on setting policies that support fair, transparent, equitable decisions. Dirty politics often feel like the policies are meant to protect only a few people who already have most of the power or advantage. If you are not happy with the current rules at work and want to change them, doing so is a critical aspect of engaging in politics.   
  5. Negotiating. Negotiating is another one of those dirty words I’ll talk about more in another post, but again, it only has a negative connotation as a result of its misuse. There are several amazing books about negotiating in ways that are less transactional and more powerful, effective, and thoughtful (three of my favorites are: Crucial Conversations, Getting to Yes, and Bargaining for Advantage*). As opposed to dirty politics which forces people to take positions and dig their heels in even if it hurts others, negotiations in honest politics can lead to much more creative, strategic, longer-lasting outcomes by connecting everyone’s interests around a specific common goal.

Looking across all of these, the common elements are strong communication and problem-solving skills. There is nothing dirty about that. It’s often the selfish misuse of communication and strategy for personal gain that ruins good politics in an organization.

This is the third post in my “Dirty Words” series. Here are the others:

NOTE: I do not receive any compensation for the book recommendations I make.