Power : Beyond office politics

Gossip, backstabbing, competition, hidden agendas, power plays and outright sabotage: Ask most people to describe politics at work and they fire off long list of negatives. Seeking power is often considered shady and intrinsically immoral.
Principled people worry about the ethics of gaining and using political power, fearing it is morally unacceptable and sure to corrupt. Politics is, unfortunately, often about the misuse of power.
Yet it is possible to harness power in the service of higher goals. Being powerless does nothing to advance the goals of principle. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi understood this.
Learning to gain and use personal political power as means to positive and principled ends is desirable and important responsibility.
Don’t want to play? Many believe that if they keep their head down, do good job and stay out of the way, they will avoid the politics altogether. This is myth and mistake. Office politics is unavoidable and inescapable.
You avoid engaging in office politics at your own peril. You can easily become victim of what you don’t understand. Your failure at the hands of political manoeuvres only results in your own suffering. Worse yet, your principles and values and the work that you care about may not advance.
In any organisation, office politics really refers to the informal ways that things get done. Beyond the formal hierarchy and organisational chart, there are the interpersonal interactions involved in how resources are allocated, whose priorities matter and how decisions are made.
Inevitably, engaging in office politics involves getting and using power and, ultimately, power is about your ability to get things done. It is essential that you learn to operate well within your organisation’s informal political processes.
So how do we begin to understand and use positive political power? In their book Enlightened Office Politics: Understanding, Coping with, and Winning the Game – Without Losing Your Soul Michael and Deborah Dobson identify six types of personal political power. These are: role power, relationship power, resource power, rhetoric power, respect, and reason and purpose.
Most people are naturally strong in at least one or two of these areas. At the same time, we need to develop those areas where we are less skilled in order to gain balance and maximise our effectiveness.
Role power refers to the impact, or power, that is inherent in your position. Your role in the organisation is one measure of your personal political power.
Relationship power is crucial. This is the power that comes from who you know and how you know them.
Resource power refers to what you control such as material resources, access to others with power, time and money. This includes the power to approve someone’s budget or to decide who gets access to everything from equipment, training, travel or parking spaces.
Rhetoric power stems from your ability to communicate. If you speak and write well, you have the power to persuade or influence others. If you do great work, it can be lost on others if you can’t get your ideas and your priorities across via effective communication.
Respect power speaks for itself. You are powerful, in one sense, according to the opinions others hold about you: your integrity, dependability, skills and accomplishments, for example.
Finally, and perhaps most important, is the power you achieve via the reason and purpose you bring to your work. There is nothing more powerful than clearly focused goal based on vision that includes higher moral, and/or, ethical aims.
We are left with promise and challenge. The promise is that we can gain and use political power for highly-principled ends and, in the process, have profoundly positive impact on the culture of an organisation.
The challenge is that this involves no small amount of courage. It takes strength and resolve to counter negative influences and toxic atmosphere at work. It is vitally important to learn to appreciate and practise positive politics in the interests of principles and ethics.
With commitment, courage and bit of homework, it is possible to become empowered, find your own voice and learn to successfully manage the political landscape at work. M

Louisa S. Walker, PhD, teaches two-day courses in office politics at The Centre for Continuing Education at The University of Auckland.

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