Just yesterday, I came across a Harvard Business Review article titled “Great Leaders Embrace Office Politics”. Written by Michael Wenderoth, the article describes how, in the real world, our success is determined less by merit and more by perceptions and political skills. Michael’s writing is pragmatic and draws insights from top executives’ actual experiences, even his own. It also reminded me of the many warnings I have received about playing the office politics game. “It is there in every office. You cannot eliminate it, so you might as well play it,” a number of colleagues, relatives and friends have told me so over the years.
Until now, I have always been adamant in my belief that merit is given to those who yield consistent and sustainable results, and whose good faith backs every initiative. I also believe that maintaining good interpersonal relationships is crucial to the success of every person. I have witnessed, and luckily been a part of, great teams that utilized constructive conflict, emerging stronger and producing outstanding results. With these teams, we were not overly close — but we maintained a strong level of trust and respect among us which resulted not only to business output, but also a real positive difference to the lives of each other and our respective team members.
In the span of my career, I have found it hard to reconcile my professional beliefs with playing the office politics game, which many people are advising me to do. What if – and this is me thinking out loud – the conflict is because sometimes, being perceived well or being accepted entails going against your personal values?
In his article, Mr. Wenderoth has cited that to be successful, it is important to master ‘managing up’ which is all about having good working relationships with higher ups. I agree with this thought, with the caveat that managing up need not be against your personal values. Simply, it should not be fake.
I remember an incident where one of my friends, another C-level Executive, was pitching a culture-change program that would socialize a set of customer-focused behaviors across all employees. The Executive’s Line Manager was at odds with the proposal, saying that the program was a waste of time and would veer the Management’s focus away from addressing revenue issues. The thing was, revenues were flattening due to churning (leaving) customers, and they were leaving because of undesirable customer experience.
The Executive was in a conundrum. In front of the entire Management Team, should he continue pushing for the program which he truly believed could partialy solve the recurrent revenue issue, but which his Line Manager firmly said ‘NO’ to? I am here for my professional opinion and I truly believe in this program, he thought. So he did continue to passionately advocate for the culture-change program. Unfortunately, from then on, most of his program proposals got blocked or delayed.
My friend and I rehashed the incident several times during our chats, and we kept wondering what went wrong. Yes, there was a big difference in opinions, but nothing disrespectful was said. In this context, should the Executive have cared for his Line Manager’s opinion of him rather than what he thought was right for the company? We laugh at the thought of being a ‘yes-man’; unfortunately, quite some executives have achieved longevity in their jobs only because they succumbed to it.
My take in all these is that – office politics or not – it is very, very important to cultivate great working relationships, but these relationships need to be rooted in mutual trust and respect, not on superficiality. We still need to be able to get a good night’s rest, after all.