I wrote an article on office politics a few years ago that provoked a lot of comment here on Management-Issues. Given current economic circumstances and that the article attracted so much interest, the editor of this website invited me to add my own rejoinder to the debate.
I believe that politics is alive and well – so I stand by my original comments. I still maintain that too many people spend their time complaining that life – particularly working life – is "unfair". Perhaps a promotion went to a rival who was less talented or the pay rise went to someone less hardworking.
To many people, the mere mention of the term "office politics" instantly makes them angry and annoyed. It conjures up images of insincerity, backbiting, brown-nosing, manipulation and greed.
However, there's another way of looking at it. When I coach managers who feel that their projects or change initiatives have stalled, I try to get them to change their perspective. Don't think "politicking". Instead, think of the process of building relationships and influencing people as "lobbying".
After all, non-profit organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Amnesty International lobby governments in the hopes of influencing policy and attracting funds. Parents lobby local councils for better funding for their schools and nurseries. Trade unions lobby employers for better working conditions for their members. And we don't sneer at any of these groups or say that they are doing anything underhand or unsavoury.
Lobbying merely recognises that decision-makers do not have access to all of the facts. Your boss can't know how much work each member of the team put in. Customers can't be expected to remember all of the facts when they have ten different suppliers begging to work with them.
In the absence of all of the facts, it's human nature to make decisions based on what we're told, whom we know, how much we trust them, and whom we remember at a given moment in time.
Yes you could make a formal business presentation to a customer or your boss and hope that they make the right decision. But if you're smart, you would offer to take them out for a coffee and chat about it informally. That way you're both relaxed and can ask and answer questions that may not come up during formal pitches.
Or say you're trying to influence a particular colleague – let's call this colleague John. Sometimes John may not listen to you. But if you can convince a handful of other colleagues that your idea has merit, then maybe peer pressure can persuade John when the rational argument could not.
I'm not suggesting that you should try to bribe your way into winning a contract or offer sexual favours in return for career advancement. Yes you could do that, but such gains are often short-lived. You win one contract, but you stir up such resentment amongst colleagues that you find them blocking your every move. Or your boss promotes you when the affair is going well, but then you find yourself without a job when your boss decides a few months later that the sexy new intern is the one that he or she wants.
Smart people appreciate that lobbying is an essential part of organisational success. When they're fighting for project resources or defending their departments from job cuts, politically savvy people are happy to use both formal and informal channels to influence decision makers.
What does this mean for you? Essentially, you have a choice. You could moan about the unfairness of working life. Or get involved in lobbying. Accept that colleagues and customers struggle to make decisions based on the merits of a business case alone. They like to put a face to a name, find out about the people behind the facts, and hear arguments in language that makes sense to them.
So think about using politics and the power of lobbying to push the interests of your team, your division, and the best interests of the organisation. Because if you're lobbying and using your influence to pursue projects that add value, you can't help but succeed. Your career ascent will be the happy by-product of the initiatives you're supporting.