“I hate workplace politics.”

This week, I’ve had conversations with several new clients. They’re all super-smart, engaging, committed to being successful in their roles. And they all share similar assumptions: Good ideas should stand on their own merits. Decisions in organizations should be based on logic. We want to do the “right thing.” Politics stinks.

These assumptions spring from an honorable place. These folks don’t want to schmooze, steal credit, treat people better just because they are more “important,” use sneaky methods to gain influence. Basically, they don’t like the idea of taking actions for their own gain rather than for organizational ends.

But “I hate politics” also becomes a limiting story. It can lead you to avoid engaging with and influencing people whose support is important to your vision and goals. It can prevent you from selling your ideas, and having impact on a broad stage. So, the question becomes, how can you think of politics in a way that feels honorable and that serves what you think is “right”?

Positive Politics

The idea of “positive politics” is not new. 25 years ago, in the classic book The Empowered Manager, Peter Block defined positive politics as building support for one’s vision. Even before that, David McClelland talked about the difference between “personalized” and “socialized” power – personalized power is self-serving, while socialized power serves a broader goal.

At Teleos, we’ve built on those ideas in our collaborative influence training. We try to help leaders see that, first, unless your vision is really narrow, you can’t realize it without the support of others. And second, you can’t get other people to care about your vision unless you have a window into what is most important to them and what they are trying to accomplish. Different individuals, different groups, have different needs and goals – and thus different perspectives on what’s “right.” The vision you care about is unlikely to become real unless you can bridge to those different perspectives.

The deeper reasons we hate politics – and how we can learn to embrace it

If positive politics is not a new idea, why is it so hard to love? I find that every leader needs to discover, in a visceral way, the limits of her “I’m not political” stance. Seeing those limits is scary. It’s hard to let go of the idea that one’s own vision should be adopted by the world in its pure form, regardless of what the world thinks or wants. It’s hard to have the conversations with people who might not immediately find your vision as compelling as you think they should. It can be really satisfying to get something tangible done without having to navigate through a mess of political roadblocks and stakeholder interests.

The first steps to embracing politics are to find a way to see the honor in it, and its essentialness in achieving your goals – and to find a way to engage politically that feels true to your style and your values.

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