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The higher up in an organization you go, the more adept you need to become at politics. Period. Every senior leader I work with asks for guidance about how to do this well. Turns out that I am better at giving advice than I ever was at taking it. I was absolutely tone deaf when it came to navigating executive politics. I was astute, saw the dynamics, understood the intricacies. But when it came to opening up my mouth I was frequently a disaster. So I’ve learned about this the hard way…through real life experiences and observing my clients.

An ounce of context first. There seems to be a significant gender gap when it comes to attitudes and beliefs about playing the game. Men accept and even enjoy the posturing while women find it phony and try to avoid it. (In Sylvia Hewitt’s research she found this was one factor contributing to women leaving organizations after they became executives.) Female executives are urged by their CEOs to engage more actively in the politics of the team. That’s when they turn to me and say, “I can’t stand all the strutting and manipulating. How can I possibly participate in that?”

To neutralize the negativity a bit, let me offer a healthy definition of politics at the top. The tension between achieving enterprise level goals with departmental and personal goals creates challenging dynamics amongst senior leaders. This is normal. Executives toggle back and forth between achieving macro and micro objectives…and sometimes those are in conflict. What we call politics in organizations is the complicated web of interactions that ensue when a team tries to balance all concerns.

That said, there are productive ways to manage this and there are some great teams who do just that. You will hear individuals say things like “I’ll take one for the team” or “This will be a tough sell with my group but…” or “You guys are killing me here. Please help me out.” Telescope out to serve the greater good and then zoom in to be sure you are checking the boxes to get your own bonus.

But most of us encounter the more obnoxious version of politics. Smoke and mirrors. Blatant manipulation. Bullying. Much more Me focused than We. At worst, it is a group of individuals each trying to seize control and/or prove s/he is the smartest one in the room. These shenanigans are on full display and these teams are hard pressed to gain the respect and support of the staff. It is possible to quantify how damaging this is to an organization. Employee engagement surveys routinely rank within the top five concerns their mistrust or dissatisfaction with the leadership team. Exit interviews point to “poor boss” (unavailable, abusive, taking credit for my work, lack of development) as the top one or two reasons for leaving. I wish there was data available to show executives the drop in productivity that results from game playing at the top.

So I offer this guidance on how to be more politically savvy AND still be able to look yourself in the mirror.

  • Don’t bullshit. Don’t lie. People have keen shit detectors so you won’t be fooling anyone.
  • Earn others’ trust. Speak the truth. Follow through. Make words and actions consistent.
  • Have the toughest conversations one on one. It’s much easier to find common ground with one other person away from the crowd. Form healthy bonds behind the scenes. Besides, going toe to toe in a group setting creates many negative outcomes.
  • It is harder to betray trust or reverse course when you already established agreements in private. This means that the team meetings should feel like more of a confirmation of what has already been discussed rather than a fresh battleground.
  • Stay focused on the big picture/the greater good in the team discussions. The more you genuinely believe and behave from a place of We the less likely it is to turn sour. The more you focus on Me the more you set up a win-lose, competitive struggle. Remember, you are all on the same team…supposedly.
  • Manipulation can work once or twice but not as a steady diet. If you are prone to bend others to your will you will make adversaries. In the end, you will be isolated.
  • Hear and address the needs of others. If someone is digging their heels in there is some explanation for that. (Myopic view, strongly held opinions, data to back up a claim, past negative experience). Find out what that is in a calm moment and see if there is a way to fulfill all or some part of the request. Once that person gets some of what s/he needs, it is more possible to engage in a two-way exchange.
  • Be selective. Don’t jump into every debate on every issue. If you are sitting back and unhappy with the overt posturing, you don’t have to chime in…unless you have magic words to turn it off. And when you decide to enter the fray establish a more neutral disposition to start. When your passions flair up (which is fine) frame them in terms of the bigger picture. “All the industry indicators say that is the wrong choice.” “If we decide to go down that road the impact on the staff will be huge. We really need to focus on that.”

In the real world, politics are messy and often do damage. (Just look at our government these days!!) As a leader you want to do the right things and achieve the right goals. But if you bog yourself down in unproductive or nasty mudslinging everyone gets hurt. Most of all you.

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