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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Hidden Dark Side of Politics in the Workplace



There are many people with successful track records when it comes to playing the game of politics in the office. They manipulate people as though moving pieces on a chessboard. They are masterminds when it’s time to take credit for work others have done. They know exactly what to say to make others look bad. If something goes wrong, they know whom to throw under the bus. It works and it looks glamorous.

However, advancing your career is analogous to building a
New York City skyscraper. When constructing a skyscraper, significant time is spent on the foundation. In fact, it may take many, many months to complete a suitable foundation for a building reaching 60 stories or more. That foundation is reinforced with steel beams as it is scaled to the tip of its height. Without the appropriate foundation and beams, the building will collapse.

The same outcome occurs to people who move up the ladder without developing themselves for the job to which they aspire. Instead of developing a strong leadership foundation, they chose to study and play politics. In some cases, the political game gets you in the door, except; it does not keep you there. 

I once watched an interview of Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE. During the Q&A, someone in the audience asked him how much his MBA helped him as CEO. To paraphrase his response, he said that his education got him in the door. As he moved up, the knowledge from his education became less relevant. He said that it was more important to be able to invent new knowledge and information to accomplish stretch goals than to depend on what you already know. That implies the need to constantly develop yourself. 

With that said, when you acquire your degree, the knowledge you possess is analogous to a 20 story building. It gets you on the block, not to the highest height of a skyscraper. If you want to become a leader in an organization, you will need to scale your career and knowledge to 80, 90 or 100 stories, without destroying the building. That means the 20-story foundation will never support you beyond a certain point. Therefore, part of your job is to always develop yourself. In the example of the building with 20 floors, you will have to build a stronger foundation while simultaneously increasing the height.

Unfortunately, the masters of politics often miss this valuable point. They have invested more time showing how well they play the game. Yet, when given significantly increased responsibility, they lack the leadership foundation to achieve large goals. And you hear stories of leaders who crash and burn. To make matters worse, those same leaders breed mediocrity in the enterprise. To hide this mediocrity, they are left with the shell game of financial engineering – layoffs and stock buybacks. Did I mention they lose the trust of others?

In a global economy, this game will run its course if the United States wants to maintain its competitive edge. If it doesn’t, this behavior will eventually position us to play catch up to a more ambitious and straightforward nation. Therefore, it is imperative to get your education and then educate yourself. It’s a great way to deepen your foundation and keep your footing as you climb the corporate ladder. It will give you the staying power to think through difficult challenges and make tough decisions.

While it may look cool and glamorous to play office politics, the cost shows up when a high performing competitor steps to the plate and raises the bar. Politics is never a guarantee for high performance. Preparation and constant development gives you a much better chance at being a champion.

What do you think? I’m open to ideas. Or if you want to write me about a specific topic, let me know. 

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