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Stop “playing” politics

November 12, 2014

I was privileged to be on a panel at a major annual STEM conference recently and to participate in a seminar on “Navigating and Surviving Organizational Politics Like a Pro.” But when I focused on “leading across organizational boundaries” instead of ways to be better at “politics,” it sparked a heated conversation and real debate about what’s more effective: being more political and better at “playing the game” or simply being more authentic, values driven, and willing to understand what motivates people across an organization.

It’s a hot topic. And as former executive, I understand the concept of “organizational politics.” The term was used in places that I’ve worked. But never by the most senior leaders, and never from the really good leaders.

What really fascinated me was that there were many in that seminar who wanted to be more political and play more games. One attendee even said work is a game and inferred that we go to work to play games to achieve what we want. Another thought that simply being political was the only way to get ahead.

I totally disagree. I believe you get ahead by establishing relationships, building trust, having values-based conversations, and understanding human dynamics more so than being a politician. So which perspective is right?

I believe the challenge with “playing games” at work is the same challenge with playing games outside of work. Games are designed to have winners and losers! Games have strictly enforced rules and officials to facilitate following those rules. Games have parameters for starting and stopping, resting and scoring. Games are built around governed and sanctioned systems. One becomes good at playing a game by practicing, rehearsing, building capacity, and by becoming a student and master of the game. Those who perform better than others, according to regulated and facilitated criteria, win. The others lose.

But here’s the thing: the “game” analogy doesn’t really work in organizations because there are no sanctioned rules. There is no officiating, no parameters and no practice fields. And even though we know there is no rule book, and we are often also told, “You better play by the rules,” there really aren’t any rules.

This reminds me of the time when my assertion that “we shouldn’t be playing games” at work and we shouldn’t use the “game playing” metaphor was challenged. The eager debater started off by sharing a recent conversation with the boss that went like this: “Let me tell you what your problem is. You are playing checkers when you should be playing chess.” The audience erupted in cheers. Here was the evidence that proved me wrong. “Our bosses use the game-playing metaphor all the time!” they said.

But this just proved my point. First, when a leader, manager, supervisor, etc., starts off a coaching conversation with “Let me tell you what your problem is,” it means they are not particularly good at having meaningful, values-based conversations. And for a boss to use that particular game analogy, it suggests they are operating under a totally different set of constructs than everyone else.

Checkers is so much more different than chess with completely different rules and strategies. Furthermore, this advice doesn’t even give the employee any more information about their problem! What if the boss said “you are playing backgammon when you should be playing Mahjong!” Then what?

Wouldn’t a more detailed description of the problem be appropriate? And more importantly wouldn’t a more honest, authentic, and meaningful conversation be much more beneficial? Employees need to understand the context in which they experience challenges. A leader’s responsibility is to provide that context and help the employee make sense of it, guiding them through the conversations they need to have, with whom they need to have them, in order to be effective in their role. It seems pretty obvious doesn’t it?

So do yourself and the people you work with a favor: quit playing games and get real. You’ll do more than feel better; you might actually “get ahead.”

This is a controversial topic, so let’s hear it. What do you think works better—politics or persuasion, games or genuine insight that comes from real conversation?

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