When you hear the term “political behavior,” what happens? Maybe you cringe as you think of the antics of candidates during an election campaign. Perhaps you get a bad taste in your mouth as you recall questionable actions of corporate colleagues.
Most of us have witnessed one form of political behavior that leaves a negative impression. Others have seen a variety. I regularly encounter the following forms across industries. They can occur independent of each other or in combination.
- The potential threat: In this form, an individual uses defensive tactics to thwart someone believed to endanger his/her power.
- The benefit at the cost of another: This comes in two versions. In one version, a person undermines somebody else for self-advancement or self-protection. In the second version, an individual claims someone else’s work or success as his/her own.
- The turf war: In this case, parties battle over span of control, responsibilities and/or company resources.
Pervasiveness, Antecedents And Power
Like it or not political behavior is an organizational fact of life in companies, governments and nonprofits. Why? Organizations consist of an assortment of interests that often do not align. This creates an opening for political behavior. This conduct is especially likely when certain antecedents are present. You will find more political behavior when there is job ambiguity, a lack of trust, scarce resources, zero-sum rewards and pressure for performance. If individuals possess Machiavellian tendencies or a strong need for power, this increases the probability of political behavior.
Political behavior is the execution of power in different ways. Jeffrey Pfeffer’s research identified numerous bases of power. Power derives from being a well-positioned connector in key networks and from occupying a position with a large amount of discretion. Other key sources of power outside an org chart include possessing unique knowledge, skills and experience. The ability to control valuable resources and broker relationships are additional sources of power.
The variety of power bases can influence how people view power. Therefore, be mindful of how you judge it. Power on its own is not good or bad. What makes power good or bad is how it is used.
Upon recognizing negative political behavior, people frequently use ineffective strategies for handling it. Because they don’t like the behavior, they ignore it and hope it goes away. Too many leaders and professionals believe if they just do good work, everything will be fine. Unfortunately, this viewpoint ends up hurting them.
One leader comes to mind as I make this point. Dylan was a top performer who did not pay attention to political behavior. At his last company, a colleague saw him as a threat and undermined him to such an extent that Dylan left the company.
After I got to know him, Dylan mentioned what happened and asked for my perspective. I shared that finding a new job may have helped in that situation, but this is a limited strategy. Political behavior is found in every organization, and it may take on different forms. So, changing jobs is not an effective ongoing approach for handling it, and neither is ignoring it.
Upon hearing this Dylan asked, “If I face a situation like the one with my former colleague, should I get down in the mud and sling it back?”
Some might answer “yes” to Dylan’s question. I discourage responding in kind as a strategy for two reasons. First, countering negative political behavior with negative political behavior often escalates to worse behavior. Second, there are unwanted side effects of negative political behavior. For example, it can hurt your credibility and relationship with stakeholders and colleagues who detest this type of conduct.
Positive Political Behavior
As an alternative to responding in kind, use another type of response — positive political behavior. Because political behavior identified in most organizations is negative, you might question whether positive political behavior exists. If political behavior is the execution of power in different ways and how power is used determines whether it is good or bad, then political behavior can be positive as well as negative.
Positive political behavior involves using bases of power (especially the knowledge, skills and experience you possess) to develop tailored approaches for dealing with various types of negative political behavior. Another leader, known for her finesse, did this very well. Denise demonstrated positive political behavior by how she operated in a company notorious for its competitive, “up or out” culture which sparked devious, manipulative and other questionable conduct by coworkers.
Moreover, Denise kept her organizational radar on so she was aware of interpersonal dynamics in the company. She figured out who the powerful people and departments were in the organization and the types of power they exercised. Denise took an objective view of the situation. She realized that part of being an effective leader in this company entailed navigating problematic political antics. She positioned herself as an impartial stakeholder by creating strategies to involve challenging people/departments in key initiatives.
If you want to incorporate positive political behavior into your work, consider these tips:
1. Pay more attention to how tasks and initiatives are completed instead of simply noticing the outcome. Make note of the formal and informal ways things get done, including the participants who make them happen and what enables them to do so. For example, do they leverage key relationships, withhold needed resources or position themselves as the expert to compel others? Learn what happens to those who oppose the approach. What type of repercussions do they experience?
2. Devise custom strategies for negative political behavior you encounter based on information from your situational awareness. Estimate the impact of each strategy. Lead with the approach you believe will yield the best reaction and keep the others in your back pocket in case they are needed.
Political behavior is ubiquitous and most commonly recognized in negative form. Ignoring negative political behavior, avoiding it or pretending it doesn’t exist will not serve you well. Instead, counter it with positive political behavior.
Note: This article originally appeared in Forbes.
Ryan Lahti is the managing principal of OrgLeader and author of The Finesse Factor: How to Build Exceptional Leaders in STEM Organizations. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM organization tweets here: @ryanlahti
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(Photo: Afternoon Meeting, Pexels)