What do you think of when you consider corporate politics? Do you think of backstabbing, gossip, and self-interest, or do you think of alliance building, interdependence, and trust? It's rare that we use the word “political” in a positive manner.
How do you define politics? The quick answer is power. Merriam-Webster defines it as "competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership". People who use political relationships in the workplace often wield power that is either disproportionate to their position, or enhances their power beyond the position they hold. But where does this power come from? Why do some people exert tremendous influence, while others can't even lay claim to the power that comes with their title? Is political power always exploitative, or can it be moral and constructive?
At its core, political power is the ability to understand what others fear or desire, and to use that understanding to influence their behavior. The possibility of this power being misused is obvious even without the cautionary tales of corporate fraud and corruption that have plagued the news over past decades. Yet some of the most morally powerful leaders in recent history strongly grasped this power and used it constructively.
The Dalai Lama, for example, wields tremendous political influence. As the deposed leader of an occupied country he has very little positional power, but his reputation as a compassionate, humble, and moral spiritual leader allows him to speak on the world stage to international political policy. He advises heads of state, and is the spiritual leader of millions. The Dalai Lama uses his deep understanding of the struggles of humanity to foster compassion and moral responsibility on a global level.
So how do we differentiate between using political power for good or ill? I propose that there are three levels to political power: immoral, amoral, and moral. The key factor in deciding which is in use is self-awareness.
- Amoral Political Power
Unconsciously understanding and manipulating others with no awareness of your own motivating fears and desires.
- Immoral Political Power
Consciously understanding and influencing others without examining and understanding your own motivations.
- Moral Political Power
Consciously examining, understanding, and evaluating your own motivation, fears, and desires before influencing others.
Amoral and immoral political power is similar; the user doesn't take moral responsibility for his actions because he is unaware of his motivation. While the results may be equally destructive, the key difference is that the immoral person is consciously manipulating others, and therefore carries greater moral responsibility. Consider these examples:
- A COO tries to amass power by keeping his peers and subordinates in the dark about client expectations and organizational processes. He prohibits managers from collaborating to solve problems, and from having management status meetings. He does not conduct performance reviews, but criticizes managers in front of each other and subordinates. Unconsciously, he is unable to accept that the success of others is not a threat to his own. He tries to maintain an image of superiority while actively tearing down the reputations of other leadership and management. He is unaware that his actions are inhibiting organizational growth by causing high turnover in management, and poor efficiency and low morale. While these tactics may make him seem more competent in the short term, he is ultimately costing the company money through attrition and lost efficiency, while limiting the quality of customer service. This is ultimately self-defeating.
- A manager furthers her career by skillfully using the cultural language of her company to promote an appearance of strong leadership skills to her superiors, while actively removing more experienced and productive employees from her team. Recognizing her employees' ambition for advancement, she uses flattery and favoritism to mine for personal information and gossip, using it as informational currency to bargain for other information or discredit those she perceives as a threat. She negates the experience and skills of her employees while covering up her own deficiencies. She does not recognize that her fear of incompetence is motivating her to either control or remove others that may recognize it. She often switches alliances with peers, and has no sense of obligation to her employees. While she has been able to maintain a close relationship with leadership, the attrition rate, reputation, and productivity of her team has suffered, and is beginning to bring up questions.
- A director is hired to manage a team that has had issues with productivity, efficiency, and morale. She takes time to get to know each of her employees personally, learning their strengths, weaknesses, and ambitions. She spends part of a day with each employee letting them "train" her on their job, so she can understand their day-to-day challenges. She quickly promotes experienced employees to line manager roles, and publicly credits her team for their accomplishments. She forms cross departmental-alliances that benefit her team and improve the quality of work for the whole department. Her team becomes more efficient, happier, and better at solving problems and working cooperatively with clients.
Were you able to recognize which story corresponded with type of political power? The first person did not understand how fear and insecurity motivated him to sabotage his managers. While this is obviously a destructively shortsighted behavior, his total lack of awareness puts this example in the amoral political power category.
The second manager purposefully sought out information and alliances that would allow her to promote her own reputation while actively damaging that of her employees. She clearly understands how cultivating personal relationships can be used to mine for valuable and potentially damaging information on others. However, she has not examined her own motivations, which stem from territorialism, competition, and fear or distrust of employees who might "show her up". This makes her an immoral user of political power.
The final manager cultivated interdependent relationships with her employees and colleagues, taking extra steps to educate herself about the nature of the work, a necessary step in building credibility and trust. She used this trust to heal relationships between team members, establish clear expectations, and increase their status in the organization. She is transparent about her ignorance of process as a new manager, fostering loyalty and interdependence. She uses her power in a moral fashion.
Cultivating Moral Political Power
So how do we cultivate moral political power? How do we influence others without corrupting our own values? The answer is self-awareness. Most people strive for self-awareness in some way. We may talk to our friends or a trusted counselor about our problems, or take time for quiet reflection, prayer, or meditation.
These techniques are excellent ways to take a deeper look at our own motivations and evaluate our actions. Here are some specific questions you can ask yourself to determine your motivating fears and desires and how they may come into conflict with your values:
- What do I most desire at work? (recognition, advancement, respect, stability, etc.)
- What do I most fear at work? (being fired, making mistakes, being out of the loop, etc.)
- What are my most important values at work? (honesty, integrity, quality, success, loyalty, etc.)
Can you think of a time when your desires and fears conflicted with your core working values? If so, write the situation down, and then write down the fears or desires you felt motivated your actions. From this perspective, did your actions come into conflict with your core working values? If so, write down those values. Example:
Situation: I made a minor mistake on a team report, but convinced myself and my boss it was the fault of a junior team member.
Motivation: Fear of making mistakes, desire for respect
Conflicting Values: Honesty, integrity
Now write down an alternate scenario where you act from your values, rather than your fears and desires:
Situation: I admitted my mistake openly and given the junior team member public credit for his accurate work.
Think about how this values-based action would have changed your short term and long-term outcomes. Most likely, admitting a mistake would be uncomfortable in the short term, but would show honesty and integrity, building to a positive rather than negative relationship with your co-workers.
You can use this exercise to help recognize when your behavior is values-driven, and when you're tempted to act based on fear or desire. Keep in mind that everyone acts unconsciously sometimes. Ethical growth is only possible when we can take an honest look at our behavior and learn from our mistakes.
The power to influence others comes with a price; the responsibility to act ethically. While the use of political power for selfish ends may seem beneficial to the individual in the short term, it is ultimately self-defeating, as it erodes trust, commitment, and loyalty. Ethical use of political power can motivate people to work together to accomplish goals that provide individual and collective benefits. Taking an honest look at your own motivations is a first step towards building and using political power constructively and ethically.