The art of not being so freaking pushy

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Accepting and learning to deal with politics can propel you forward in your achievements, but ignoring it can stall your career.

White king knocking down the black king. Hand, fingers, and a chessboard with an antique look.
Many depict politics as a chess game… but have you ever wondered if both are playing on the same side of the board or different ones? (Source)

As someone who has worked in several organizations, workplace politics is very familiar — situations like a project not being approved, not getting the budget needed to hire an employee, or even having problems dealing with a client. You’ve probably experienced this too and, like me, have thought negatively about it a time or two.

It’s common to think that these situations occur because suppose there are immature people at work or others who do not collaborate well with others. Although these things may be true at times, I’m here to argue that politics, in reality, are part of human relationships. Politics refers to the distribution of decision-making power and negotiation, influenced by various factors such as formal and informal power structures, organizational relationships, and dynamics. Often, this prevents people from being able to influence decisions and keeps them stuck in an undesirable situation.

“The truth is many professions, including the design industry, play the game of workplace politics. This complex social structure involves people using their authority, power, and delegation to advance their personal agenda” — Michael F. Buckley

Why should you care about organizational politics?

Politics is present in various aspects of life — even in personal parts, like decisions about where a group of friends will dine or choosing the next travel destination. How does this apply to a work environment?

  1. Having more influence over decisions: Politics significantly influences decisions regarding your projects and initiatives. Understanding the power structures within your organization allows you to navigate these dynamics effectively and advocate for choices that align with your vision.
  2. Communicating and collaborating better: Knowing your coworkers' context and background is a key ingredient to building better relationships. Navigating these dynamics allows you to build positive relationships and convey your ideas more effectively.
  3. Improving your career advancement: Being good at politics can help you negotiate and position yourself better to advance in your career within organizations. Conversely, it means you might slow your progress or even harm it. Selective focus photography of chess pieces, with a single black pawn next to white pieces.
Surrealistic oil paint on blank canvas with two sad orange faces looking at eachother.
Building relationships should not be done only with people we have affinities with. (Source)

Elements of organizational politics

Okay, I’ve talked about why politics are important in organizational settings, now let’s talk about some elements that compose it. Some of the important elements are:

Relationship building

Building relationships is the backbone of any political navigation, which means it’s essential to know the people you work with, at least on a basic level. You don’t build a relationship only with people you like: you also need to do this with people you need and with whom you can collaborate. What does this mean in practice?

  • You have an idea of the behaviors and patterns of people.
  • You stay updated with what they are doing and their difficulties (at work and, if you have good trust in them, in life).
  • You have a good idea of a person’s ego and how it is triggered (or challenged). You have informal conversations (yes, this is essential).
  • You also keep your emotions in check when dealing with difficult situations. Building a good relationship takes time, but it can be killed by just one destructive behavior.

One way to keep up with people is to invite them for a coffee (even virtual ones). Ask them about work and life, depending on how open your relationship is. In the end, people are people, and most appreciate curiosity about themselves — including the difficult ones. Be genuinely interested in the person in front of you — as Karen Dillon puts in her book, “The secret to effective relationship building through reciprocity is to give before you ask.”

Formal and informal power structures

Have you ever seen someone in the same position as you who ends up getting projects more easily? They might get the extra time needed, adequate time for research, or more resources. Although building relationships play a large role here, the power structure plays a big part in organizational and political dynamics.

There are two types: Formal, which is related to the official hierarchy, and Informal, which is related to influence (determined by various factors, fair or not). The first is very easy to observe when, for example, the CEO enters a room and everyone shows respect due to his position. The latter, however, might not be so evident at first glance, but we all know that person who, despite a role that may not draw much attention, leads initiatives and trust in organizations — a very common profile of employees considered “heroes” in the company.

The impact of informal power structures can also be negative: You might have someone in a high hierarchical position with no respect at all—usually people who fail to build relationships, are not ready for the position (emotionally and/or technically), and/or have little emotional intelligence.

If you’re looking for a formula to increase your informal power, I don’t have one—it’s about how much influence you can wield. This is connected to the results you bring and how you handle human emotions (yours and others), which means self-development is your best friend here (with the help of a good therapist, for example).

Conflict resolution

How do you resolve conflicts? If someone disagrees with you, what is your behavior? Conflict resolution can be a significant part of relationship building: here, the trust between you and your team members is defined.

Imagine that you shut down when someone disagrees with you or doesn’t behave as you want (save for toxic situations) — or worse, act in a curt manner, with some comment or passive aggressiveness. In this case, the tendency is for people to seek you out less and even avoid you. But if you can be regenerative and solve problems lightly, people might be less defensive when working with you and/or seek you out to solve more problems. How you respond is an excellent indication of how the relationship will continue.

Consider that this opinion comes from someone who has made many mistakes in this area — I had poor results when I was too harsh and critical, and it brought me a lot of resistance from people around me, delaying career results and earning little respect. Sometimes, all it takes to make someone not trust you is poor emotional management and a negative response so that they don’t want to work with you again (unlike when we are dealing with extreme or disrespectful situations).

Sometimes, all it takes to make someone not trust you is poor emotional management and a negative response so that they don’t want to work with you again

Values, beliefs, and organizational myths

This can help you understand why a company behaves and does things the way it does, which we generally translate as culture. The components of a culture usually refer to:

Values are an explicit set of desired behaviors in an organization (and not always followed). Safety, Honesty, Innovation — examples that we want to be true and try (or at least say we try) to achieve. They are quite explicit, as they are generally available on some HR walls and written on the “About” page of the organization.

Beliefs are a non-explicit set of what people think about how to behave in an organization. A belief of the company might be that balancing work and life is essential… but you see people who do overtime being consistently promoted. This generally comes from learned behaviors, like the monkey experiment trying to reach the banana at the top of a ladder and getting a jet of water in the face. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this.

Myths are distorted, non-explicit beliefs that people have about an organization. The most common example is “Leadership isn’t doing x, y, and z” or “Design doesn’t have a place at the table because no one understands.” These are observations that are generally far from reality or that do not “talk” to what is actually happening.

“Culture is not something you are, it’s something you do, highlights the active nature of building and sustaining a strong culture. It implies that culture is not a static aspect of an organization or a person’s identity but rather an ongoing process.” — Daniel Coyle

Now that you know about them, what do you do? Observe. If you write about it in a journal, all the better. You want to become more aware of these “components” of the culture and understand how you can react differently to them. This doesn’t mean you need to change your personality, but you may opt to approach situations differently than you are used to.

This doesn’t mean behaving like everyone else but rather understanding how to use the context to your advantage. In fact, doing things differently can often put you in an advantageous position, such as taking the time to review work before delivering it to a client… or delivering it as quickly as possible, if they are the type who like to collaborate in the execution/conception phase. Study your environment.

We should abandon the idea that politics within workplaces is evil since this occurs even in personal relationships. Assessing your skills and becoming aware of these human interactions can help you increase the odds in your favor — or at least avoid complicated situations.

Remember, it’s not about manipulating people — it’s about learning more about them so that you can resolve situations more efficiently and build better relationships, and it all starts with a deep analysis of yourself and understanding your needs/behaviors. Keeping a journal can help you increase your self-awareness about what’s happening around you, the people you work with, and especially yourself.


Navigating politics at work was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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