Why You Should 'Embrace' Corporate Politics

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


When I started out, I was determined to eliminate 'politics' from any endeavor in which I was involved. I would ensure that logic and openness would rule the day in every situation. What a naive idiot I was.

When you think about how tough it is out there, how anxious people feel about their future, and how much responsibility they have to their families and their bosses (who are in turn very nervous about their families and their bosses), it's hardly surprising that people will resort to whatever 'opportunities' are available to protect and advance themselves.

On top of that, even in strong economies and well run companies, there are all sorts of different types of people. Some people love constant change, others cling to the status quo. Some prefer a very structured environment, some like a looser one. If you have weak people at your company, you're going to go broke. If you have strong people, you're going to have conflict. If you don't change, you die. If you strive to change, you will have uncertainty, and where you have uncertainty, you have politics. It's not just inevitable, it's a good and necessary thing.

I used to be quite sympathetic to any complaint that 'politics' was messing with someone's career opportunities, but I'm more wary now. Competition, struggle and uncertainty are part of life. If someone is being treated unfairly, especially by a 'superior', that needs to stop immediately. But if you are being outhustled, then you are being outhustled. I like ambitious people, I wish we had more of them.

Of course, if you have a workplace where everyone is spending way too much time worrying, politicking, protecting themselves rather than focusing on their jobs and building a great company, then you've got serious problems and are going nowhere fast.

What's the answer? As usual, I don't know, but I'd offer three thoughts:

  1. Stop whining. Don't 'embrace' the practice of corporate politics, but embrace the fact that it exists. Politics is just people living together. Analyse your situation, be as open and honest as you can with everyone, especially yourself, including about your ambitions, and make decisions. If you are in a bad situation, you absolutely must deal with it. But remember, there are politics everywhere, so running away may not be the best option.
  2. If you are running a company, a department, a project, a team, whatever, remember that unhelpful politics and backbiting are caused by uncertainty and fear, so do everything possible to eliminate both. Make the rules clear, make the problems clear, make the goals clear, make the strategy clear and make the roles clear. Clarity minimizes bad politics.
  3. Even after all that, there will still be uncertainty, so there will still be fear. I think the most important thing is not to emphasize with everyone what you know, but rather what you don't know. Put it on the table. It may sound counterintuitive, but acknowledging your own uncertainties will build confidence and decrease anxiety. It puts everyone on the same page. Admitting your fears will build trust, will encourage others to do the same, will make everyone feel better (their worries are always worse than the reality), and will lead to faster solutions.

And for crying out loud, let's all be nicer to each other. 2015 is going to be tough enough, and when it's over the only thing that is certain is that we will all be older. It's hard to be angry and fearful when everyone is being just so damned cheerful. It's harder to screw around someone that you really like.

Come on, you can do it: Smile! And suddenly, everyone feels better.

Have a great 2015.