Office Politics & Power Networks

As I begin this post, I realise that my title includes two of the most boring words in the English language: office and politics – yawn. Who knows, for that reason, perhaps this article will never be read. However, I was just relaxing in the bath before thinking about writing my first post for today and my thoughts drifted back to my time in the corporate world. I was thinking that one of the greatest benefits of becoming self-employed is that you never again have to contend with the kind of threat that office politics represents.

Even in my previous role in the workplace, working for a quite small company, you needed to be aware of who you were talking with, what was their agenda and who you could trust. If that statement describes your own current position, then you have my condolences. The existence of a culture in which the rumour mill is continuously producing its potentially damaging output is largely a failure of the management within many organisations. But it is something that often we need to be aware of and to learn how to handle.

It is firstly important to realise that there are always two conversations going on about anything and everything in the workplace: there is the surface conversation, the one that is politically correct and aligned with the organisations goals, policies and values; and then there is the other one. The other conversation is the one in which people feel free to express themselves without much consideration to the company line. As we have discussed before (see Team Leader) this is something of which managers need to be constantly aware.

In the past, I confess that I have sometimes been less than savvy and at times, even a little naive in this respect. My own values do not allow other people to pass their judgements on to me, for example; that extends to everything from their opinion on a movie to what they think about a fellow employee. Most people would pay lip service to that statement, but many do not walk their talk (remember that there are always two conversations).

Similarly, my own values do not allow me to pass information to any other person if I have been entrusted with that information confidentially. I believe both of these personal values to be correct, but have sometimes naively projected my own thoughts about such values onto other people who do not share them.

When you reject the opinions and judgements of another person, you simultaneously signal that you do not wish to be a part of their power network – the network of people with whom they are prepared to engage in the other conversation. There can sometimes be consequences attached to that exclusion, beyond the simple exclusion of yourself from the information channel it represents. In other words, having such values is one thing; how you choose to communicate those values needs to be thought about very carefully within certain cultures.

Thinking back to the time when a little more stealth would have served me well (thankfully all in the past now), I can now see that there would have been excellent mileage in keeping a notebook specifically for the purpose of discovering and mapping the various power networks and their relationships. It is not really that difficult to do. There are signals all around us that indicate which individuals are a part of which power networks.

  • Who sends birthday cards to whom?
  • Who regularly goes to lunch with whom?
  • Who habitually defends whom?
  • Who are the loners (deliberate exclusion) in the team?
  • Who constantly seems to be the source of new information?
  • Who attempts to tap you for information?

Of course, we ourselves are part of a power network. It is composed of the people we trust. They often get privileged access to our thoughts about many things. Just think about how naive you can be simply by not mapping out the power networks of those you trust? Sensitive information that you may feel you can discuss within your private network may not be quite as safe as you would like to think. Remember that your close working associates may simply not share your own values. This was definitely a failing of mine when operating within the corporate culture.

So, there you go. I hope this post does not sound too ‘cloak and dagger’; it is not meant to be. It is simply an idea for you to think about. You could have quite a bit of fun creating your maps of the various power networks that operate with your workplace. You will need to refine then from time to time, of course; they won’t be completely accurate, naturally; but they can provide you with valuable insight into the motives for the actions of those with whom you work.

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