• Friday, May 24, 2024
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Another view of “office politics”


The inspiration for this piece was accentuated by the powerful presentations made by Carla Harris, the energetic, fiery-talking, 31-year Wall Street veteran and Vice Chairman/Managing Director at Morgan Stanley; author of “Expect to Win”, “Strategize to Win”, etc whose presence was the main highlight at the CFA Society Nigeria’s two-day event in Lagos, between November 8 and 9 2018, which included its Nigeria Investment Conference 2018, Women in Investment Management Workshop and dinner for new CFA charter holders.
Carla Harris, at her best in using real anecdotes through her exceptionally rich corporate experience, spoke, among others, about the distinction between “performance currency” and “relationship currency”. She propounded a strikingly refreshing theory that whereas “performance currency” might take a young, relatively inexperienced professional through the corporate ladder, via mid-level promotion, bonuses, deployment, exposure to diverse career opportunities; it is “relationship currency” that matters in the room where his fate is sealed by top management regarding top promotions and other career-defining opportunities, in an exercise that is shorn of hard skills, but tilted heavily towards soft skills, akin to ‘politics’.

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Any delegate who attended Carla’s sessions without taking home several ‘pearls of practicable wisdom’ must be upset with his/her self. I have not had a longer attention span, and taken many notes, at a public forum in a long time than I did during her sessions. Therefore, it is fitting to thank my former colleague at Arthur Andersen, Banji Fehintola, President of CFA Society Nigeria, for inviting me.
Office politics has been with us since the idea of forming a business or an organization birthed. The simplest definition of office politics, I found, was one provided by Harold Dwight Lasswell, late famous American political scientist and communications theorist, Professor of Law at Yale University, President of the American Political Science Association (ASPA), of the World Academy of Art & Science (WAAS), and of the American Society of International Law, who defined it as “the unwritten rules that determine who gets what, when, and how”- a promotion, a budget for a project, a say in the decisions of bosses- and who does not. A staffing firm, Accountemps, in its 2016 survey, reported that “80% of professionals said they believe office politics are alive and well in the work place” and also that gossip and rumours are the most common forms.
With this background, is office politics truly bad, cruel, and dirty as is usually portrayed in the same manner as politics and politicians are perceived? Could office politics ever be good, fair, and acceptable in advancement of both personal and organizational interests?
As it is with politics of countries, associations, groups, families, etc, there are implications of ‘bad office politics’ and ‘good office politics’. The former are easily identified, and they include backstabbing, virulent and malicious rumour mongering, wicked maneuvering, ‘sucking up’ to bosses and other powerful people, and other forms of negatives that people deploy for undue advantage at the expense of other employees in an organization. At the centre of bad politics are the advancement of personal causes and the destruction of others! In contrast, however, good office politics have features such as being smart, savvy, networking better, being street-wise, managing diverse stakeholders, being convivial, adept at applying emotional intelligence, etc. A pivotal feature of ‘good office politics’ is advancing one’s interest without neglecting or destroying other employees’ and/or the organization’s corporate interest.
It may seem that there is a thin line between effectively playing office politics and being perceived as selfish, sly, and slandering. However, in my view, and from research, it is not; and in fact, it may actually be a necessary evil. There may be instances where decision makers retort at critical meetings, saying: “what does that guy do?” in determining the career growth of an employee who is known as a silent achiever; committed, honest, and professional. Apparently, this employee may have had zero ‘relationship currency’, i.e. to those who matter, his taciturn nature, being a silent achiever, might be his greatest undoing.
The professional, career-driven employee is advised to develop certain skills to partake in clean, positive, office politics. First, obtain details, informally, about the culture of the organization; by this, I mean unwritten rules- beyond the employee handbook- these are things like “this is how we do it here”, influential employees of all cadres, and the organization’s hierarchy and ‘levers of power’ beyond the official organogram. Second, learn how to socialize. In socializing, you should not be popular for gossips and idleness, moving from one office to the other, and you should not necessarily be the loudest at meetings; just as you should not be seen as the one with a permanent scowl in an attempt to show ‘seriousness’ and ‘intelligence’. Third, be aware that the interest of the organization is paramount and should be the fulcrum of your own career interest as long as you are an employee. Fourth, seek opportunities for taking responsibilities beyond your core area, office or group. You should seek, or be eager to participate in, multi-functional committees, tasks, projects, etc with a view to giving critical decision makers an idea of your diverse skills and competences, and team-player attributes. Fifth, and most importantly, you must do the work for which you were employed; be confident, smart, and competent. In doing this, do not only be competent in the corner of your office, but be seen as truly competent by those who matter in the organization, without being garrulous, self-indulging, and megalomaniac.
The challenge for the professional is to strike a balance between the two variants of office politics. He must avoid being perceived as manipulative and Machiavellian; but rather, seek to become self-assured, friendly, and purpose-driven, in advancing both personal and organizational interests. As Carla Harris forcefully asserted to her CFA Society Nigeria audience, in Lagos, “perception is a co-pilot to reality”.



Ahmed, a strategy expert, with several years of senior management experience in consulting, commercial banking, and FMCG, is the General Manager/Group Head Business Development at BUA Group.