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Smooth Operator – How to Navigate Office Politics With More Savvy

By Devin Lemoine

Whether you like it or not, politics is a part of life and business. Organizations are a complex maze of cliques and rivalries, populated by strong egos, sensitive personalities and power protectors.

It takes political savvy to navigate these complex dynamics and find the path of least resistance though the organizational labyrinth. After all, every maze has a solution.

Recently I had the privilege of sharing my strategies on political savvy with a gathering hosted by the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Johnson & Johnson world headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Here’s a look at some of the insights I covered.

Fatal Flaws and Smooth Operators

In my two decades of coaching high-potential employees and leaders, it is evident to me that building relationships and navigating office politics are key to successfully managing careers in dynamic business environments. On the other hand, not developing political savvy can be a fatal flaw that can hold back even the most talented professional.

For example, I once worked with an amazing and accomplished medical professional whose structured, intense and no-nonsense personality made her precisely the type of person you would want handling your high-stakes medical procedure. But in organizational meetings, she often had trouble biting her tongue and knowing when and how to share her opinion, which created unnecessary friction with executives. Left unchecked, this personality trait started holding her back in her career development despite her immense skillset.

In another case, I worked with a high-performing engineer at a chemical facility who received a glowing 360-degree feedback assessment in all areas, with one exception: his peers. What this hyper-competitive and ambitious person failed to realize was that if he wanted to reach the upper levels of his organization, people were going to have to want to work with him and for him — no matter how good he was at the technical and functional aspects of his job.

In both cases, these accomplished and high-performing professionals were simply not “smooth operators”. I see it sneak up on rising employees all of the time as they move up the organizational chart to a level of visibility that is just high enough to show all their flaws and shortcomings.

Little things that aren’t a big deal early in a career — competitiveness, impatience, weak interpersonal skills, being too direct — can become a major problem in a new role, a new setting or with new people. It can be a surprise, especially when success and promotions have come along steadily because of good work.

Fortunately, these interpersonal weaknesses and personality quirks can be addressed and smoothed out. Often organizations will engage these emerging leaders in a feedback and coaching process to work on their leadership style — not because these people aren’t smart, talented or hitting their goals. In fact, it’s most often because the company believes that person is extremely talented but risks being held back by political missteps.

Slow Down and Pay Attention

Part of being savvy is simply paying attention to what’s going on around you, which sounds easy but is often hard to do when you’re in a fast-paced dynamic environment and just trying to complete the tasks in front of you. Time spent on the front end slowing down and paying attention to what is happening in front of you (and on the sides of you) usually has a big payoff down the road in less conflict and more buy in.

Savvy political operators are aware of team, organizational and environmental dynamics. They recognize the formal and informal power and influence structures, and are adept at navigating organizational politics to get things done with minimal disruption. They are effective negotiators and influencers both inside and outside the organization.

So how can we navigate complex and ever-changing organizational structures in a more savvy way? The first technique I often suggest is to clearly think through what you want to happen in a any situation. Consider the approach you’re taking and ask yourself if it’s going to work in this particular scenario. Sometimes you’ll catch yourself and realize the original approach is just not going to be successful.

Next, always think through what the person on the other side has to gain or lose from what you’re trying to do. When planning a project, politically savvy people almost always have a people plan too. They think through who is going to be for a proposal, who will be against it and who will be neutral — and also why. They think about what early conversations they need to have to make sure everything goes smoothly, even if some of those talks are with stakeholders on the periphery.

Finally, you have to know people in your organization — and you have to know them well. If you don’t, then you don’t know what motivates them. You don’t know when you’re going to bump up against their ego, their ambition or their own goals and objectives. That means building and maintaining relationships is important.  Make time to learn the stakeholders most important to you and your team’s success and invest in them.

The complex and ever-changing conditions of the modern business landscape can be daunting, and understanding how to smartly navigate the politics that come with those maze-like environments is essential to success.

Success Labs is a full-service, strategic organizational and leadership development company located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.

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