Political games in organizations: the ones other people play. Not you of course.

Posted August 5, 2010 in Latest News & Insights

Recently we held a Peer Roundtable Exchange on the topic: Political Games in Organizations.  Using materials provided by our colleagues at Coaching Ourselves, our lively group of mid-career leaders explored the topic of politics in organizations and reinforced my own view that “playing the game” is a daily reality in organizations… and may even spill over into your personal life.  Whether you’re aware of it or not.

To get our discussion going, our group reviewed some material on the various political games that get played in organizations based on work by Henry Mintzberg (author Managers Not MBA’s and Prof at McGill University).  Frankly, I never realized there were so many different games.  Here are the ones that sparked the most discussion within our group:

Sponsorship game:  hitch your wagon to an influential senior leaders’ star

Lording game: lording (whatever little) power you have over a subordinate

Expert game: inappropriately exploiting technical expertise and knowledge

Empire building game: grabbing as much power-base as you can

Budget game: grabbing as large a share of budget as you can

Alliance building game: gaining support from other groups to advance your agenda/cause

Rival camps game: two power blocks arise and go into battle (think sales vs. finance)

Young turks game:  a group of young dissidents, close to the centre of power, but not in it, confront the “old guard” and push them out.

As the group discussed the various places we’ve all seen politics at play, participants started owning up to their own games.  The candor was refreshing.  Most of us know people who claim that they “don’t play games” at work… but, as one of our participants rightly commented, saying you’re not political is, in fact, a political move.

Certainly, our group had countless examples of politics at play, and some insights/questions along the way.  Here are a few of the thoughts and ideas that I took away from the session:

Is your agenda really the right agenda?   When you feel passionate about something, it’s easy to play hardball to advance your own agenda.  But are you right?  Consider all viewpoints to make sure you’re not unintentionally derailing bigger efforts.

How can you tell if you’re not “in the game”?  Are you being left out of meetings that you think you should be a part of? Have you been repeatedly passed over on opportunities?  Are you usually the “last to know” when some big issue is going down?  Chances are you may not be “in the game”.  Make connections with people who are… consider finding an “internal mentor” to help you navigate the politics.

It’s not what you know… according our group’s discussion, being the right candidate for the job isn’t always the deciding factor.  Being the right candidate with the right connections  – or even the wrong candidate with the right connections – will give you the edge.  Don’t underestimate the importance of building your alliances when aiming for new roles/opportunities.

Building alliances is THE game… in matrix heavy, managment-by-influence organizations, your ability to build alliances seems to be on the most importance political game you can play.

Games can be good and bad… politics in organizations typically gets a bad rap.  But, the reality is that all organizations are political.  Making sure we’re using various political techniques for good (and not evil) is something that every leader needs to think about.

What are your thoughts?  Do you agree that politics are everywhere and “how” you play the game is a core skill that every leader needs to put into their toolkit?

Happy leading!


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2 Comments

  1. One of my favorite books for thinking about corporate politics and how we all play our individual games is Strategic Organizational communication (Conrad, C. and Poole, M. S. 1998).

    I agree corporate politics get a bad rap and liked your five points, especially about considering your agenda in the context of larger organizational efforts.

    Good post.

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Hi Stuart… thanks for the post and for the book recommendation. I’ll definitely add it to the bedside table reading pile. It was definitely an interesting discussion at our roundtable and one that we usually don’t get to talk about. Thanks for reading and for dropping a comment. I really appreciate it! Glain