Is “political” a dirty word in business?

Eve, Le Blog Best Practices, EVE in English


Jane Horan

Jane Horan

Jane Horan is an expert in Diversity & Inclusion, Career Navigation, founding of the Horan Group , and author of the book How asian women lead .
She’s also speaker at EVE Asia-Pacific which the next seminar will take place in Shangai from 15 till 17 november. In an article published this summer on LinkedIn, she explains why « political » is not a dirty word in business and how to find the way to find the right position and ways to engage in positive corporate politics.

Being ‘political’ is one thing everyone loves to hate. But keep in mind that politics and power are not always negative, and should be liked as often as it is disliked; politics can be a force for good.

Let’s define workplace politics before casting it aside. “Politic” is Greek, (πολιτικός Politikos) then defined as “relating to citizens”, the process of making uniform decisions to all members of a group, creating consensus for the good of the state (and today, for the good of the organisation).


Every company has a “benevolent politician”

Leadership word cloudEvery company has a ”benevolent politician,”  someone with a good deal of empathy who knows how that particular organisation operates. Such people can often nicely navigate internal situations, and from their know-how build coalitions for the larger good.

Lominger Competency refers to such people as a ”maze-bright person.” The opposite would be the more manipulative or “self-centred politician.” Notice I’m using ‘politician’ to describe both types.


what corporate politics is and is not

Jay ParikhI’m obviously more interested in understanding the benevolent-and positive-side of politics. In a recent HBR Article, Facebook’s Jay Parikh mentions ”that employees often blame politics when they’re frustrated, even if politics isn’t really the problem.”  He recommends asking questions to clarify underlying assumptions. Parikh’s questions start with the recruitment process : “successful candidates should clearly demonstrate that their priorities are company, team, and self–in that order.” Parikh is spot on.
But I’d like to offer a definition of what corporate politics is and is not. When someone is labelled ”political”, is it the upright coalition builder or the scheming Machiavellian? To talk about politics is analogous to talking about Brussel Sprouts; everyone has an opinion. Few may like the sprouts/politics, but would be better off if they accepted that it’s a healthier way to live.

The mere mention of politics often produces an uncomfortable reaction. Let’s move from ”politics” to “political savvy”.  Political savvy is coalition building, for the good of the group. To fast forward it to the present, politics — at its essence — is shaping and building internal and external stakeholders who can drive change, set agendas, and deliver results. A politically savvy manager combines ethics and motivation, knowing how to adjust behaviours to gain the interest of others in order to achieve goals. When the positive side comes into the fore, the negative side is exposed, and loses power. As Louis Brandeis said, ‘Sunshine is the best disinfectant.’


The cost of losing talent

Woman tearing a white paper backgroundIn a 2011 McKinsey article, “Changing Companies’ Minds about Women,” authors Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee found politics to be one reason why mid-career women leave organisations. While not limited to women (men leave for the very same reason), at mid-career, the company and employee have each made significant investments; if a valued employee exits, it’s IP out the door. The cost of losing talent is approximately 2 x annual salary, but the real price tag is much higher. It’s not only the cost of replacement, but also the time to productivity and impact on engagement if the turnover is high. Every day, somewhere, someone logs off, shuts down and walks out the door, vowing never to return to “that place” because of politics.

Organisations need to better understand the high cost of political innocence, from talent churn and disengagement to losing ideas. As the global war for talent continues, organisations rely on their human capital strategies, investing in leadership development, creating inclusive environments and building career paths. Joss Bersin at Deloitte Consulting states “Our job in HR is to attract the ‘right people’ and move them up this curve as rapidly and effectively as possible.” Which is true, and is everyone’s job, not just HR’s. Moving talent up the curve requires that maze bright awareness, combined with ethics and values.


Ethics, empathy, influencing and relationships.

Business woman Builds a TowerA political savvy manager recognizes the corporate landscape, fundamentally knows how to develop coalitions, understands the interests and agendas of client, colleague, and competitor. This is grounded in ethics, empathy, influencing and relationships.

Political savvy is a must-have management skill, along with strategic thinking, driving results, and team building. Viewing politics as Machiavellian, or negative, only breeds mistrust and hinders collaboration. Moving away from the confrontational and coercive to the constructive and collaborative is not only smarter, it’s easier to work, and can be a talent magnet.

Once you view politics as positive and productive (which it is most of the time) the negative and self-centred side of politics (which is how we usually associate politics) diminishes. Being political is a benefit, not a detriment, once we look at it through a different prism. Put another way, politics at work should boost collective performance instead of promoting individual agendas. And eating brussel sprouts can only help.


Article by Jane Horan, previously published on LinkedIn under the heading “Food for Thought : Brussel Sprouts and Politics”. Republished on EVE Webmagazine, courtesy of  the author