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Rethinking your role in office politics

(July 31, 2023 Newsletter)

One of the trickiest parts of settling into a new leadership role is understanding the players around you, be it your boss, peers, or partners.

In any leadership position, navigating the political landscape within the organization will be crucial to one’s success. This is especially true if you want to (or have been hired to) make changes to your department, team, or the whole company.

Yet people shy away from “politics.” This is understandable, considering the polarized political environments dominating headlines around the world, but it’s misguided.

“Well… I actually don’t know” is a common response I get to the following questions:

  • What do you think is motivating that person?

  • What really matters to that person?

  • What do you think they’re concerned about losing?

  • What are you curious to ask that person?

Oftentimes, that “I don’t know” is followed by a guess or theory. Regular readers of this newsletter won’t be surprised to know that my next question is typically “And what else might it be?” to challenge them to think beyond their first instinct.

Update your politics paradigm: Here are three resources that have helped me update my assumptions about “politics” and get more comfortable with the skillset. I’ve seen how useful they can be for my clients too.

According to the creators of Adaptive Leadership, thinking politically is simply “understanding the relationships and concerns among people in an organization.”

  • One of the best exercises in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership is mapping out the values, motivations, loyalties, and potential losses of key stakeholders.

  • Once you have that info, the likelihood of bringing people together is easier, since you can acknowledge and respond to their concerns.

For women, specifically: Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith dedicate two chapters in How Women Rise to helping women rethi

nk deeply-held gendered beliefs around leveraging their networks and forming alliances when coming into new leadership roles.

  • They claim that many women hold “the underlying belief that exercising leverage translates as not being a very nice person. This is problematic because leveraging relationships is key for achieving professional success.”

Finally, a few months ago HBR published this fantastic article, “Driving Organizational Change—Without Abandoning Tradition,” that makes a simple but powerful point – stakeholders will only approve proposed changes if they truly feel that you have their best interests in mind.

  • Demonstrating your care is a step you can’t skip.

Which brings me back to where we began. “I don’t know” is an excellent starting place if you’re looking to drive change and expect (or are already experiencing) resistance.

If you don’t have answers to the above questions, how can you get them?

  1. Ask directly. If you’re meeting with the person, I’d suggest an open question like “I’d love to understand what’s important to you [OR why you’re concerned] about ____. Would you mind telling me more about your perspective?” or “It’s important to me that I really understand your position on ____. I’d love to hear more.”

  2. Ask a trusted colleague. Less preferable is going to a second-hand source. I don’t love relying on hearsay, but sometimes there’s another player who is close to the source who can help “translate” that person’s cryptic communication style. In that case, I’d suggest phrasing as “I know that you’re close with ___ and I’m trying to understand their position on ____. Do you know why it matters so much to them?”

As Otto von Bismarck said, “Politics is the art of the possible,” so whether you’re seeking to overhaul a process, shift your company’s strategy, or get budget for a project, the more you know, the more effective you’ll be.


The Coaching Corner

Give an encouraging “no”

For people who don’t like rejecting requests or ideas, encouragement can come in handy.

As a reminder, encouragement means highlighting someone’s values, strengths, or resources. So how can you use it when delivering bad news?

  • Values: “I know how much you care about XXX, so I’m sorry to share that ____.”

  • Strengths: “I appreciate how creative this proposal is, but I can’t accept it because ___.”

  • Resources: “I’m not going to be able to help you with this, but I’m happy to think together about who else could.”



All the synapses were firing while listening to the latest episode of “Coaching Real Leaders” with Muriel Wilkins, which was a cross-post from the Radical Candor show.

Here’s a quote from “Why Highly Efficient Leaders Fail,” from HBR: “Great leaders are able to balance task-focus (getting things done) with people-focus (inspiring, developing, and empowering others). Highly task-focused leaders tend to have tunnel vision in their drive for results, rather than applying a broader lens that recognizes the need to sometimes ‘go slow to go fast’. Leaders who balance task- and people-focus are equally driven and also strive for results, but they keep the broader organizational needs in mind. They also recognize that it’s not just about being efficient — it’s about being effective.”


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