Stop “playing” politics

By Lonney Gregory on November 12, 2014

I was privileged to be on a panel at a major annual STEM conference recently and to participate in a seminar on “Navigating and Surviving Organizational Politics Like a Pro.” But when I focused on “leading across organizational boundaries” instead of ways to be better at “politics,” it sparked a heated conversation and real debate about what’s more effective: being more political and better at “playing the game” or simply being more authentic, values driven, and willing to understand what motivates people across an organization.

It’s a hot topic. And as former executive, I understand the concept of “organizational politics.” The term was used in places that I’ve worked. But never by the most senior leaders, and never from the really good leaders.

What really fascinated me was that there were many in that seminar who wanted to be more political and play more games. One attendee even said work is a game and inferred that we go to work to play games to achieve what we want. Another thought that simply being political was the only way to get ahead.

I totally disagree. I believe you get ahead by establishing relationships, building trust, having values-based conversations, and understanding human dynamics more so than being a politician. So which perspective is right?

I believe the challenge with “playing games” at work is the same challenge with playing games outside of work. Games are designed to have winners and losers! Games have strictly enforced rules and officials to facilitate following those rules. Games have parameters for starting and stopping, resting and scoring. Games are built around governed and sanctioned systems. One becomes good at playing a game by practicing, rehearsing, building capacity, and by becoming a student and master of the game. Those who perform better than others, according to regulated and facilitated criteria, win. The others lose.

But here’s the thing: the “game” analogy doesn’t really work in organizations because there are no sanctioned rules. There is no officiating, no parameters and no practice fields. And even though we know there is no rule book, and we are often also told, “You better play by the rules,” there really aren’t any rules.

This reminds me of the time when my assertion that “we shouldn’t be playing games” at work and we shouldn’t use the “game playing” metaphor was challenged. The eager debater started off by sharing a recent conversation with the boss that went like this: “Let me tell you what your problem is. You are playing checkers when you should be playing chess.” The audience erupted in cheers. Here was the evidence that proved me wrong. “Our bosses use the game-playing metaphor all the time!” they said.

But this just proved my point. First, when a leader, manager, supervisor, etc., starts off a coaching conversation with “Let me tell you what your problem is,” it means they are not particularly good at having meaningful, values-based conversations. And for a boss to use that particular game analogy, it suggests they are operating under a totally different set of constructs than everyone else.

Checkers is so much more different than chess with completely different rules and strategies. Furthermore, this advice doesn’t even give the employee any more information about their problem! What if the boss said “you are playing backgammon when you should be playing Mahjong!” Then what?

Wouldn’t a more detailed description of the problem be appropriate? And more importantly wouldn’t a more honest, authentic, and meaningful conversation be much more beneficial? Employees need to understand the context in which they experience challenges. A leader’s responsibility is to provide that context and help the employee make sense of it, guiding them through the conversations they need to have, with whom they need to have them, in order to be effective in their role. It seems pretty obvious doesn’t it?

So do yourself and the people you work with a favor: quit playing games and get real. You’ll do more than feel better; you might actually “get ahead.”

This is a controversial topic, so let’s hear it. What do you think works better—politics or persuasion, games or genuine insight that comes from real conversation?

Posted in Blog, Inclusive Leadership

About Lonney Gregory

Lonney Gregory specializes in the design, delivery and facilitation of a variety of leadership development programs, innovation initiatives, Diversity & Inclusion programs, and organizational development and change initiatives
13 comments on “Stop “playing” politics
  1. Suzanne says:

    Thank you so much for this timely blog. I hear this analogy in my workplace as well. Political situations arise at my place of work too often. I am in the the business of higher education; I see it as a service industry. We are here to serve the students. This is not a game. I also hear this among my peers as well. “Girl, you have to know how to play the game to get ahead.” When I hear this I already feel defeated because I do not know the rules of the game, the true players in the game, the language used in the game, what moves to make and when to make specific moves. I agree with you Mr. Gregory, all I know is how to establish relationships with others. I have confidence in this skill set. I am not afraid to ask, “can we meet to have a conversation about this situation?” Also, I know enough to ask others their definition of the problem or situation , what it is they need and what it is they want and how create a strategic plan of action leading to a solution. No games, politics or Jedi mind tricks. Hopefully, win-win outcomes.

  2. Lonney Gregory says:

    Thanks for your comments Suzanne. Maintain your posture and avoid the paralyzing metaphor. Continue to be genuine and caring about your organization and the people you serve. It will result in win-win outcomes.
    Be Blessed today and always and Be a Blessing to others

  3. Laurie Mutdosch says:

    This is an excellent article! I have seen how inter-office politics have destroyed an organization – when the top brass is too busy playing “Survivor” and making “alliances” while completely seeming to be blind to the real issues, challenges, obstacles, and decay of staff morale.

    This is a refreshing perspective!

    • Lonney Gregory says:

      Thanks for your comments Laurie. I’m on a “mission” to eliminate the game playing and political metaphors from corporate conversations and coaching. I believe the messages we send with these metaphors are dangerous. At Linkage we believe in “leading across boundaries”. The approaches and interpersonal skills achieved by leading across boundaries are values based. The outward behaviors may appear to be the same as if one were “practicing politics”, i.e., building alliances, etc., but the motivation is different. It first seeks to build trust through values based conversations and then to collaborate for the good of the organization instead of for the good of the individual.
      Thank you for your support. Be Blessed today and always and Be a Blessing to others

  4. Nice article Lonney. Good leaders certainly recognize other good leaders and senior managers know the difference between those using politics to get ahead, and those who know their job really well. Call me old fashioned, but I still believe that a good manager will choose the latter.

    • Lonney Gregory says:

      Hello Stephen
      Thanks for your comments and for your support. Sometimes “old fashion” is just good behavior and transcends time. I agree, good managers will choose those that do a good job based on authenticity , trust and performance over political savviness. You must be one of the good ones!
      Be Blessed today and always and Be a Blessing to others

  5. Pamela Gregory Bauldie says:

    Mr. Gregory, thank you for your professional direction concerning the games people (people in organizations,) play. It reminds me of some of the discussions we had about logic and critical thinking. To me game playing, political or otherwise, is counter-productive, and I constantly remind myself to listen out for the red herrings and such.

    • Hi Pamela
      Thanks so much for your comments and support. Glad you mentioned the “red herring”
      It origin, while disputed, doesn’t change our common understanding. A red herring connotes falsity, misleading, and deceit. And because “red herrings” smell as bad as they do, it’s not hard for us to pick one out. As you suggest people know when they are being politically played or subjected to game playing at work. It is tantamount to being slapped in the face with a red herring. Moreover, the smell lasts for a while and is certainly counter productive as employees work under those circumstances. Be diligent in your opposition to political game playing at work and serve up fresh vegetables instead of stinky fish!
      Be Blessed today and always and Be a Blessing to others

  6. Yolande says:

    Nice article Lonney. I had a female manager who, in a male-dominated environment, had to prove she had the “same “equipment” men had. By using a strong arm and other unsavory tactics made her presence unwelcome. Her successor, one of my a co-workers whom I had known for several years and had a good relationship with, decided to use these same tactics which was a major shift in his character but he felt this was the way to “play the management game”. During my exit interview I had to explain to him this shift was unbecoming and the person I knew had changed and I was very disappointed in the manager he had become. I felt I had to be honest with him even if no one else would. He was younger and needed guidance but the mentors he had used an awful approach of playing games without having any authenticity in their relationship building with their direct reports. I can only hope over the years he has matured and acquired better management/leadership skills (which are different). Ooh there’s another blog topic!

    • Lonney Gregory says:

      Hey Yolande
      Thanks so much for your comments and support. And thank you for speaking up for what’s right, good and “true” . There is a lot of pressure placed on young managers. They have to perform, contribute, lead, and prepare themselves for the next opportunity. Those that aspire for additional responsibility and to advance may get caught up in the “political maneuvering” of an organization to be competitive. In the short run it may work, but in the long run, I believe it is hollow, without real purpose, and void of real character. Thank goodness there are people like you that will speak from the heart, be honest and share how political behavior affects the workforce. I hope you conversation with the young leader left an impression on them. It left an impression on me.
      Be Blessed today and always and Be a Blessing to others

  7. Mesfer Aladwani says:

    Thank you Lonney, I really enjoyed reading your article. Sorry to tell you that these days there’s a lot of managers that love to play politics.
    To me playing politics is simply not being honest and deceiving others, which will finally leads to the manager losing the trust and respect of his employees.
    There is nothing better than being honest and straight forward.

    • Lonney Gregory says:

      Hello Mesfer
      Good to hear from you and thank you for your comments and support. There is a reason why the age old adage “honesty is the best policy” has lasted throughout the ages; because it’s true! Gaining the respect of employees is critical to being an effective leader. Employees can see through a political veil with ease. Many will continue to work, but do so without passion and conviction for the mission. Brick layers will simply lay bricks instead of “building cathedrals”. I look forward to our next conversation.
      Be Blessed today and always and Be a Blessing to others

  8. Lonney – There doesn’t have to be an “or” – a combination, a continual hybridization of solutioning is a productive and wise direction. Who decided that the choices are either or? I totally disagree and have for a very long time. And, in addition to, and so forth are way more proactive and solution oriented than “or” will ever be (“but”, “however”, “instead” too). Cheers to thinking, questioning, acting, discussing. Ginger, CEO, Women Enjoying Beer

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