Here is a quick exercise to validate what you are going to read next: find two senior people in your company who have similar years of work experience, but one is high up in the ranks and the other is clearly in a lower position than one would have assumed. Ask each of them for their views on workplace politics, and see if you can tie their responses to the career progression gap between them.

More often than not, people think that workplace politics is a "nasty" thing. A quick Glassdoor research on random companies would confirm that people don't even know what workplace politics is. This is a natural outcome of the lack of education on the topic.

It's like witnessing a random street fight, one guy has clearly caused a lot of damage to the other, but the person who got thrashed won't necessarily recognize that he got a nice gogoplata choke that almost got him to sleep. Instead, he would think that the floor was slippery or something, mostly because they don't know what a gogoplata choke is (or else the outcome would have been different). It's also easier to attach failure to things that are external to us.  In a simillar manner, many would attribute a negative outcome of a certain career step to work place politics.

A gogoplata choke is not to be taken slightly by any chance.

So what is the essinstial challenge here

Try and validate your definetion of work place politics, if the first thing that comes to your mind is a toxic group of people then maybe you should consider the following

Work Place Politics is dynamic that occures when

  1. the density of your circle of influence, and
  2. the quality of your circle of control

get challenged by someone who

  1. has better developed circles than you, or
  2. more circles than you

is that good or bad news?

Unless you are in the pipeline for a CEO position, that is great news for you. Why? Because whatever you are up against is more likely to be much simpler than what you think. You don't need to lobby internal or external stakeholders, and the stakes won't call for fierce competition. So, you should be fine as long as you know when and how to play your cards.

But let's talk a little about what these circles mean.

Circle of Influence

If you are leading a team, you are already halfway there. To keep it simple, the breadth of your circle of influence is the number of people reporting to you, plus the number of people in adjacent roles to them in supporting functions, plus the number of people in roles adjacent to yours.

The depth is the number of people in adjacent roles to your manager, plus the number of people in roles reporting to your direct reports. Both make up the density of this circle.

Circle of Control

Those are your direct reports, and it is very straightforward: if the quality of your direct reports is lower than that of people in adjacent roles to yours, you are already losing the game.

An important takeaway here is that the quality of your circle of control will determine the quality and density of your circle of influence. Each circle has its own role in helping you manage the political dynamics of your organization.

So where does respect fit here?

This could be addressed in so many different ways, but for the sake of this context, let's assume that you know exactly where you are on the hierarchy of power in your organization and you understand how your position impacts your circles as we've addressed above.

Think of respect as a spectrum. At one extreme, there is the respect for you as a human being which grants you decent treatment that you've earned by just existing. At the other extreme is the respect for how you've changed the circumstances of others and the world around you for the better.

Think of where you fall on this spectrum and go validate this with others. Ask for examples and ask people to be specific in their feedback. It will help you bridge the gap of where you are vs. where you should be.

As a general rule, you can't win in workplace politics if your position on the respect spectrum doesn't fit with what is expected of you (the baseline is different for different people). In other words, you have to give in order to take, and that is not as easy as it sounds. If you are senior, you should have been doing a lot of giving over the years. This is how you get people to advocate for you when you need them.

But don't be confused

Toxic workplaces are not politically healthy ones. In toxic environments, people mainly compete for personal gains rather than advancing an agenda they believe would benefit the business. It is not easy to make the distinction, but approach this dilemma by thinking critically about the motives of those leading your organization and decide for yourself if a place is toxic and corrupt or if there are business agendas that leaders are trying to push.

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