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Workplace Politics: Playing the Game to Win!

August 31, 2022

Jeux politiques

Forget everything you thought you knew about office dynamics. They’re much more important to your success — and your organization’s prosperity — than you ever imagined

Political manoeuvring is usually something we attribute to the likes of such ruthless characters as Don Draper. But in the real world, navigating the ins and outs of the environment you work in is an essential skill — and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Being politically savvy is critical in making your ideas heard, getting your projects approved and climbing the corporate ladder.

So let’s take a closer idea of what workplace politics actually involve and break down some of your preconceived notions. You’ll see that a higher political IQ can be your key to getting ahead.

If, as a manager, you want to be known for your strategic insight, your business acumen, your talent for forging effective partnerships and your ability to be that make-it-happen person, it’s time to start fine-tuning your political skills.

After all, you’re already playing the game, whether you want to or not. You might as well play to win!

In this article:

Power and influence: The ultimate goal

The better a political player you are, the more powerful you will become. People will listen to you and do what you want — and all because you wield more influence over them. 

Contrary to popular belief, when it is used ethically, power is a positive force that brings people together and moves projects forward.

Given that it is nearly impossible to do anything big on your own, political skills help secure the power and influence you need to achieve your goals. Power may be the fuel that lets leaders explore new horizons, but it is a means and not an end. And influence is only possible once you have become sufficiently powerful.

  • Feel like you can’t get your projects off the ground, no matter how important they may be? 
  • Have a bright idea that everybody is behind but seems to be stuck in limbo? 
  • Experiencing trouble rallying the troops around a common goal?

Take a moment to determine the pillars of power you already have and those you need to develop in order to become more influential and see your efforts finally pay off.

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The rules of the game

Workplace politics are often compared to a chessboard, and it’s easy to see why. Both take careful tactics and well-thought-out strategies, and both require mastery of the rules in order to secure a competitive advantage. You also have to know who you are up against and be able to interpret and anticipate their moves. Are they potential allies or opponents? How can you get them (and keep them) on your side?

Pierre Lainey

“An opponent is not an enemy. An opponent is someone a player can potentially turn into an ally by showing them how it would be to their advantage.”

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What kind of political player are you?

On a chessboard, even a lowly pawn can do battle against a king. But in real life, you have to work hard and overcome a number of challenges to fine-tune the skills you need before you can successfully exercise your power and put the right conditions in place to turn this into influence.

There are five types of players involved in any workplace dynamic. Knowing which profile is the closest match to yours and how you react in political situations can help improve your standing within your organization and enable you to take conscious and meaningful action.

Pierre Lainey: From a good soldier to a respected expert and teacher

By his own admission, Pierre Lainey fell into the “good soldier” category from the outset. What he lacked in influence, he made up for in get-it-done-ness. But his own ideas and initiatives never seemed to go anywhere.

“Why don’t I get the resources I ask for? Why are my ideas constantly being kiboshed?”

He attributed these challenges to insufficient skills or expertise. But in actual fact, the real culprit was his lack of power within his organization.

By analyzing the behaviour of the successful colleagues and executives he admired, he started to realize just how much he lacked in terms of political savvy. So he immersed himself in this fascinating topic and gradually honed his expertise. Today, he is widely recognized as a pre-eminent authority in the field.

He still sees himself as a good soldier, though. But he knows how to don his strategist cap when the situation calls for it and use his power and influence wisely. He is living proof that the ability to wield power properly and effectively can be taught and learned.

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Is it worth it?

Obviously, every manager hopes to see their plans come to fruition and obtain the required support to make it happen.

But you may be wondering whether you really need to “play the game” to get ahead. After all, you have experience, lots of great ideas and the respect of the people you work with. So why bother with the political side of things? And if influence does indeed make a difference, where is it most impactful?

There are nine power bases to take into consideration, and these can be broken down into three categories: personal factors, organizational factors and decision-related factors.

1- Workplace politics based on personal factors: Career ambitions, the desire to measure up and convictions

A highly coveted job has just opened up in your organization. A few months ago, it occurred to you that you could really excel in this position. But the competition is fierce: three of your co-workers have already indicated their interest in applying. One of them is a particularly suitable candidate, with an impressive track record and background.

You know that, if you got the job, you would make some significant changes in your capacity as head of the department, specifically as it pertains to new policies on diversity and inclusion. Meanwhile, you learn that one of the people on the selection committee has been very vocal in their opposition to policies of this nature.

To make matters even more complicated, if you apply, you’re sure that two of the people you work with won’t take it well, calling you out on what you haven’t completed in your own department and accusing you of leaving everyone in the lurch.

Getting involved in the political dimension of your organization can emerge out of a desire to advance professionally, fulfil your career ambitions or uphold values that are important to you. These are the three personal factors that can prompt people to exert their power.

In this example, you may be in a good position to get your dream job if you can get the right people to support you and help you obtain the results you are looking for. To do this, you need to demonstrate that you have the necessary qualifications and set yourself apart from the other candidates.

If you can rise to the occasion, you will gain in both power and influence, which you can then leverage to progress later on.

2- Workplace politics based on organizational factors: Availability of resources and vertical/horizontal differentiation

Your plans have been stalled for two months. The budget you need is slow to be released. You intended to meet with your boss to sway them to your way of thinking, but you’re perfectly aware that this year’s budget is being trimmed wherever possible, and you fear the worst.

Your boss’s support for the project, which has been your baby from day one, seems to have waned, in direct contrast to the initial enthusiasm expressed at the outset.

You have tried to get the eight other people in your department to back you so you can reignite your boss’s excitement, but three of them seem hesitant.

You suspect you are all competing for the same slice of the budgetary pie.

Whether it’s a matter of the budget or the timeframe given to your team to carry out your project, getting and keeping the resources you need takes strong skills to persuade those who manage the purse strings and organizational logistics.

In this example, you need to be able to influence the higher-ups in your organization (vertical differentiation) to convince them of the importance of allocating the desired budget. You also need to secure the buy-in of the members of your team (horizontal differentiation).

A politically skilled person will come out ahead at the end of the day if they can successfully influence the decision-makers above them and win over the people they work with on a day-to-day basis.

3- Workplace politics based on decision-related factors: Uncertainty, structured decisions and unstructured decisions

Your company execs have just announced a key decision concerning the restructuring of your unit. With so many employees clamouring to work from home, they have agreed to implement flexible hours for everyone.

You agree with this reasoning, but you know that others within the company do not. While chatting with some of your colleagues, you learn that a group of them are forming a coalition to oppose this approach. Those who support this coalition feel that the reasons given by management aren’t entirely evidence-based, claiming that studies haven’t shown any significant benefits of remote work. These measures cannot be imposed across the organization, which means employees have to opt in for the outcome to be beneficial. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Meanwhile, your own reading has actually convinced you that the perks of remote work arrangements outweigh the pitfalls. You can also see that this change stands to directly benefit the team you oversee. A pilot project might help shed some light on the issue, but the coalition opposing the change is gaining momentum quickly.

Many of the decisions being made will impact your work and your team. If the decisions have positive repercussions for you, you will probably support them. Otherwise, you will express your disagreement.

Whatever your position, you will undoubtedly seek to influence the people around you to support or oppose the decisions made and thereby be caught up in the associated political manoeuvring. If you can get people to support your position, you will be successful in your efforts.

Navigating workplace politics, for personal, organizational or decision-making reasons, is unavoidable. The examples provided show how essential it is to learn how to play the game — and play it to win.

And remember: it’s never too late to sharpen your skills and carve out your own position on the gameboard!

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Using your power and influence wisely

The art of political manoeuvring, as it is taught in the course Positive Political Skills in the Workplace: Be a Strategic Player, will help you be ethical and constructive in influencing other stakeholders.

“The Positive Political Skills in the Workplace course equips participants with a full toolbox for influencing change within an organization. I developed the skills I need to get people to listen to my recommendations. The instructor’s dynamic teaching style and extensive experience really kept my interest.”

Jérôme Lavoie, Senior Air Systems Analyst, Air Transat

These tactics and strategies will let you acquire and sharpen skills that are transferable to any aspect of your career, not to mention many other parts of your life.

Political skills, once learned and perfected, are part of an essential range of soft skills that go into making an inspiring, engaging and credible leader. They will empower you to stand up to all manners of injustice and speak out on issues that matter to you.

Give yourself the toolbox you need to “deliver the goods,” enjoy the satisfaction of seeing your ideas come to life and have a positive impact on the people around you and your organization as a whole.


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Executive Education > News > 2022 > Workplace Politics: Playing the Game to Win!