Why Office Politics are Worth Managing

The Significance of Office Politics on CX—and Your Career

by Colin Shaw on July 29, 2019

I used to work in corporate life. I managed to get up to a senior position. When people asked what I did, I used to say, “I play chess.”

I was joking, of course. The truth is I spent my day on company politics. My guess is a lot of you do, too.

Surprisingly, there are not training courses on company politics and how to deal with them. In light of this fact, we decided managing company politics would be an excellent subject of conversation for a recent podcast. Politics are everywhere and in every organization. They exist because it is human nature to crave power and influence.

Why Office Politics are Worth Managing

I’ve worked in several organizations, and they have all had office politics. You have to understand the politics, particularly if you want to get on okay (and when I say “get on” I mean get promoted to senior levels).

You also need to be skilled in managing office politics. Unfortunately, the reality is if you are not proficient, you’re going to fail. There’s a phrase I like which is, “when somebody pats you on the back, they’re looking for the place to stick the knife.” I like it because it’s funny and, in some cases, true.

When I got up to senior vice president level and managed a department of 3,500 people, I was surrounded by politics. I remembered the advice that my dad gave me. He said, “Colin, focus on doing a good job and everyone will want you.” In my experience, he was right.

Also, doing excellent work is a foundation for defending yourself from company politics. What everyone wants in business ultimately are good people supporting you on the team. So, if you’re doing an outstanding job, then everybody should want you.

I learned a few more things about managing office politics, too. First, you should not get involved unless you know what you’re doing and what you believe in.

Also, there will be highs and lows. Some days you’ll succeed, some days you’ll take a defeat, but that is okay because sometimes, you need to lose a battle to win the war.

Moreover, you don’t have to take on every battle you encounter, either; you have to know which battles to fight. Learning to recognize when you’re in a strong position and when you are not will help you understand when to push and, perhaps more importantly when to drop it because moving forward doesn’t make sense.

Concentrating your efforts and remembering what your ultimate goals are is another crucial element. Many times, when people choose their battles, they make poor choices because they’re focused on short-term wins instead of their long-term goals.

It also helps if you don’t take everything personally.

Of course, all of these things are easier said than done. For example, I was implementing an extensive Customer Experience program. It was a reorganization with the front office and back office call centers, so, in other words, a lot of changes in who does what and when. One of the things I learned in this process was that everybody is happy until you ask them to do something.

In our global Customer Experience consultancy, this concept is also true with clients. We make suggestions about what we can do to change the experience, and everybody nods their heads and agrees it’s the right thing to do. However, when we say, “we need to change this” or “we need to downsize your department and dedicate those resources to this other department,” that’s when the truth of their commitment reveals itself.

Another time, I was the central coordinator of a large program with six sectors of the organization involved.  We had different monthly meetings with an invite to all of the departments to attend so we could improve the experience. At first, no one came to the meetings.

Then, we began making decisions that affected these sectors, and the complaints soon followed about all these decisions I was making. I explained that these decisions were a result of the monthly meetings to which they were invited and not attending.

After that, at the next monthly meeting, thirty people turned up, ostensibly to help make these decisions. The moral is, once you start making changes and not just talking about it theoretically, people get engaged.

Later in this same program, when we reached the implementation stage and were about to make significant changes to the organization, I got a call from a general manager of one of the departments. He said, “I’m sorry, Colin, but we’re going to need to delay this project because we’re not ready.” We delayed it a month or so.

Later, I learned that his department wasn’t ready because he had a bet with his management team that my program would never get off the ground. It was pretty terrible from a cultural perspective. How engaged was the team that was ignoring the Customer Experience improvement efforts? The answer is not very engaged at all, and it was sad.

Managing Up and Managing Laterally Require Different Approaches

There are two different distinct flavors of politics that people need to worry about. One is top-down politics. This flavor of politics describes how you interact with those above you in the org chart. However, there are also peer-level politics with a different power dynamic. They both require a different kind of finesse.

First, let’s tackle “managing up.” If you are dealing with senior people, you need to understand them and what they are trying to accomplish. Many times, for senior people, it is not just about doing their job; it is also about how they are perceived in the organization, as well as in the industry with their colleagues in other organizations.

Try to understand what motivates the senior managers. Do they want power? If so, then, play to that. Do they not want to take risks? Then address that motivation. Whatever it is they want, that’s how you characterize your agenda.

I learned this lesson a long time ago. When I was at a major telecom company, we had budgets. Part of the budgeting process there was that you needed to apply for approval from a committee to spend anything allocated in your budget. So, in other words, if you want to spend your money, a committee had to approve it.

I wanted to spend some of my budget to enhance the telecom company’s Customer Experience. I presented my plan to spend my budget to improve our experience along with the benefits in customer loyalty we would gain for the investment. However, the committee said no.

I went back to my office, feeling deeply frustrated. I thought about how to get what I wanted. Then, I realized it didn’t matter what I wanted; it mattered what the committee wanted. Back then, the committee wanted to reduce costs. Does that sound familiar to any of you?

I went back to the committee a couple of months after that and presented the same case for my investment with a different name and a new look. However, I didn’t just change what I called it and how it looked. I also positioned my investment in terms of how much it would save the telecom company in costs, from customer churn decreases to new user acquisition cost reductions to employee turnover declines. Not surprisingly, this time the committee said yes.

So, managing-up in office politics means understanding what drives and motivates the senior team. Then, positioning what you do as an assist toward those drivers and motivators.

Now, let’s take a look at managing-laterally. When it comes to managing peers, it can be tricky. Some people in your organization might not like your success because they want to be seen as successful. (Let me hasten to add not everybody is like that.) However, as you climb the corporate ladder, there are fewer and fewer rungs at the top, and lots of people want to get their hands on one of those rungs.

Therefore,  the more senior you get, the more the viewpoint of “threatened by success” prevails. Since not everybody is going to make it, some people will make every effort to thwart your success to promote their own.

Unfortunately, as I used to tell my team, some excellent people never get promoted, and some idiots do. Idiots rise to the top because they can talk a good game. Idiots are good at promoting their successes, even when they don’t exist. Excellent people do not get promoted because they work hard but don’t advertise their success. Instead, these hard workers expect their work to speak for itself.

Let me tell you in plain (Queen’s) English: Your work does not speak for itself. That is up to you.

When I worked for Mars Confectionery, my boss taught me how to speak for my work. He had me turn in a weekly “Look What I’ve Done” Report. It was a list of all the things I had done that week in the field.

I realized then that you have not only to do an excellent job like my dad advised me, but you should also tell people what you have done and also what the benefits are of your work. Self-promotion is vital to your managing of office politics.

Now, that doesn’t mean to say that you should take all the plaudits from your team. Recognizing the achievement of others is an essential element of outstanding leadership. However, you also cannot expect your efforts to reap the rewards on your behalf without promoting them yourself. You must make them known so they can be acknowledged and rewarded.

The last bit of advice I would give for managing office politics at a peer level is to focus on the customer. If you are trying to do the right thing for the customer, that tends to gain more respect and more kudos. People are not stupid. They can see when you are making a power play to bully past them. Your peers know when what you are doing is right for you and nobody else. However, when you do well by the customer just for the sake of it’s the right thing to do, everybody wins.

I used to play office politics because I was trying to do the right thing for the customer. I realized to take care of customers I needed to be skilled at managing office politics.  Otherwise, the customer would end up suffering. Moreover, at the end of the day, discovering what people want and delivering it helps in office politics and in Customer Experience.

However, it doesn’t end there. It works in all your relationships, from family and friends, co-workers, and beyond. These basic principles we apply to Customer Experience refer to understanding people and giving them what they want—and that applies to the people who sign your paycheck and to the people you spend it with at the pub afterward.

Beyond Philosophy’s latest Training Program Coaching & Advice helps you move forward with consultation that is customized for your specific needs. From getting advice on a problem to hearing an outside perspective on your program to avoiding some of our past mistakes when we were in your shoes, our team can help you tackle Customer Experience challenges that you face every day. Contact us to learn more or request further information.

If you want to benchmark your organization’s performance in the new world of behavioral economics against other companies, take our short questionnaire. Once you submit, we compare your answers against what we know about the market and send you a free personalized report about where your organization is today.

Hear the rest of the conversation on How to Manage Company Politics on The Intuitive Customer Podcast. These informative podcasts are designed to expand on the psychological ideas behind understanding customer behavior. To listen in,please click here.


Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

Colin ShawThe Significance of Office Politics on CX—and Your Career