Ever been burned by corporate politics?  This ought to arouse some emotional responses.

I fully expect that many of you have been burned by the politically astute and active people in your organization.  I certainly have.  However, in one case I had a front row seat for several years watching an absolute Master weave his web of deceit and manipulation.  It gave me the opportunity to see how he did it.  More importantly, it gave me the opportunity to see how he defended himself against the same games being played on him.

To block political moves raise the level of visibility of the subject being discussed.

First, let me say that not all politics are bad.  “Politics” really means an understanding of the dynamics between people and managing those dynamics to get to an outcome.  It is an essential part of relationships and doing business.  Where politics gets a bad name is when the agenda or outcome is self-serving and not necessarily in the interest of the organization or the greater good.  In those cases it is perhaps more accurately described as manipulation.  That’s what I am getting at here…the “bad politics”.

What I have observed as THE fundamental building block of political manipulation is the concept of “divide and conquer”.  By this I mean that the “political player” (I’ll call that person PP for the rest of this document since I will tire quickly of typing “the political player”) uses one-on-one meetings and discussions as the main approach for gathering information and manipulating the use of that information to achieve his/her desired goals.  Bear in mind, there are many types of one-on-one meetings that are not maniuplative…supervisor with employee for example.

Having studied this phenomenon, I have observed that PP does not take a position but uses the opinions of others, or the “apparent” opinions of others, to guide other listeners to a similar conclusion.  By doing so, PP takes no risk.  PP accumulates information, or manipulates information, to lead others to the conclusion PP wants.  As an example:

  • PP will state such things as “I have heard this or that” or “what do you think of this or that?” as a way of getting a subject out on the table for discussion without taking a position.  The non-political player (NPP) responds with his/her own thoughts on the subject.  PP takes this information and uses it in whatever way suits them. 
    • If the NPP’s response helps PP build the case they want, they simply attribute that content to the NPP in further discussions.  Again, they have not taken a position…the NPP has.  PP can “put it out there” as someone else’s position to see how other people respond and what kind of support it gets.
    • If the NPP does not give an opinion, or if their opinion differs from what PP wants to hear, the PP will, in discussions with other people, refer only to the fact that they were talking with the NPP about the subject at hand.  PP will then state an opinion in such a manner that it has the appearance that it was the NPP’s opinion in order to “lead” the next listener to the same conclusion and build support for the conclusion PP wants.

The true Political Player will continue with these types of one-on-one discussions and systematically involve all the people critical to making a decision, leading them to a conclusion and getting their buy-in based on inferences and bits of truths that can be woven into a pattern that has the appearance of a groundswell of support.  If they are ever called on it, they can always defend themselves.  Nothing is in writing.  No discussions have any witnesses.  All the discussions DID take place.  At worst it can all be defended as a misunderstanding.  

So how do you deal with this? 

The first thing you have to do is recognize that it is happening.  This is where most non-political people get left behind.  They have no idea that it is actually happening…because it is not the way they think.  There are a few easy steps to follow:

First, keep an eye on people who tend to have a lot of one-on-one discussions with you.  Let that be a warning signal.  You can be sure that they are having similar discussions with others. 

Second, beware of anyone who prefaces their statements with disclaimers…I heard this…I heard that.  They are making sure to NOT take a position…but they want yours.  They are digging for information and opinions.

Third, beware of disconnected statements made about others such as, “I was talking to person X and we were talking about thus and so.”  Those are the kinds of comments that lead you to believe that person X actually said that or agreed to it, when in fact that may not be what happened at all.  PP did not actually SAY that person X said anything.  It is all inferred.  PP is trying to lead you to a certain conclusion…trying to get you to buy in to a position by inferring that this is what others believe…peer pressure.

So what do you do?

Simple.  To block political moves raise the level of visibility of the subject being discussed.  Get everyone involved you can think of who has a reason to be involved.  Raise the level of communication.  Call a meeting on the subject.  Send out a summary of some of the issues.  Speak to people in a group about the subject that is on the table.  Get it in a public forum.  By doing so it gets everyone talking to each other and the PP cannot manipulate what is being said or what is being attributed to whom.

I am not suggesting that you be paranoid…just be aware.