Better Mondays - Chapter Six
Politics and the Power Pyramid
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A New Life for Better Mondays - Get your own copy of "Better Mondays" for FREE! – A Chapter at a Time
Better Mondays - Is This Book For You? Notes From the Author
Chapter Two, Part One - Choose Wisely
Chapter Two, Part Two - Choose Wisely
Chapter Three - What's Your Employee "Type?"
Chapter Four, Part One - Yes, Money Matters
Chapter Four, Part Two - Yes, Money Matters
Chapter Five - Your Boss, The Care and Feeding Thereof
Chapter Six - Politics and the Power Pyramid
Anyone who dismisses politics as a factor in corporate success is either assuming a posture of self-importance (they’re too good to play the game) or they have an erroneous understanding of what the word “politics” really means.
Rooted in Greek culture, politics is the recognition and practice of organizational power and authority, and how that authority is distributed. On a street level, it’s about influence—motivating others to obtain their support, cooperation, and endorsement.
Knowing how the system works, and using it correctly, will give you access to its benefits. Ignoring it, or worse, abusing it, will prevent you from enjoying its advantages.
Your Place in Company Politics . . .
The individual’s effectiveness and success within any large workforce are directly related to their recognition, acceptance, and conformity to the company’s internal distribution of authority. Translation? You can’t expect to be appreciated and valued for your contribution unless you conform to the established and professional “norms” of your company.
And before we go any further, I want to emphasize that this has nothing to do with the draconian and subservient concept of kissing the boss’s ass. You can extend professional courtesy and respect without derogating your own feelings of self-worth. While you may not like the idea that all hierarchies come with a chain of authority and a commensurate level of politically motivated behavior, dealing with it isn’t optional. Think of it as knowing which piece of silverware to use during a formal dinner, or participating in the rituals of a fraternal organization. Knowing what to say and how to act within an organized power structure makes you a more valuable part of that structure.
Become familiar with the company’s power pyramid. Everyone is familiar with the traditional chart showing a company’s hierarchy. At the top is the CEO or president. On the line below, you’ll find one or more vice-presidents, defined by division, product line, or geographical authority. On the same level or just below, you’ll usually find the chief legal officer, CFO, and other heads of the company. The chart continues to flow down and out, presenting a map of who is responsible for what and who is going to take the blame when things don’t go well.
Unless you’re promoted or hired for a management level position, your name won’t be there. The chart usually stops at the lowest level of management that still includes supervisory responsibility and oversight of multiple employees with common job functions or titles.
Why is the company’s hierarchy important? A good barometer for the company’s future performance and growth can be found in the personality, management style, and past performance of those located on the upper half of the chart. Simply draw a horizontal line dividing the chart in half. The names on the upper half will determine the destiny of the company.
How much do you know about these “upper-half” managers? Did they work their way up through the organization? Or were they hired-in at a managerial level, and if so, where did they come from?
An internally-promoted manager—the guy or gal who worked their way up from an entry position—will most likely be a dyed-in-the-wool, policy-driven, hymn-singing member of the congregation. They are less likely to be innovators and more likely to tailor their actions and decisions after those of their predecessors.
Know which upper-level managers have a substantial ownership position in the company. Managers at the top of the pyramid, and who also have a significant ownership position can wield power that extends far beyond the authority of their official position. Moreover, their personal level of clout will often take precedence and priority—by default—over the needs of subordinate employees, even when it fails to serve the highest and best interests of the company.
For example, when the manager of one of my distributor accounts was elected president of a national business association, he was invited to our company headquarters to meet Acme’s president and to tour several manufacturing plants via the company jet. As the account representative, I was invited to tag along.
After setting a date for the four-day trip, I called our company’s PR department and asked the manager to block out the schedule for our exclusive use of the company plane. After reviewing my requested dates, the PR manager said, “You’ll have to reschedule. The plane is booked. Mr. Smith (the CEO of Acme and its majority stockholder) is using it to attend a ball game in Denver.”
In short, he was telling me Mr. Smith’s needs took priority over mine—because Mr. Smith owned the majority interest in the company, which coincidently, included the plane. It didn’t matter that my request was based on satisfying the needs of a customer while Smith’s need was strictly personal. As CEO of Acme and the majority stockholder, he was entitled to “owner’s privilege,” meaning he gets anything he wants.
Always make it a point to determine the identity of the owners of the company and their percentages of equity. If a majority stockholder turns out to be one of the company’s executive officers, realize that person can wield substantial power. While I’m not suggesting an upper-level manager with a substantial ownership position should be approached in a kneeling position, you should realize their opinion about you will carry more clout because of their equity position.
Use the following suggestions to maintain a healthy—and hopefully, reciprocal—level of respect with those in higher positions of authority.
1. Always show your superiors your best side. That means displaying a professional persona while in their presence. When senior eyes are on you, you’re never off the clock. More than a few careers have been sabotaged by an employee “letting down their hair” at the office Christmas party or having one too many drinks after work. Management needs to know you’re the kind of person that stays in control in any environment. Their conclusions concerning your management potential are often based on a simple concept: If you can supervise your own behavior, there’s a good chance you can supervise others. Certainly, if the occasion is recreational or social, you should participate and have fun. However, always think of yourself as the guy or gal whom others can turn to if there’s a problem because they know you’ll have a clear head and will take appropriate and responsible action.
2. If and when battle lines are drawn, stay neutral. The best way to stay out of the political crossfire is to avoid the battle completely. Certainly, you’ll have an opinion, but keep it to yourself. There are very few times when you must declare your support or opposition for a controversial person, program, or policy. If a superior asks for your input, try to determine which way she’s leaning. Say something like, “I can see the advantages (merit or benefit) on both sides of the coin. What are your thoughts?” Regardless of your supervisor’s answer, respond with, “That makes sense.”
The problem with taking sides? Someone ultimately loses. And if you end up on the losing side, the winners may see you as having been shortsighted, mutinous, or disloyal. So to repeat, keep your opinions to yourself. If a co-worker asks you to share your thoughts, defuse the question by saying you’re still researching the issue, or you need to learn more about the bigger picture before deciding. You can offer a receptive ear to equals and subordinates who want to tell their story, but avoid outright agreeing—or disagreeing—if possible. A simple “that’s interesting. I appreciate you sharing that,” will usually placate most gossipmongers and rumor repeaters.
3. When you find yourself face-to-face with senior management, lock down your mouth and listen! Having a conversation with an upper-level manager (a ULM) is not an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to “hard-ball it” with the big boys. Avoid the temptation to show off your general business acumen or to impress them with some obscure marketing theory. You’ll come across as annoying or pretentious—or both. If a subject comes up in which you are well-versed, and the manager wants to discuss it, then yes, dive in. But always obtain their verbal invitation and watch for non-verbal feedback. If you sense you’re being placated, immediately stop and ask for their input and opinion.
4. A phone call from a ULM is not an invitation to chat about the weather or the weekend ballgame. These folks are busy and have a specific reason for making the call. After a quick exchange of “how are you” and “how is everything going,” let the ULM tell you the reason for the call. Answer questions directly without a lot of backstory or history, unless it’s something they need to know.
5. Always go through channels. Going direct to a higher-level manager without the knowledge and approval of your supervisor is asking for trouble. Although you may have a personal relationship with a national-level manager, anything having to do with business should always make its way up the chain of command. Intermediate level managers are there for a reason, one of which is to prevent higher-level supervisors from having to deal with questions, requests, and decisions that can be handled by a lesser, more appropriate level of authority.
6. Never argue or challenge their decisions. They may (and usually will) have more information about the situation than you. While your concerns will typically focus on how their decisions affect you and your immediate situation, their decisions are often influenced by conditions and circumstances you’re not aware of. Moreover, if a personal agenda is involved, you may never know the real reasons for a manager’s decision. Your job is to say, “I understand,” and follow-up with active indications of your support.
Very important: Any ULM can turn out to be an arrogant idiot or a myopic egotist, or both. However, never throw down the gauntlet in front of them. The more they believe you’re on their side, the more consideration you’ll receive in the future. He or she may be your enemy, but they must never know it, especially if you’re going to rise to a management level equal to theirs—and beyond.
7. Always show your support for your immediate supervisor. It doesn’t matter if it’s during a one-on-one, private conversation with a ULM or while in the presence of others, never undermine, criticize, or say anything negative about your boss. If a senior manager says something derogatory about your supervisor, decline his invitation to support it. He may be baiting you. Until you know the intent of the accusation—whether stated or implied— avoid saying anything you’ll wish you could retract later. If a ULM presses you for an opinion, offer positive generalities. For example, “She’s been very helpful. My experience with her has been good. I hope this is just a minor glitch for her.”
Corporate politics, as maligned and one-sided as they often are, reflects a combination of personalities, power issues, and personal agendas. And like any other organized groups with a common mission—including your local book club, fraternal organization, and the church you attend—there’s nothing so unusual about the corporate version of politics to make it substantially different from the social dynamic operating within any other formal association of people.
With one exception . . . It’s the source of your livelihood.
While you may decide to walk out of your neighborhood HOA meeting to protest the president’s preference to use his brother-in-law’s landscaping company, your actions in response to your employer’s politics must be tempered with a different priority.
Coming up next from Better Mondays:
Chapter Seven - The Importance of Corporate Culture and Its Influence on Your Career
Thanks for reading,
Roger Reid | Success Point 360
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Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business. Roger is the author of Better Mondays and Speak Up, and host of Success Point 360 Podcast, offering tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.