So often you hear colleagues say statements like, “It’s all politics. That’s why I didn’t get ahead.” Or, “It’s so political around here. Everyone is out to get you.” Is it politics? Or is it just the natural course of operating in a bureaucracy? No matter what you call it, it is your responses that will determine your success or failure as a result of it. The manifestations of organizational behavior and your accompanying reactions to it can be controlled, and also used to help you succeed.
Politics is neither a positive nor a negative – it just is. It has developed a connotation of being the cutthroat, back stabbing activity with which we sometimes are faced in the world of work. But conversely, we also label it politics when it is something that works to our advantage. So instead of trying to avoid it, criticize it, or facing it with anger and disdain, here are some suggestions on how to use it to make you succeed in your current and future positions. These ideas are largely based on my experiences as a Resident Director, Director of Residence Life, Director of Student Activities, Dean of Students, and as a Vice President for Student Affairs. Some of them are obvious and may be things that you already know. If so, and you aren’t using them to your advantage – you don’t understand politics and need to go back and regroup. If you are just hearing them for the first time, think about how you might incorporate some of these ideas into your routine.
These tips are predicated on the belief that the organization is basically healthy. There are however, those operations that are composed of individuals who are dysfunctional, or who have made or perpetuate a dysfunctional organization. It is important to know when the department can be changed and made whole by changes in personnel or management, or on the other hand when separation is the only possible action for you and your sanity. Staying in such an environment will lead to resentment, bitterness and a feeling that “politics” is rampant in the organization, rather than an understanding that change of one sort or another is essential. Remember, it is your decision how these manifestations are managed. The control is completely in your hands.
It may seem out of control -that doesn’t mean it is.
Either by parents or courses in school, we were taught to expect certain things from business organizations – and lest we forget today’s realities, a college or university IS a business. “The organization most of us grew up to expect is gone. Corporate chaos is here to stay.”1 Don’t expect that people are always going to do what you expect. More importantly do not expect what people do will always make sense to you. The reality is that you often are not going to seem to be “in the loop.” So what happens may feel like a mystery to you, or to be a part of the chaos. That is when we often start to think that “they” are doing things TO us.
Develop a sense of trust in those with whom you work and to whom you report. Expect that they have the same goals in mine that you do, and that they also have the necessary level of expertise to do the job. Nine times out of ten you are going to be right and there are things they are just not at liberty to share. Typically, if you learn to deal with the gray of the situation and go with the flow, it will all make sense in due time.
Find a mentor.
Within any organization there is always someone who can help you figure out what is really going on and how to traverse the terrain. That does not necessarily mean that it is even someone in your own department, but may be a faculty member, the President’s assistant, the Dean of Students, or someone else entirely. Find someone who really knows the lay of the land and what the important issues on campus really are. Learn from them which campus events are important for you to attend and who should be aware of your attendance. Discover whose campus priorities you should pay attention to, and how you can help support them. Those individuals will begin to notice you and your attention to their goals. In turn they will help provide the assistance needed to advance you in the organization and in your career.
Feed the bosses’ parrot.
“There once was a man who owned a pet store. He was going away for a month’s vacation and asked one of the employees to take over the store. When he left, he instructed the employee about how to open and close the store, about the payroll, etc. But he spent the most time telling him that the most important thing he had to do while the boss was gone was to feed his parrot.
At the end of the first week the boss called and asked how things were going. The employee shared how he had straightened up the store, straightened out the inventory, and taken care of all of the outstanding bills. But all the boss said was, “Did you feed the parrot?”
Similar conversations happened the next two weeks, with the employee outlining all of the terrific things he had done for the business, and all the boss seeming to care about was if he had fed the parrot. When the boss came back at the end of the month he found that the business was in the best shape it had been in years with increased sales, new inventory, and many satisfied customer. When the boss asked how his parrot was, the employee confessed that the bird had died two weeks earlier because he had forgotten to feed him. The employee was promptly fired.
The moral of this story is quite simple – always keep the bosses’ priorities in mind. While there will be many other things that are important to you and to your students, don’t forget about what your boss thinks is important. He or she has a boss too, and they may have a need for different results from you and your staff. Always remember that there is a bigger picture out there and someone else is going to advance that agenda. It may be your responsibility to help meet it.
No one is unimportant
“Make friends with the guard in the lobby – someday you will forget your i.d. badge.”2 This is also true for departmental secretaries, custodians, and maintenance personnel. These individuals have the ability to make you or break you. They are often in the best position to help you when needed, or hurt you when the opportunity presents itself. You may be surprised to know who they “have the ear of” and how those in authority depend upon them for advice and information.
Loose lips sink ships
Be sure you know who is around you when you are making comments about work information or about other people. Don’t talk about your boss, colleagues or projects in elevators or in the cafeteria. Those around you may not have your best interests at heart. In repeating what you said to others they may not get the story right, or they may distort what you said deliberately. While they may be labeled a tattletale or gossip, more damage will probably be done to you than to them. It is best to be circumspect in your comments and not give others the opportunity to use information that you gave them, against you.
Make yourself available to other divisions and departments for committee work. Be seen as a person who has the University picture in mind rather than only your area. Thinking beyond your own little part of the world will show others that they can count on you and will also broaden your exposure to other members of the community. You will then have contacts and allies to help you if you ever need them for support or assistance.
Finally, above everything else, be true to yourself. As the comedian and actor Bill Cosby once said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” 3 Trying to be all things to all people will make you look shallow and dishonest. People will view you as an opportunist and will begin to avoid you. Those who try to make everyone happy are often seen as unable to make the tough decisions and not capable of managing important responsibilities. You will not get the top projects and may quickly lose the respect of the boss.
Recommended Reading List/End Notes
1 Richard A. Moran. Never Confuse A Memo With Reality. (New York: Harper Business Publishing, 1993).
3 Off The Cuff. (Madison, WI: Magna Publications, Inc., 1989).
Submitted by Karen L. Pennington, Vice President for Student Development and Campus Life, Montclair State University