So often you hear people who work at colleges or in business 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?
You, your co-workers, your supervisor, your supervisor’s supervisor, all work in the political bureaucracy of higher education. So what exactly is politics, and how can you respond appropriately to it when it is encountered?
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.
The ideas presented in this article 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 perspectives and actions.
It may seem out of control -that doesn’t mean it is.
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. Understand that at points because of political situations, individuals cannot freely share all the information that they know. Typically, if you learn to deal with the gray of the situation and go with the flow, it most likely will all make sense in due time.
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 your supervisors’ priorities in mind. While there will be many other things that are important to you and to your residents, don’t forget that what your supervisor thinks is important. He or she has a supervisor too, and they may have a need for different results from you. Always remember that there is in many instances a bigger picture out there, beyond what you can see.
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, your co-workers or assignments 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 for other departmental activities if the opportunities arise. Be seen as a person who has the departments goals in mind as well as your own. 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 your organization. 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.”1 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. If this happens, you risk losing the respect of your co-workers and your supervisor.
Knowing that politics exist in higher education and other organizations is helpful. It is also important to realize that typically the higher you go in an organization, the more political the environment. Understanding the things that you can do when you work in a political environment can help you turn “politics” into a positive thing that can work to your advantage.
Submitted by Karen L. Pennington, Vice President for Student Development and Campus Life, Montclair