As the credit crunch bites, pressures are growing within businesses around the world. Corporations of all shapes and sizes are feeling this tension. For some it is the soaring cost of supply; for others—dwindling demand. Some unfortunates feel the pain at both ends of the supply chain-and even in the middle with spiraling credit costs! While the causes may vary, few can dispute that the strain on corporations is increasing rapidly.
The executives in these corporations are naturally working hard to help the organization to survive. Yet in these tough times, they also have to be more careful about protecting their own positions. When the environment stresses the company, its executives will often disagree about the best way to respond. The tension created can cause some unfortunate and unwelcome side effects—an increase in political maneuvering among senior executives. This is especially likely if the CEO does not pay attention to the problem. While organizational politics is nothing new, the ability to handle this dimension is suddenly of much greater importance.
As business coaches, we are well placed to be able to assist our clients in this respect. By taking this reality seriously, we can help our clients to weather the storm, both the credit crunch and the political maelstrom. Over the last few years we have been working with a number of colleagues around the world unlocking the subtleties of corporate politics. What we have achieved is rapidly being viewed as a ray of hope for integrity—the hope that honest people of integrity can survive and thrive in tough times. When we first sat down to plan our new book, Political Dilemmas at Work1, little did we realize just how timely this work was going to be!
In order to help our clients, we approach the development of their political skills in three steps.
Step 1: Understand the dilemma
If people in an organization are feeling the pressure of the credit crunch, it is likely that as the top executives compete, our clients will find themselves in one or more dilemmas. By codifying these dilemmas, it is much easier for our clients to come to terms with their situation and begin to think clearly about what they can do for the best. Some typical dilemmas include:
Turf Wars: Two powerful people are fighting to win control of your function—and you are caught in the middle.
Political Rival: You've always played it straight and gotten good results. Now you're up against a strong and cunning political rival who seems determined to derail your success.
Spin Doctor: The president is due to arrive, and your boss has told you not to reveal a serious flaw in the proposal. He said to use a bit of spin.
These are just a few of the many dilemmas we have outlined in our book. The critical point is that our clients need to get clarity on their position, so that they can begin to make robust decisions.
Step 2: Investigate the detail
Once they have begun to understand the dilemma they face, we then move to the details. Often this can be elusive, yet any attempt to unravel the complexities of the human behavior behind the dilemma is useful. Some of the key areas we get our clients to focus on are:
The Players: Going beyond the obvious, who are the key people actively or passively involved in the position you find yourself in?
The Agendas: Specifically what are they hoping to achieve from the position they are assuming, or the action they are taking?
The Motivation: What is driving the players to do what they are doing? What are the payoffs if they succeed?
We have to be realistic. Many of the questions that we ask our clients are difficult to answer; however, having them think about these questions sets off an automatic chain reaction in the mind and the actions of the client. Often they become highly motivated to pursue the answers because they know the importance. Our clients are highly educated and successful executives, and sometimes they can use their gut instinct or intuition to get a fix on the answer. That's okay if we have to move quickly, but it is never a substitute for fact. One lesson that many learn here is that they have paid insufficient attention to building and/or maintaining their political intelligence gathering system.
Step 3: Plan the action
Not surprisingly, often the awareness created by the previous steps is sufficient to allow the executive to launch into action. This impulse needs to be held in check a few moments more, because we want them to think through their options in a strategic manner. By doing this, they can avoid unhelpful side effects and find easier, more direct routes to influencing the right outcome. Some of the key areas we focus on are:
Strategic Stakeholder Management: Use a simple and effective tool to plot out the key people involved in your goal and analyze their position before planning your action.
Broker Honest Exchanges: Cultivate a relationship of openness and honesty, and manage your action to achieve this quickly.
Contingency Actions: Think through the action you are about to take and determine what counteractions others may take. Is there anything you can do to limit the impact of these actions?
Build Political Capital: Build longer term action to ensure you have a strong network of political allies ready for when you need them. Building allies when you are in crisis can be difficult.
When we challenge our clients in these four areas, they always find quick and simple actions that they can take to improve their situation; relieve their stress and get more help. At senior levels, being inactive in the political realm is not an option!
In our practice, using the approaches above, we regularly help our clients to achieve multi-million dollar results, and careers advance rapidly. With the current credit crunch we are starting to see more people struggling to survive, and the steps above become more critical than ever. As business coaches, we believe that we have a responsibility to our clients to help them thrive in the political domain. In addition to helping them personally, we also help their organizations to succeed.
1 Gautrey, Colin, Dr. Gary Ranker and Mike Phipps. 2008. Political Dilemmas at Work. John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, New Jersey.