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Great Leaders Stop Their Company from Rewarding Office Politics

By Bret Piatt
Jul 8, 2016

During my morning reading, I came across an article titled, Great Leaders Embrace Office Politics from Harvard Business Review. My 2 cents— this is the right advice if you want to succeed in an organization that has a toxic culture.

A Truly Great Leader Stops Their Company from Rewarding Political Behavior

Analysis of the HBR Article

A rising young executive found herself strategically ousted in an internal power play. Jill had all the chops to rise to the corner office: consistent top 10% performer, hardworking, intelligent, personable, driven, multilingual, an MBA from a top-tier school. Handwritten thank-you notes from the CEO proudly adorned her wall.

As an individual contributor and lower level manager, Jill’s company sounds like it has the right culture. Jill was commended personally by her CEO and rewarded for producing quality work that made her company better—I’ll refer to these as real results.

“I was universally liked across the company, a team player who put in more hours than anyone else,” she said. “I was heads down on delivering results, shared my inner self and built trust…everything I was trained and even coached to do.” With those words, I recognized what had happened immediately. Jill was one more victim of what I call the “Kumbaya” school of leadership, which says that being open, trusting, authentic, and positive — and working really hard — is the key to getting ahead. The Kumbaya school is doing the Jills of the world a great disservice, leading them to often act in ways that are detrimental to their careers.

The management culture is broken at Jill’s company. Ultimately this is on the CEO—people will exhibit the behaviors you reward. Being open, trusting, authentic, and positive are exactly the behaviors high performing teams exhibit regardless of level all the way from teams of individual contributors with a manager to a senior executive team. From another HBR article titled The New Science of Building Great Teams:

The data also reveal, at a higher level, that successful teams share several defining characteristics: (1) Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet. (2) Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic. (3) Members connect directly with one another—not just with the team leader. (4) Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team. (5) Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

The science of sustained high performing teams says politics can’t be a priority.

Now returning to the original article:

But too often I see leaders and their coaches treating effective influence-building tactics as if they’re Machiavellian. I’m not arguing that we should be Machiavellian. We each choose if we want to rise in organizations, the path we take, and whether the ends justify the means. I am arguing, however, that if we want to avoid what happened to Jill, we need to spend much more time managing up and around — and employ techniques that may not feel intuitive.

The truth and results will set you free if the CEO rewards those behaviors. This becomes a decision for each individual, “What type of culture do you want to be part of?”

First, we want to believe the world is a fair place. As parents, we want to shield our kids from the stark reality of racism, sexism, popularity contests, and the schoolyard bully. And today, with the transparency of social media and the internet, it’s perhaps even more tempting to believe that the “truth” will set us free. “Everyone can see how hard I’m working,” we tell ourselves, or “Everyone knows how good my work is. All you have to do is look at the results.” Believing in a just world feels good. Jill said it herself: “I didn’t want to play office politics or be perceived as a brown-noser, self-promoter, or someone who rose because she was buddies with so-and-so. I was always told that the cream would naturally rise to the top.”

With Jungle Disk we reward results, transparency, and candid conversation. The rewards aren’t from what you say— they come from what you do, what you really exhibit. The people in both my company and yours are smart enough to tell genuine actions from platitudes. If CEOs continue to reward politics and fall victim by both believing and promoting the person who manages up telling a good story vs. the people producing better results quietly off executing then we’ll continue to have racism, sexism, and popularity contests. As a leader we have enormous power, whether we want it or not, and enormous responsibility to use that power appropriately— to do good by both producing results and producing results in a way that makes the world more of a fair place.

Closing – This is a Big and Important Topic and Is Worth Multiple Posts

Initially I’d planned to cover three key leadership behaviors to build a high performance low politics culture. The analysis became a complete post on its own. I’ll be following up next week with it as a stand-alone article.