Navigating Organizational Politics at Work — Advice from an Expert

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Crowd of colleagues walking in lobby.

Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Are you turned off by organizational politics? Not your thing? Do you avoid them at all costs? If that’s your point of view, organizational consultant Allison Vaillancourt has some advice for you: Get over it.

Vaillancourt is the author of The Organizational Politics Playbook: 50 Strategies to Navigate Power Dynamics at Work. In her view, “People say, ‘I don’t do politics,’ That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s na├»ve. We tend to have a negative view of politics, but it’s a challenge we must accept if we want to be effective and get things done. We must choose to engage in organizational politics, but we can do so in an ethical way.”

Countering the notion that employees can opt out of organizational politics serves as the book’s preface to a rich treasury of 50 succinct, instructive chapters to guide professionals through the challenges of organizational politics to realize career success. Part of her motivation for writing it was that she found nothing comparable, so the book provides the advice she wished were available when navigating similar situations in her own career.

“I like books where I can read it as I need it, so I organized the book so readers can check out the chapter they need, get advice, and move on.” Accordingly, the book is organized under nine themes: Understanding Power Dynamics, Impression Management, Getting Ahead, Protect Yourself, Getting Things Done, Surviving Transitions, Navigating Change, and Exit with Grace.

The book is accessible to anyone seeking direction on handling common organizational challenges. Vaillancourt writes in a conversational style backed by concrete examples, anecdotal and often humorous stories from her experiences, and relevant research and theory on organizational and management practices. One vivid example is the chapter “Pause before Killing the Cubs,” in which she describes a nature show she watched in which the male lion and leader of the pride kills the cubs of another deceased male lion.[i]na gruesome display of ‘I’ll show you who’s in charge around here.'”

Vaillancourt analogizes this nature lesson to a common practice of new leaders who eliminate “the people believed to have attachments to the old way of doing business.” This is a “frequent rookie and lazy mistake” leaders make upon assuming a new leadership role. “Wiser leaders appreciate that it is possible for loyalties to shift and that there can be danger in tossing out people with institutional knowledge and vital relationships that can facilitate success and actually expedite organizational transformation.”

Vaillancourt shares this lesson in all of two and a half pages, including concrete advice for the “cubs” who find themselves working for a new leader. Don’t “trash” the former leader but “speak with enthusiasm about what might be possible with the new person. Avoid mentioning how things have typically been done, the fact that the new leader’s bold new idea was actually tried unsuccessfully in the past, or quoting the past leader in any context.” Being helpful, looking forward, and demonstrating and speaking with enthusiasm can help avoid having “your neck being pierced by the new leader in charge” like the unfortunate cubs in the nature program.

Vaillancourt offers a wide range of ideas and strategies for navigating organizational politics. I share some of these from my conversation with her and from book excerpts:

Navigating Power Dynamics
The book’s subtitle makes plain that navigating power dynamics is at the heart of managing organizational politics. So, what are the sources of power that employees can use to gain influence? Vaillancourt states, “while we may believe that true power comes from a title or position on the organization chart, this kind of power can be fleeting and those who rely upon their position power tend to find themselves lonely and without influence when they lose their coveted roles. Don’t get too impressed with yourself because you can lose your job tomorrow. Instead focus on more enduring sources of power and influence.”

In the chapter, “Determine Who Has the Power and Why,” she refers to “relationship power” as “the power that comes from having connections with a deep and broad network of individuals who can provide information, advice, and access to others with information and power.” Power that comes from “being admirable” (referent power) and “possessing a hard-to-find skillset or knowledge base” (expert power) are also invaluable compared to traditional forms of power like position, coercive, and reward power. “Expertise, information, and relationships are increasingly important and can position a person at any organizational level to be especially powerful.”

Building Trust and Influence
With relationship power at a premium, how does an employee build trust and influence in their relationships to gain such power? Vaillancourt suggests, among other strategies, what not to do: “You won’t always know who your allies are or who may turn against you. So, avoid trash talking about others and choose your words carefully.”

Rebuilding Upon a Toxic Leader’s Exit
Vaillancourt does not hesitate to tackle difficult organizational challenges. For example, what does an organization and a new leader do upon the exit of toxic leaders who leave a trail of dysfunction, distrust, and low morale in their wake? Vaillancourt states that new leaders should “acknowledge what happened and work with others to co-create a better future together.” In co-creating, “the group can decide what new group agreements can be forged to help rebuild trust. What will be eliminated that fostered a toxic culture? What will continue? How does the group work with someone in the future who behaves outside the norm?”

The book’s section on “Navigating Change” provides insight on how to effectively manage organizational change and avoid pitfalls. This includes the previously referenced chapter “Pause Before Killing the Cubs.” The title to the next chapter, “Recognize the Difference Between Aversion to Loss and Resistance to Change,” speaks for itself regarding how to manage a workforce dealing with significant and difficult change. “Once the change is announced, provide space and time for people to process it and then regroup to respond to questions and concerns.” Subsequent chapters advise to “Create the Right Coalition,” “Replace Your Answers with Questions,” and “Stop Silencing the Skeptics.”

Exiting Gracefully
The book’s final section provides advice for those difficult situations where the best strategy may be to leave an organization rather than allow a bad situation to further damage your reputation and career. Employees must avoid negative and retaliatory measures as they exit. They should instead “let people know all that they’ve learned by working in the organization, and how they benefitted from the experience. Then, when you decide to be done with the job, be done, and exit graciously.” Chapters on “Cut Your Losses Quickly” and “Always Leave Well” reinforce this advice.

A book purported in its title to be a “playbook” for organizational politics might leave the impression that it provides cutthroat practices in which we must engage to get ahead. To the contrary, Vaillancourt reinforces how essential it is to know and understand organizational politics, including the dirty tricks, so that we can manage them and remain ethical. She discusses this distinction in the final chapter “Evil or Strategic? Some Final Thoughts.” We have choices in how we engage in organizational politics, but it is her hope and assumption that readers will utilize the strategies “to achieve what [they] want in a way that is ethical and honorable.” Indeed, “[t]he good news is that you can be both successful and highly ethical” while you navigate the world of organizational politics.

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