Positive Workplace Politics with your boss

It’s a simple, real-world fact. A fact most people still do not “get.” Today, most people lose their job not because they messed up or made some costly mistake at work, but because they don’t understand “workplace politics.” Actually being politically savvy is what helps you keep your job when you do make a mistake.

Unless you are a hermit living in a cave, you are in some kind of workplace. And that workplace—inevitably—has politics. You cannot bring together two employees—employees who often have competing agendas—and not have politics.

My definition of politics is “the difference between what is right—and what is effective.” How often in your career have you been right, but everyone hates you for it? That’s the gap you need to understand and work. I would never advocate walking on others to get what you need, but I do believe in understanding the unspoken messages of your workplace and tapping into the flow of power to accomplish your agenda. I think of it as “How to shake the tree and get the resources you need.”

One of the most important political alliances to cultivate is your relationship with your boss. Start by asking yourself this question, “Do I actually manage my relationship with my boss . . . or just try not to make him/her mad?” Most people do only the latter. Turn that around and start creating a more positive, effective relationship with your boss by answering these key questions:

  1. What is the method of communication with which my boss is most comfortable?
    Is it face-to-face, e-mail, or voicemail? I had a boss once who responded best to voicemail. He wasn’t big on face-to-face because it required too much time. He could return five voicemails in airports faster than he could type e-mails on his Blackberry. If you voicemailed him, you almost always got an answer the same day, especially when he was busy. And this strategy also made me look very self-sufficient because I wasn’t always in his office asking questions. On the rare occasion when I asked for time on his calendar, he would move me to the head of the line because he knew it was important.
  2. During what time of day is my boss most receptive to talking?
    Your boss may be a morning person, or more open to longer conversations as the day winds down and the phones stop ringing. If your boss is talkative and you need a quick answer, check his calendar and go see him 15 minutes before he has a meeting or before he typically leaves for lunch. And is there a particular day of the week that is better for your boss than others? I know one governmental group that waits until Wednesdays to ask for anything important from their manager, because on Tuesday the boss meets with the Board of Commissioners and Monday is spent preparing.
  3. When my boss needs advice, whom does he consult?
    For those of you who have seen the Godfather films, think of this advisor as your boss’s “Consiglieri.” Build a good relationship with this person so he/she says good things about you to your boss. Remember—this is someone to whom your boss listens and whose opinion he greatly values.
  4. What are the last three business books my boss read?
    Any book your manager spends her valuable time reading, you should read. I know one manager who wanted funding in the budget for an additional person, but knew his boss hated any increase in headcount. His boss was a great fan of the book Good to Great. Even though the manager was not a big reader, he read the book because his boss so valued its insights. The manager justified his request for the new position by saying he needed “the right people on the bus in the right seats” (wording that comes straight from Good to Great). This resonated with his boss and he got the OK to hire the new person.

You also can be politically savvy by giving your boss the gift of a business book you’ve recently read and agree with. This allows you to use the author as an expert to convert your boss to your way of thinking. Be sure to inscribe the book on the inside fly leaf and sign your name. This way, every time she opens the book, she is reminded of the gift. And if she lends it to someone, you will appear to be smart, cutting-edge, and someone whose opinion your boss values.

If your boss is not a reader, you can still use this strategy. Simply select a book that is short but packed with insights, so your boss will be willing to spend an hour reading it. And never put the cost of the book on your expense report. This is a gift—and an investment in your career. Surely your career is worth $20 or $25!

Finally, here are three quick “political rules” for successfully dealing with bosses:

Rule 1 – Stay neutral with new bosses. When you get a new boss, you will be barraged by people asking you what you think of him/her. These people will repeat what you say throughout the organization, so say this: “He/she seems very smart, but I haven’t worked with her for very long.” This is both noncommittal and positive.

Rule 2 – When your boss says something nice about you, do not deflect the compliment with modesty or with humor by cracking the joke about “maybe this is a good time to ask for a raise.” This devalues the compliment and creates an awkward situation for everyone present, even if they know you are kidding. Here’s the perfect reply: “Thank you so much. That means a great deal to me coming from you.” You now have tripled the chances your boss will say more nice things about you in the future.

Rule 3 – Last, but not least, never speak badly about your boss in the workplace—even if everyone else calls him “the spawn of Satan.” By not saying anything bad, you send a clear, unspoken message throughout your organization that you are patient, resilient, and loyal. All of which are great qualities to have. You enhance your value and reputation—simply by shutting up.

Margaret Morford is a keynote speaker in the Skill Development track of Conference 2010. She is presenting Management Courage – Having the Heart of a Lion and The Savvy Owl – Politics, Power and Influence – What They Don’t Teach You in Business School. For more information on these and other sessions, please refer to www.bchrma.org/conf2010.

About the Author:

Margaret Morford is President of The HR Edge, Inc, an international management consulting and training firm. She is the author of the book, Management Courage – Having the Heart of a Lion.

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