A version of this article appeared originally at SmartBrief on Leadership.
If your mission is to get work done through and with others across your organization, you need to develop and apply influence. Of course, it’s a short drive from a discussion on cultivating influence in the workplace to the topic of office politics. It’s a journey you must make if you want to effect change.
In this article, I share ideas and approaches you can use to engage and succeed in your organization’s political environment without compromising your values. These “clean power” approaches are potentially powerful for leading and effecting change in many settings. However, they take a deliberate focus and ample effort.
First, A Few Facts of Organizational Life:
There’s no escaping organizational or workplace politics. In every setting where humans gather in pursuit of shared objectives, a political environment emerges. Whether you’re striving to effect change in your local school’s Parent Teacher Organization or a global business, there’s a political environment where some individuals wield a disproportionate amount of decision-making authority. Effectively, they bring resources to opportunities and choose others for more responsibility.
That’s workplace power. The challenge for everyone else is how to either cultivate power organically or, to tap into the power of those making the decisions. In my experience, the answer is that you need to do both at the same time to increase your voice and vote.
Three “Clean Power” Approaches for Growing Your Influence at Work
1. Develop Strong Networks to Help Grow Your Influence
A strong network gives you access to private information and individuals with unique skillsets. It also gives you the ability to connect resources from disparate networks to help solve organizational problems.
As someone striving to effect change, strengthening, developing, and diversifying your network(s) must all be regular activities. Yet, not many of us call out “strengthening our network” as a line item on our weekly to-do lists. Here’s a simple hack to help you jump-start this critical clean power work.
On Sunday evening or whenever you do your weekly planning, jot down these three questions:
- What relationships will I start this week?
- What relationships do I need to renew this week?
- What relationships do I need to repair this week?
Approach this relationship work with an emphasis on bringing something of value to each party. Great influencers pay attention to the currencies of their network contacts. They focus on helping them gain what they desire, including visibility, attribution, decision-making authority, and the ability to extend their missions. They also work to broker connections across networks to help others achieve their goals.
One side note: too many of us skip the uncomfortable work required in my third question on repairing broken relationships. It turns out; this is some of the most valuable work you can do in large part because it potentially eliminates or at least neutralizes individuals who might operate in an adversarial mode with you.
2. Build Your Influence By Solving Problems in the Gray-Zone
Every organization has what I term as gray-zones. These are typically the areas between functions where process, communication, and coordination problems get in the way of speed, creativity, and quality. It turns out, learning to bring resources to bear to solve gray-zone issues is a great way to grow your influence.
Amy, a senior product manager, striving to gain increased influence in her organization, applied this technique masterfully. She learned to identify issues getting in the way of progress or creating extra burden, and then bring the right people to bear to solve the problems. And, when she and the team were successful in eliminating a problem, she brilliantly turned the spotlight of visibility and accolades on her team members. It wasn’t long before her reputation as a team-developer and problem-solver had executives asking her to take on more responsibilities, while individuals were vying to membership to her initiatives.
Some tools for spotting gray-zone opportunities include:
- Paying attention to the big problems renting space in your boss’s mind.
- Spotting breakdowns in communication between groups.
- Tuning in to the need for new processes or approaches to help bring initiatives or strategies to life.
- Identifying long-standing processes that have become burdensome or are no longer relevant.
Leading in the gray-zone can be a powerful way to grow your influence and gain leadership experience. Start small and help to fix issues that impact you and your colleagues in your daily work. Gain support from your boss and other managers to tackle more significant challenges. And remember to create heroes in the process. Amy used this technique to rise to become a vice-president at an accelerated pace.
3. Leverage the Principle of Reciprocity
The research from Cialdini and others suggests that the concept of reciprocity applies across all cultures on our planet. Effectively, reciprocity means if I do something for you, you will feel compelled to do something for me at some time. Individuals striving to grow their influence in organizations are keenly aware of the principle of reciprocity and apply it liberally, helping their network contacts go into reciprocity debt with them.
Yes, this idea of “doing favors” might sound like we’ve crossed the line of “clean power.” In reality, it’s part of the normal give-and-take in the workplace. Take a moment to think about how many times individuals ask you for something during a typical work week. Depending upon your role, you’re likely on the receiving end of requests for help, resources, process changes, or general support for initiatives. While it’s impossible to say “Yes” to every request, you can almost always find a way to help. If you’ve done a good job with your network development as outlined above, many of the requests you field might very well be fulfilled by network contacts, not by taking on more than you can handle.
Consider the case of Bob. Bob worked in sales operations for his organization and had a stellar reputation for being the go-to person with other groups vying for attention from the sales team. Bob regularly provided help to individuals from support, product, and IT, assisting them in gaining face time with sales executives and managers for their initiatives. He leveraged those reciprocity debts with the teams when the sales organization needed extraordinary help with a particular issue. Bob was a natural choice when the director of sales operations role opened, in large part, based on his ability to make things happen for the entire organization.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
You cannot escape organizational politics; however, you can define how you will engage. If you desire to effect change while maintaining your integrity and avoiding potentially toxic activities, you need the influence to bring your initiatives to life with and through others. Focusing on helping others achieve their goals, identifying and leading improvement initiatives, and connecting the right resources with vexing problems are three powerful “clean power” approaches to strengthen your influence and maintain your integrity.
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