Food for thought this week in an article in HR Magazine, which advises that HR people should stay out of workplace politics. Be aware, but don’t play the game, was the message in the piece—which suggests that if people see HR manoeuvring, manipulating and under-mining, they are unlikely to trust its advice.
There’s no doubt it’s a tricky area for HR, who often find themselves stuck in the middle when it comes to difficult workplace situations. But the question that perhaps needs to be asked is: are workplace politics as much of a ‘bad thing’ as the article implies?
It depends on how you look at it. Stabbing people in the back and ‘working’ the system for your own personal gain are, of course, not desirable behaviours. A ‘positive’ approach to workplace politics can, however, help HR overcome obstacles, gain acceptance for its initiatives and implement change quickly and effectively when needed.
As Mike Brent and Fiona Dent point out in their book The Leaders Guide to Influence, there’s a big difference between being ‘political’ and being politically astute. The key is understanding the unwritten rules (how things get done around here) and knowing how to work with them to help you achieve both your own and the organisation’s wider goals.
So, what do HR people need to do to improve their political nous and practice workplace politics for positive effect?
1. Accept that it happens
Workplace politics are part of organisational life—whether we like it or not. Every business is different: some organisations have a highly ‘political’ culture, characterised by fierce internal competition, regular conflict and powerful ‘cliques’ of managers; other organisations are more collaborative and operate in a climate of teamwork, co-operation and open, transparent communication. The latter will probably be a nicer place to work in, but it is possible to ‘rise above’ the negative behaviour and achieve your goals successfully and with integrity in the former.
2. Help others understand the political landscape
HR people don’t have to stand on the sidelines and be passive observers of political behaviour. From their position in the centre of the business, they are in a prime position to have a positive influence. They often have the ear of senior management and a good understanding of who holds the power and how decisions get made. Equally, they understand the mechanics of how the business works on a day-to-day basis and the impact that actions and decisions have on people on the ground. Politically astute HR people can help the organisation re-think the way it sees and employs internal politics. They can help those at the top understand how a toxic culture may be hindering progress, while at the same time helping managers and employees learn how to use their influencing skills to navigate the system effectively.
3. Build strong networks
Building a strong internal network isn’t about ‘cosying up’ to important people. It’s about developing relations with key people who can provide the information and support the HR team needs to get the job done. Practitioners that get out of their ‘HR bubble’ and make connections across the business, actively seeking out people who can help them test out new ideas, find it easier to overcome barriers and win support for their initiatives. It’s important to recognise that senior people are not always the ones who have the most influence.
If you’re trying to embed a new HR software system, for example, an enthusiastic and popular member of the admin team—who’s been involved in trialling the system from an early stage—could be your biggest ally when it comes to overcoming resistance from elsewhere in the business.
4. Develop Trust
Navigating internal politics successfully relies on building trust and respect. Senior management need to know that their HR person can rise above the numerous individual agendas at play and make decisions that are in the best interests of the business. Employees need to see that HR acts fairly, listens to all sides of the story and acknowledges the efforts of others.
To gain trust, HR needs to model the behaviours it would like to see in others. If you’re unsure about the appropriate stance to take on a difficult situation, hold up a mirror and ask yourself whether you are acting for your own benefit or the benefit of the business?
5. Polish your influencing skills
In a complex political climate, you need to make sure your influencing skills are top notch. Understand what your own preferred influencing style is. Are you directive or persuasive? Collaborative or inspirational? Think about how the person on the receiving end prefers to receive information and be prepared to adapt your approach to suit the people and the situation. (Learn about using the Nudge Theory here)
Further reading: The Leaders Guide to Influence: How to use soft skills to get hard results, Mike Brent and Fiona Dent, FT Prentice Hall.