Surviving Office Politics


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Shelley: Office politics, you can't ignore it, and in fact, there are probably people on the call today who, whilst they say they abhor office politics, are possibly at the epicenter of them, either because of what they say about others or their behaviors. For example, when they hit reply all in their email to make sure that their perspective gets known. Like it or loathe it, office politics is simply a part of organizational life that all of us must navigate through successfully.

Today our guest is Nan Russell, author of the wonderful book, "Hitting Your Stride: Your Work, Your Way," and she is going to lift the lid for you on how to survive and thrive your way through office politics. From minimum wage employee to vice president of multibillion dollar QVC, Nan knows what it takes to survive and thrive in this "What have you done for me today?" world.

In roles transforming a corporate culture to heading a new subsidiary, the launch of which was reported in both The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, she offers real world experience with a motivational and business context.

Nan has spent over 20 years in management, holding executive positions in human resources, communication marketing, and line management. She was the architect and influence leader of a culture transformation for 10,000 employees. In 2002, Nan left the corporate world to pursue a life dream to work and write from the mountains of northwestern Montana. Today, she is a successful author, workplace consultant, and national speaker. She is also the radio host of a weekly program on called "Work Matters with Nan Russell."

Shelley: Nan, our audience today, many of them would be thinking of office politics as a blood sport, and the word alone conjures up everything from self-serving antics to information hoarding. But you say it doesn't have to be like that. Can you enlighten us on why?

Nan: Yes. It really is one of those words, I think, that most people do get this sense of just fear and all sorts of negative emotions. But the real truth about politics is that they're very neutral. If you approach them as being neither good nor bad,it's actually the behaviors that we might choose to use that cause us problems. But politics themselves, it's just a way to get something done. It's a way to influence people about our goals or our objectives or to build relationships. We can have as many positive politics and approaches as we can negative based on the kinds of tactics and strategies that we use.

Shelley: Okay. So, what would be some of the examples that you might give of the positive behaviors or tactics that we might use in terms of office politics?

Nan: Well, some of the things that are real positive, and people who use politics well recognize that when they build a lot of trusting relationships, they are able to support each other's goals and objectives, to work together in ways to accomplish strategic alignments. And really, because the approach is really just politics help you get things done, then I help you, you help me, and it kind of works out in the end. So it's much more of a relationship building strategy than what we often see, or hear, when we hear the word politics.

Shelley: Yes, because normally it's associated with somebody doing something to be self-serving for their own career or their own good in some way, isn't it?

Nan: Exactly. Or real manipulative or all those sort of negative behaviors that certainly are out there, but we do have a choice about whether we decide to use them that way or not.

Shelley: So what are a few myths that are related to company politics?

Nan: Well, there are a couple I think. One of them that's one of my pet peeves has to do with this whole concept of reply all when we get this email string that happens where people start to get in a situation where they are CC'ing their boss and their boss' boss, and everybody else's boss, in terms of being sure that they are going to sort of protect themselves. So people just continue to hit reply all in a way that they think is the right way to play politics, as it were.

But people who are strategic and understand that politics is not a game, it's really an approach, understand that that's one of the worst things that you can do. I would love to have that button gone actually on email, and better yet, you should pick up the phone or wander down and talk to them in person and sort of stop that escalation.

Shelley: Yes. I'm with you. I just wish people would actually communicate face to face rather than hiding behind emails and text messages and IMs.

Nan: And, it's getting worse. I have a friend whose son was just laid off in the United States about two weeks ago through a text message on a Sunday night.

Shelley: Oh, my goodness.

Nan: You cringe! Those are the kinds of things that really cause, obviously, detrimental situations. But people are using technology in ways that do kind of go to the dark side of politics or the dark side of relationship building or some of these other things. So I'm where you are. Face to face is a good thing.

Shelley: Yes, absolutely. So what are some other myths?

Nan: One of the others is that the way you get ahead in the workplace is really by who you know and not so much by what you do. often times, people who have and subscribe to that myth are people who tend to be paying lots of attention to sort of what I consider to be everybody else's five acres of what's going on in the workplace.

They're more concerned about what's happening over there or who's getting more resources or a bigger budget than really paying attention to and tending their own acreage. One of the things that is very true in many organizations is that people who are truly talented and do a good job are going to get ahead. Now, that doesn't mean that politics and the networking and who you know might not also help you, but often times, people think it's one or the other, and it's really not.

Shelley: Okay. That's good. You talk about five keys to savvy workplace politics that build trust and five common mistakes that ignite politics. Can you take us through these, and maybe we could just talk about them one at a time?

Nan: Yes, that would be great. There are a couple that I would start with, and the first one has to do with a common mistake that people make who often times see politics in a negative light or get caught up into them. That is that it's all about them. There are a lot of things that go on in business. There are a lot of decisions that are made, and they may seem personal. They may seem in a way that they affect us, but they're really not about us.

Therefore, the approach and the tip that I give people about savvy politics is to really put that aside and be what I call a musketeer.

Sort of the one for all and all for one kind of approach. If you in time really start to build those relationships about I'll be there to help you, and you'll be there to help me, and it's really much more of an approach of service, it's amazing how those kinds of things fall away, and politics also falls away. People show up and really support each other in positive ways.

Shelley: Great. It's funny, isn't it? Because we all get so self- absorbed at times that we think it's all about us. When people are absorbed in their own agenda, and it's really not about you, isn't it?

Nan: I know. It is, and we do. We take everything as a personal decision or something. Not necessarily the best way to approach it.

Shelley: So what's another key to savvy politics?

Nan: The second one I always give people is really that people underestimate the power of the stories that they tell at work.

Shelley: Yes.

Nan: Strategically, the tip that I would give people - and this is one of those very powerful ones I think - is that you need to tell the right stories at work. We need to be moving away form the diarrhea of the mouth, venting kinds of stories that we tell out of frustration, and go to considered storytelling. Now, I'm not talking about spin here. I'm talking about really understanding that the stories we tell ignite politics. So if I walk out of a meeting and I start talking about all the things that happened in that meeting about another department or another boss, that's going to be repeated and repeated and repeated.

Certainly one of the things I've found in my career is that it's amazing how much that story really reflects on the storyteller. It says a lot about the person who's telling the story, whether they're telling stories that put toxins into the workplace or they're telling stories that really help build relationships. So, I would really encourage people to think that whatever you're telling at work, you might as well post it on YouTube or be sending it out, because it kind of works like that.

Shelley: Yes. I say exactly the same thing. In fact, I'm just about to send an article out to my list in the next couple of days, and it's about what is the emotional wake that you leave behind, because we often, as leaders, say things and don't stop to think about the implications that even that word or that look might have on people, either positive or negative. And whilst none of us are responsible for other people's feelings, we can certainly make the deliberate decision that whichever hallway we walk down, we leave a feeling that is uplifting and positive rather than one that's negative.

Nan: I love that visual that you were just painting with your words, because I think often times as leaders, we don't recognize that we might have something on our mind, and we're walking down that hallway that you're talking about and everybody who's watching us is thinking something terrible is wrong. It could just be that we might be preoccupied. Yet if we focus and smile or say hello, it doesn't leave that baggage that you're talking about.

Shelley: That's right. Okay. So what's your third savvy politics tip?

Nan: The third one really has to do with intention. We often times, and I will be the first to raise my hand here having been in the corporate world for about 20 years, we can get seduced by dark side politics and not even recognize it. This is the one tip that I think really helps us frame our behavior in different ways if we look at it. And that's to really consider and understand our own intentions, because that's what makes politics either be those negative kinds of manipulative approaches or a real positive relationship building approach. Sometimes our intention is not what we think it is.

Shelley: Absolutely.

Nan: We may just think we're trying to have a heated debate or come up with brainstorming, and we might really be trying to put somebody else down or win some brownie points with our bosses in the room. We have to really be clear about what our motive is, and I think that really will change the dynamic dramatically in terms of our behavior if we start to look at them.

Shelley: I love that saying, you can only judge others by their actions and judge yourself by your own intent. Yet most of us look at other people's actions and then judge their intent, and we're often way off. Most of us just don't even seem to look at our own intent. I should say that differently. We think our own intent is pure, when more often than not, it isn't really. I always encourage people, spend a few moments at the end of each day thinking about the interactions you've had through the day and what was your meaning in that conversation?

Nan: That's great advice. Along those lines, one of the things that I've always used and I've coached my teams on it is what I call this sort of most people rule. The most people rule is when in doubt, just step back and say, "Most people most of the time are well-intentioned." We're all trying to do the best we can.

Shelley: Absolutely.

Nan: Sometimes it's harder than we may know. I think that helps sometimes though.

Shelley: Yes, absolutely. Nobody wakes up at the beginning of the day going, "I wonder who's day I could mess over today," or, "I wonder how I could make things difficult for people." I'm sure there's probably 1% or 0.5% of the population might do that. But the rest of us, we get up intending for our day to be a good day, an easy day. So I love that most people, what would most people be doing? It's a good way to look at it.

Nan: And you're right. I don't think most people are out there trying to get somebody else. Unfortunately, the focus becomes sometimes that 2% or 3% of people who might have those negative behaviors. It's all blown up, too, and we do need to get a little bit of altitude about what's going on.

Shelley: Absolutely. I like saying to people when they see somebody doing something that just doesn't make sense or doesn't feel right, to ask the question, "Why would somebody who is reasonable and honorable act this way?" And, look for a reason that sits behind the obvious. What might be going on that you're not aware of? Because reasonable and honorable people, and most of us are, we are mostly reasonable and honorable people.

Nan: I like that very much. That's a great one.

Shelley: Good. Okay. So what's your next key to savvy workplace politics?

Nan: The fourth key that I would mention is a real common mistake that happens in workplaces is confusion over trust. The mistake that many of us make is that we believe that trust is something that needs to be earned, where actually savvy politics and people who know how to really build relationships recognize that trust is actually ignited when you give it. But we tend to misunderstand the word trust in the workplace, and we think a couple things. often times, people think it's a light switch. It's either on or off. I trust you or I don't trust you. Versus recognizing that it's a dimmer switch that has accountability on the other side.

But that it is a relationship building piece, and it's kind of like any other relationship building behavior. So if we were to talk about you don't get love by being lovable, you get love by loving. You certainly don't get respect unless you give respect. Trust is the same way, and yet most of the time, people are very resistant to being the first to start the process. Those who are politically savvy recognize that you've got to give a little bit of trust light in order to create that kind of environment.

Shelley: And, it's about having that ultimate belief in others, isn't it? It kind of ties to the previous one.

Nan: Absolutely.

Shelley: Cool. And what's your next tip?

Nan: The last tip that I would sort of mention in terms of some of the things that really have some strong impact on politics has to do with the mistake people make which I label as weasel words and company speak. This is one of those, you said it earlier, and I just want to reinforce this whole concept about your words matter. The kinds of words that you choose to use will indicate whether you build trust and good politics or not.

So, for example, the weasel words that often times come up for people have to do with sort of deliberate spin, and they hurt relationships. We tend to say "the powers that be" or "somebody told me." We don't necessarily address things in a straightforward way, and therefore, we cause with our words, when we're trying to walk that fine line in management and leadership, we cause confusion for people.

And, because of that, they think there's some kind of political motive, there's manipulation. And unfortunately, sometimes when we use those words, there are.

So I would encourage people to really be clear about the words that they choose and recognize that other people take our words seriously, and we need to really do that in a way that we might not be thinking about all the time.

Shelley: That's great. I often say to people, if you say something to a person that is disparaging or negative in some way to other people, and then they would have to be wondering to themselves, "I wonder what he or she says about me when I'm not around. I wonder what kind of languaging he or she uses when I'm not here." It really does set up for that basis of mistrust that we were just talking about, doesn't it? That poor languaging or poor choice of words or phrases or talking about others that aren't around.

Nan: Yes, and too often, too, we're really careful to use words that don't commit us. So, "We're going to try to get that done," or "We're going to look at it," or "Oh, don't worry about that." Instead of really addressing something upfront and saying, "You know what, I really can't talk about that right now," or "I'm not at liberty to say." That's a much better way to deal with the conversation than to kind of weasel out of it.

Shelley: Yes. Nice, really nice. Great. Okay. So we've covered the five keys to savvy workplace politics. What about the five common mistakes? Let's go through each of those.

Nan: Well, they were kind of lumped in there in terms of the tips and the common mistakes. So, like the last one, weasel words is one of those common mistakes, and the tip is to really make sure that your words matter.

Shelley: Right. That's great. I know you talk about these and other winning philosophies in your latest book, "Hitting Your Stride." What else might people find there that could help them use savvy office politics to build trusting work relationships and get results?

Nan: There are a couple things I want to kind of frame in terms of where they might be able to get resources out of that book or in general in terms of some of these things which I call winning philosophies. The challenge that people have often times with dark side politics is they're out to play a win game, and winning is very different. It's not about you winning and me losing. It's about all of us showing up and using our gifts, and truly when we all are winning, we all win. It's more than semantics. It's an orientation to the way that we approach the world.

So, the book is really very much about those kinds of philosophies that allow us to grow the pie bigger for everybody and to really create those kinds of things. Within that context, there are some specific things that really deal with these issues, not only about politics, but about good workplaces that build relationships. One of them has to do with . . . there's an entire chapter about the practice of trust, meaning that the ownership of trust really becomes a personal decision and a personal practice.

We talked a little bit about people often think it's all about them, but there's a lot in the book, there's an entire chapter in the book about it's not about you, and here are all the things behind the scenes that you may not realize go on in the boardroom of many of the organizations. So it pulls back the screens as it were and shows people that.

A lot about visioning. How do you see the elephant? How do you get beyond your own day-to-day workspace and really create purpose and vision for your own life and for your team. A large part of the book deals with this whole concept of bringing yourself to work in the sense of showing up as a real authentic person, and what does that look like at work? We throw those words around, but what does that really look like on a day-to-day basis?

Shelley: It's kind of like be the change you want to be almost, isn't it?

Nan: Yes, it is about that, but often times . . . and I don't know how it is in Australia, but in the States at times, there are a lot of things that are not conducive to people being able to show up and use their gifts, because of the way in which that workplace is. This book and parts of it deal with how do you really do that and be true to yourself and still be successful in terms of the goals and aspirations that you have. So it's a fine line sometimes.

Shelley: Great. In fact, it's interesting, because the subtitle of your book, "Your Work, Your Way," the leaders on the call here who are part of the Make A Dent Club, they know that that's one of my themes, and teaching people how to live their full potential is something that I'm really strong about.

It gladdens me to hear what you've just said, and I'm wondering if you want to share a little bit more about your perspective on that.

Nan: Yes. It was interesting when you were talking about you have a similar background as I do, and we seem to have similar philosophies, too. My approach to that sounds very in alignment with yours. But for me, "Your Work" is about the broadest sense, becoming who you're capable of becoming, and it's a lifetime journey. "Your Way" is really being able to show up and bring your uniqueness, your gift to the world, because we all know the world needs them right now.

The only way that we can all shine and do the kinds of things that we want to do is if we're willing to do that and really honor each other's gifts and bring our own and have the courage to do that. That's really what I mean by that.

Shelley: Great, great. Like me, you deliberately left a successful career with all the corporate perks and things like that to live in Montana. So, why did you do it, and maybe more importantly, how did you manage to make it happen? Have you got any insights that you want to share with others?

Nan: Yes, two things I would say on the why, and then a little bit on the how. The why is partly because of having a lifelong dream to want to live and work from the mountains of Montana, and it was something that my husband and I committed to each other actually in graduate school, about 25 years before we actually made it happen. But we were committed to keeping that dream alive and really working towards it.

That's a lot of the how, because one of the things that I realized in terms of that, you do or I did, I got seduced by many of the things in Corporate America. I loved my job. I loved the perks. I loved the power. I loved a lot of the responsibilities. But I had always this calling that I wanted to write, and I wanted to give back, and I wanted to do other things. We really set out on a journey, which I call chunking, which is really divide up into very, very minute kinds of steps, and our dream was chunked over a 25-year period. We moved directionally that way. We brought our jobs with us. We created our own work. I live in a very remote part of Montana. The world is a big place when you have the Internet. You can do a lot of things.

Shelley: Absolutely.

Nan: It was one of those things where it was beyond the intention and telling people. We literally had strategies. Not like a 25-year game plan, but moving it forward, looking at reevaluating the dream as we went along so that we could make it real. Now, I look back and I say, "Why didn't I do that a whole lot sooner?"

Shelley: But timing's always divine, isn't it?

Nan: Yes, it is. I know.

Shelley: You know what, for me, the thing I like about what you've just said though is you had the vision, and you held true to the vision. Certainly, the shape and the form and the timing and all of that might have changed over the years, but you held the picture. Anything we want in life starts first with a dream and a commitment to that dream, and that I think is probably the most important part of the little story you've just told there.

Nan: And, you know what's powerful I think about what you just said, too, is that dream started to crystallize, to be very tangible in a way that we could both see it so real and shape it and evolve it. I think sometimes our dreams become something that is more of a wish list on a shelf, and it's only when we take it off and we kind of polish it and hold it and work in a way that lets us see what it looks like to be living that dream. If we could see what it looks like to live the dream, then we can make it happen.

Shelley: Very nice. Nan, time has whizzed by, and we're just about out of time. So, how can people find you and get a copy of your book?

Nan: Well, they can certainly find me and my work and my columns and any of that on the Web at My book itself, I would guess for your audience, the best place would be or any online bookstore would have it.

Shelley: Sure. I'll put links to your site and the book on the page here where people will download the audio from anyway. It'll all be there. So, before we go, there's a question I like to ask of everyone I interview, which is if you could leave your loved ones with only one piece of wisdom, what would that be?

Nan: I guess one of those things that always I have said to my son and his wife, and I now say to my two-year-old granddaughter, although she doesn't understand, is this whole sense of work is not work if you just do what you love to do, if you show up and let your gifts shine. I'm all about passion. I'm all about following what it is that's in your heart, and the rest comes. So I encourage people to really follow the kinds of gifts that they have, and life works out. It's amazing.

Shelley: Great. I love that. Thank you so much for your time, Nan. I really appreciated it.

Well, we've just enhanced your high performance leadership treasure chest, circumnavigating office politics and being all you're meant to is certainly one of the tools you need to be at your best.Thanks again, Nan.

Nan: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

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