Posted November 27, 2012 by Justin Camputaro 

Succeeding in a Politically Charged Higher Education Environment

When I first began my career in higher education more than a decade ago, I swore I’d never get wrapped up in the “political games” played in the business environment. I was convinced that office politics were bad and only resulted in bickering and in-fighting. Fast forward—I was wrong.

Understanding organizational politics is an essential skill that, when implemented appropriately, is a series of very positive strategies for accomplishing your individual and organizational goals. I see this as coming down to two essential components: Relationships and Leverage.

To begin with, as the ACUI skill set of Political Adeptness within the core competency of Leadership states, we must have a foundational knowledge of group dynamics. This includes understanding theories and applications such as Tuckman’s Stages of Group Dynamics (Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing) and Peck’s Stages of Community Building (Pseudocommunity, Chaos, Emptiness and True Community).

To get back to our two main components of relationships and leverage, let’s look at some organizational facts of life:

  1. Organizations are not democracies;
  2. Some people have more power than others;
  3. Virtually all decisions are subjective;
  4. Your boss has control over much of your professional life;
  5. Fairness is an impossible goal (and it’s irrelevant);
  6. The person with the most power usually wins.

Decisions are inherently subjective because they are made by people who base conclusions on their own values, beliefs, goals, and preferences. To be successful at office politics, you must learn how to leverage your own power and that of others. And remember, the boss does not necessarily always have the most influence.

In any organization, it is important to have a “knowledge of institutional and organizational constituencies and relationships among individuals and groups,” as stated by ACUI. Relationships can be divided into allies and adversaries.

Allies take time to cultivate, so spend time with these people and get to know them. They include:

  • Friends – Colleagues with common interests and similar temperaments
  • Partners – Colleagues who depend on each other to produce results
  • Connections – People you can temporarily hook-up with with you need assistance or information

Adversaries, on the other hand, are people who stand between you and the accomplishments of your goals. When you come across these individuals (or groups), you need to decide the best course of action, which could be to try and confront them and play damage control to protect your reputation or to work toward converting them into an ally or a non-factor. Much of this will depend on the reason behind their behavior and whether or not it is malicious, emotional, vengeful, or just a series of misunderstandings or disagreements.

The more adept that you can become at identifying these potential allies and adversaries, the more successful you will be at leveraging your relationships to accomplish your goals and objectives within the organization and office environment.

ACUI also states that we must have the “ability to assess an environment’s political climate and adapt behavior as appropriate.” To do so, build positive relationships in all directions. This means with your boss, higher level executives, your coworkers and your reports.

To close, I offer some tips for effective leadership in a politically charged business environment:

  1. Realize that you’re a manager, not a monarch (for those of you who have management responsibilities);
  2. Worry about being respected, not liked—you must be able to make the tough calls;
  3. Learn to successfully manage the performance of other people (motivate, inspire, set clear goals, give helpful feedback, implement changes, and address performance issues);
  4. Appreciate the power of inclusion—learn when to involve employees in decisions and help them to understand the big picture;
  5. Help them “be all they can be” by recognizing superior performers and help them reach their goals.


Justin Camputaro

Justin Camputaro is the Director of the HUB at University of Washington.

Comments

Great post Justin! In my opinion this skill set is overlooked in our profession because of the negative overtones regarding "office politics". We are nice people but will continue to be overlooked and pushed aside if we cannot effectively evaluate and manage the political environment on our campuses. It doesn't have to be negative but students lose out when we can't perform this skill set successfully.
Joseph Hayes
hayesjom@iupui.edu
Comment posted 11/28/2012 8:56 AM
I agree 100% with this assessment. Being politically adept is a skill that must be honed to be successful in higher education or any organization for that matter. Trying to teach other very smart talented individuals is always a challenge but a crucial step in their development. I joke around at times by saying, "You need to learn the dark side of the force".
Comment posted 11/28/2012 4:28 PM
Thank you for this post Justin. I agree that forming allies and knowing where you stand on the org. chart is important. Building a coalition of allies (some with more positional authority)around a proposed idea that I believe in has been very instrumental in it becoming a reality.
Comment posted 12/01/2012 3:20 PM
Thank you for this post Justin. I agree that forming allies and knowing where you stand on the org. chart is important. Building a coalition of allies (some with more positional authority)around a proposed idea that I believe in has been very instrumental in it becoming a reality.
Comment posted 12/01/2012 3:21 PM
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