How Effective Leaders Navigate Internal Politics

Internal politics can be difficult and painful to navigate, especially when issues blow up seemingly from nowhere. In this situation, leaders may find themselves wondering “What went wrong? How did I miss this? What do I do now?” Of course, the best thing to do is to be aware of situations before they blow up and, if possible, defuse them so that they remain minor rather than major issues.

Effective executives talk to people in all areas and levels of their organizations on a regular basis. They make a point to travel to all of the locations under their purview and to maintain an awareness of what is happening in even remote geographic areas of the organization. They maintain an open-door policy so their team members can come and speak with them about issues or personal problems as soon as they arise. It is better to take the time upfront to deal with an issue when it is small than to have to cancel numerous meetings to deal with it once it has erupted into a crisis.

It is also important to be aware of who might support your change initiatives and who might oppose them. Best of all is to speak with these people before the initiatives are even introduced so you can respond to their concerns and possibly make changes in order to gain their support.

Leaders who struggle with internal politics may have one of several problems. First, they may lack skills in interpersonal communications. For example, these people might miss verbal or nonverbal cues from a team member that could indicate a problem or potential crisis is brewing, whereas leaders with stronger skills in this area might pick up on the cues and respond to them appropriately. In addition, ineffective leaders may not understand how to control their tempers, resulting in harsh words to team members or outbursts during meetings. In this instance, they might be unaware of how their hasty words impinge on their staff’s motivation and work satisfaction. Finally, they might make decisions precipitously without considering how the decisions could impact people. If they had gathered more information before making the decision, the outcome could have been much better.

It is critical that you do an honest evaluation of your skills in navigating internal politics. If, after you’ve done that, you find that you need to improve your skills in this area, here are some suggestions.

  • Look around and identify several people who are good in this area. You will know who they are because they nearly always succeed in their initiatives, people generally like and respect them, and they regularly manage to get complicated things done smoothly. Choose one person to emulate. Watch how that person deals with internal politics and practice analyzing what he or she did right. And then practice some of those behaviors yourself. If possible, take the person to lunch and ask him or her to mentor you in this area. Most people will be flattered by the attention and will agree to help.
  • Get to know people in the organization. Many people who need to improve in organizational savvy are those who are shy or introverted. They don’t make an effort to network or get to know people in other parts of the organization. If you put yourself forward more often and get to know people on a personal level, you may find that you have more supporters for your initiatives. At the very least, people will feel comfortable coming to you with their concerns.
  • Before you propose a new initiative, make a point to consider who might support that initiative and who might oppose it or even sabotage it. Think about why people might respond as you suspect and then watch the situation play out. If you were right, consider making an effort to get the people who opposed your initiative to support the next one. This might be as simple as asking them to support it, or it might involve a private conversation about what you could do to regain their support and a clearing of the air. You might never get support from everyone, but successful executives will figure out how to garner more support than opposition.

Politics are everywhere, and they aren’t just internal. Executives who learn how to manage all their constituencies will have a much easier time successfully leading their teams to greater productivity.

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