Many people hate the idea of playing office/organizational politics. But staying out of such activities may hold back your career because every organization contains workplace politics, whether you use that term or call it networking. You can see what happens when someone doesn’t play the game sufficiently – they lose influence and credibility. Probably you know people who have made that mistake. As a communicator, especially if you are the comms head, you are responsible for building productive relationships for your role, your team and your function throughout the office/organization so you can positively influence people beyond your formal area of authority and beyond head office.This is even more important in today’s world, when many people are working remotely or in hybrid mode. Your personal benefit from developing strong internal stakeholder relationships is that you will benefit your own career prospects as well.
Literally every organization with more than one employee contains internal politics, which are unique to that organization. You need to be aware of the landscape, players and rules in which the political game is played. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that your organization has no politics. “People in organizations demonstrate power in every conversation, every decision, and every interaction,” says John Eldred, an expert consultant and affiliated faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania. And Jarie Bolander in The Daily MBA says “Politics is the lubricant that oils your organization’s internal gears. Apply the proper lubricant and things will work fine. Forget to lubricate it and your organization will grind to a halt…”
Positive organizational politics
Workplace politics, also known as office politics and organizational politics, is the process and behavior that involves the use of power and social networking within an organization to achieve changes that benefit the organization or individuals within it. Politics is how power gets worked out on a practical, day-to-day basis. The more change there is, the more the political component increases in the work environment.
“Organizational politics are self-serving behaviors” that “employees use to increase the probability of obtaining positive outcomes in organizations,” according to a Wikipedia entry on workplace politics. Examples of positive politics include portraying a professional image, publicizing your accomplishments in subtle and obvious ways, volunteering, and complimenting others. Organizational politics can increase efficiency, form interpersonal relationships, expedite change, and profit the organization and individuals simultaneously.
Negative organizational politics
However, organizational politics can also be highly destructive, as people may focus on their personal gains at the expense of the organization. “Self-serving political actions can negatively influence our social groupings, cooperation, information sharing, and many other organizational functions,” notes the Wikipedia entry. Negative politics are designed to achieve personal gain at the expense of others and the organization. Examples of negative politics are spreading rumors, talking behind someone’s back, withholding important information from someone, saying some negative gossip or cryptic comment about someone else in an internal exchange of emails – or in corporate social media or external social media – that could be interpreted as possibly negative about a person or their activity.
Think of office or organizational politics as networking
The simple diagram below shows a typical company’s main internal and external stakeholders. The diagram doesn’t prioritize the various groups.
However, you don’t need to get into the destructive version of organizational politics. Think of it more as networking. Keep your focus on the ultimate benefit of the organization. Work with others for mutual advantage, not just your own. Always conduct yourself according to your personal values and ethics, regardless of others.
Identify your key personal stakeholders
Your aim is to develop strong internal stakeholder relationships, but first you need to define a stakeholder. A stakeholder is any person, group or organization who can place a claim on your attention, resources or output, or is affected by that output. They have a stake in what you do, something at risk, and therefore something to gain or lose as a result of your activity. Early in a job, as you get to know a range of people who are significant to you, identify who your key personal stakeholders are. How do you find out who they are? Ask! Speak to a handful of people you can trust, like your boss (if you can trust him or her sufficiently), peers, people you relate to at work, perhaps a reliable HR person.
Also, you can map your contacts over a week or longer, in which you note the people you interact with the most, especially the senior people. Also aim to develop positive relationships with the managers and supervisors of relevant departments in your organization such as marketing, HR, finance and operational heads so you understand them and their priorities and can respond to these.
Dealing with senior management
Your most important internal stakeholders are your boss and and other senior management. Some key points suggested by Lynda Bourne in her book, Advising Upwards, about dealing with them:
- Understand their expectations and provide information in the context of those expectations, which may possibly vary according to the changing business environment, such as the changes caused by the Covid pandemic. Keeping them informed is even more important when they and/or other employees are working remotely or in hybrid mode.
- Make your executives and other managers look good. Ensure you brief them so they are always prepared to deal with bad news and with agenda items relevant to your function in meetings. Shield them from potential embarrassment. This is in your interests as well. It will build up your credibility if your boss sees you as an ally and not a problem. Understand that they also have to advise upwards, and may be having the same difficulties as you have in being heard or getting the support they need.
- Always speak knowledgeably in business language. This will reduce any confusion about the meaning of some of your terminology (minimal use of PR and marketing jargon). It also creates the positive perception that you understand what the organization and its purpose are, and you are on the same page as your boss and other senior managers.
Decide your aims with stakeholders and start an informal program with each of them
Consider what your goals are in interacting with these people. Initially, you can interview them in a structured way to find out their operational activities are, as well as their priorities. Also, determine their attitudes towards the role and value of communication. This will give you valuable insights into them and their functions, and will help you work out how communication can help them achieve their goals.
Then discreetly draft an informal stakeholder relations program relating to them. But don’t discuss it in those terms. Just talk about possible communication or support activities that they may be interested in. Arrange contact with these people on a systematic basis. Valuable relationships are often built through informal activities such as catching up over a coffee.
Ask for their opinions on relevant matters – people enjoy helping others and feel important when you approach them with sensible questions. Find out what their own personal priorities are in the workplace. If you follow up in this way, you will develop strong, positive internal stakeholder relationships.
And be careful about passing opinions concerning individuals above and below you in the organizational hierarchy, even if the other person’s view coincides with yours. Such opinions may possibly be held against you as future events unfold in the changing workplace environment.
Information is a valuable asset when dealing with personal stakeholders
Stakeholders have different needs and expectations. As a communicator, you have a valuable commodity – information. So decide what information you have that would be of interest to individual stakeholders. Being proactive in providing them with timely information is always worthwhile. Perhaps early, but carefully discreet details on corporate decisions or top management attitudes. This is a great way to develop strong internal stakeholder relationships. It’s equally important to listen to and note their feedback. Other thoughts include special offers – without going overboard about it. Providing information to others invites the powerful principle of reciprocation to come into play: the recipients of your information will feel obligated to return a favor to you at some point, which should help to consolidate your relationship with them.
Actions you can initiate with stakeholders
- Arrange media and presentation skills training for them
- Give them special briefings on relevant communication topics such as their stakeholder relations management or issue management
- When you develop significantly useful external stakeholder relationships, you can, with discretion, update your internal stakeholders with relevant information from those external contacts
- Make sure to include them in general management briefings about stakeholder relations management or issue management
- Set them up with networking opportunities such as including them in events for which they might otherwise have been considered a marginal attendee
- Look after their interests at corporate hospitality activities
- Create publicity for them internally or externally
- Check any opportunities for them to feature in social media
- Ghostwrite articles for them in industry publications
More generally, you could look to initiate networking and political opportunities for yourself. All this may seem a little manipulative and cynical, but almost every organization contains its own unique hierarchy of issues and politics. Managers at any level invariably are motivated to “protect their own turf.” I’ve seen it in action myself. If you are not aware of these matters, and don’t purposefully seek to strengthen your own stakeholder relationships, you may well find yourself on the outer.
As good communication is an intangible asset, and as many managers are quite unaware of their own communication limitations (or won’t admit to them, anyhow), it is important for professional communicators to act sensibly to systematically make stakeholders aware of the importance of good communication and the communication role – without overdoing it, of course!
Another issue is that it is generally difficult to measure the operational and financial results of communication activities. Therefore, the value of the function is vulnerable to the subjective opinions of senior managers. This is another reason to demonstrate to them as individual stakeholders the measurable benefits that result. At least one of the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic is that organizational managers have become much more aware of communication’s importance during these stressful and uncertain times. This view is backed up by a survey of 1,400 respondents by the UK Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 2021. The survey found that 85% of respondents felt COVID-19 had a positive impact on the profession,” and they believe “it has increased the value and reputation of public relations.”
Tips for effective stakeholder relations management
Kathleen Mackay, Australian CIO (Chief Information Officer) of the Year in 2021, suggests the three tips below in a Linkedin article. Although she is referring to project stakeholders, her tips are very helpful for enabling you to personally develop strong internal stakeholder relationships:
- Engage your emotional intelligence. As well as hearing what your stakeholders say, read their body language, listen to the tone of voice they use, watch the facial expressions, and think about what they are NOT saying. Actively mine for conflict or disagreement, and when you find it… address it!
- Know your stakeholders. Know who your stakeholders are, understand their business, understand what is important to them and why, and how they are affected by your project [your communication role]. Ask relevant questions and write down the answers. Reflect on this information ahead of important meetings with them.
- Be professional, respectful, polite and competent. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? For example, include an agenda when you set up a meeting with them and explain what you would like to achieve, send out pre-reading and follow up on meetings with minutes and actions. If you have difficult news to communicate, pick up the phone or go and see the person rather than sending an email.
[A note of caution: Mackay’s article is titled, “Effective management of internal stakeholders.” It is quite misleading to talk about managing stakeholders. We can’t manage them if we are not their boss. We can only manage the relationship with them. This is a very important distinction. If your boss thought you were trying to manage him or her, they would be quite annoyed, I would think. So in any conversation or document, always be careful to talk about managing the relationship, not the stakeholder.]
How to create stakeholder trust in you
My article, “How to create and restore people’s trust in you at work,” will be useful for you to read as part of developing constructive internal stakeholder relationships.