• By Germana Barba

The Truth About Politics

Political thinking is critical to increasing influence no matter the context

As any political scientist will know, politics is tough to defend. Virtually everyone has an opinion on it, and it’s usually negative. An example of this is when things go wrong in the workplace, “politics” gets blamed. The term summarizes gossip, injustices, and inefficiencies altogether. Perhaps more interestingly, it epitomizes a widespread discomfort towards unwritten rules and power dynamics — two of the key factors that determine people’s careers, and more generally, the success of any initiative.

In my corporate career, I’ve heard “There’s just too much politics going on” from people complaining that too much time gets spent at playing power games at the expense of doing “real work”, too much talking instead of rolling up one’s sleeves, too many committees and related meetings, too many informal talks versus too little use of formal processes, and too many people receiving promotions and opportunities that they don’t supposedly deserve.

If “politics” was only about these things, then one would not need to burden Aristotle, or Plato. Or much less the history of thought that spans across approximately two thousand and five hundred years, featuring non-insignificant personalities such as Hobbes and Machiavelli, Rousseau and Hume, Mill and Nietzsche, Arendt and Schumpeter — to mention a few.

But politics is about much, much more. It is about power and influence, and the ability to make decisions — whether it’s good or otherwise, it encompasses all aspects of our lives and it exists within organizational structures, too, because they are made of a group of people who have to work together. Where there is a social structure, politics will follow. Dutch ethologist Frans de Waal argued that even chimpanzees engage in politics through “social manipulation to secure and maintain influential positions”!

That is not to defend at all gossiping, carelessness, back-stabbing, or time-wasting. On the contrary.

Politics is not entirely rational, yes, but neither is decision-making

In one of its classical definitions, politics is the act of allocating resources when they are finite. It is not a perverse invention of a minority seeking to advance their own interests. Resources are scarce by definition. In civil politics, this is more obvious. If money is needed for schools, taxes are raised, or money that was originally destined for something else is re-allocated. But even in corporations, resources are not endless. For instance, there is only one head of an organization plus a handful of head of function roles.

Thus, climbing to the top is, essentially, about securing something of which there is a very scarce offering yet an equally high demand. “Who gets the job” represents the first political layer: should the future head of human resources be a woman or a man? Be the expression of a certain group? Or have a particular vision? Or possess a certain area of expertise?

The second layer is represented by the decision process leading to that appointment. The decision-makers emotional elements and subjective opinions will play as big a role as matters like competence and experience. One day maybe an algorithm will establish who is the best candidate for a job. But if you are the person supervising that job, and if the job entails the exercise of a certain amount of power, chances are you will want someone with not just the right skills and experience, but also who you can trust. People call this “politics” too, but which would yield better results, the algorithm or other impersonal processes?

Eating meat, and the Sistine Chapel

Politics also exists in family gatherings, couple dynamics, and social life. Next time you politely decline to eat meat at a friends’ dinner and start arguing about why eating meat is bad for the environment, remember that you are expressing a political view — I will incidentally observe here that professionals with technical backgrounds will still exercise politics if their positions entail influence. Even seemingly politics-free ways of thinking, such as empathy- and kindness-based philosophies, express their own vision for the distributions of power and resources.

It is a well-known secret that some of the world’s greatest art masterpieces have originated and were funded by politics. Michelangelo was asked to re-paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling in Rome by Pope Julius II (a commission that in and of itself served to express the primacy of the new Pope) after the instigation of two artistic rivals of his, the painter Raphael and the architect Bramante who were secretly hoping that Michelangelo (only a sculptor at the time) would fall flat and lose the Pope’s favor.

Another definition of politics is that it consists of the allocation of values. Even the proponents of rational-choice theories make a subjective choice of rationality over irrationality as their preferred value. Thus, the opposite is, in principle, equally legitimate. One of the most vivid memories I have from University is a researcher that, every time I would protest against an illogical argument made by someone, would scream, “Because it’s political!!”.

Influence as a platform to promote positive change

Suppose politics play a role in any human interaction where power is involved. In that case, women’s relatively lower power entails that they are less involved in political situations and also, generally speaking, less accustomed to handle them. But it also means that thinking more politically can benefit us significantly. Understand relationships and underlying interests is a natural female talent. When that talent is taken one step further and becomes a tool to create alliances in support of common positive agendas, change can happen. In my professional life, I have used every opportunity to achieve male/female balanced teams and larger female representations in several decision-making situations.

Political thinking is essential to grow into a position of influence in the workplace. Being conscious of our behaviors, activating networks, smartly navigating the sea of conflict, and maintaining cooperation while retaining the highest work and ethical standards can make the difference in achieving influential positions contributing to a fairer share of voice for women. COVID-led smart working has diminished the opportunities for seeing and be seen, so it is even more important that women gain a recognized, official seat at the table.

As American journalist Hunter S. Thompson once said, “Politics is the art of controlling your environment.” Dismissing the role of power, relationships, and emotions in professional situations is a naïve mistake, no matter the context. When combined with knowledge and experience, networking and interpersonal influence can help to create partnerships and steer decisions for the benefit of the entire organization.

Ultimately, it is politics which makes our world go ‘round — and it has done so for as long as we have existed.

So, the next time someone complains about politics, ask this person if he or she would rather Michelangelo had not painted the Sistine Chapel.