“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.”
– Marie Curie
What Is The Myth?
If you have good intentions and don’t like office politics, it shouldn’t be necessary to spend time understanding why, and how, people use power in organisations.
Where Did This Myth Come From?
Office politics is almost invariably regarded as negative. Power is often experienced as a force used by someone to get their own way or to dominate others. Those of us who feel their heart is in the right place, and don’t like taking sides or bad-mouthing others, are unlikely to see power in a positive light.
If you also believe in hard work and the ability to deliver results through working well with others, you may well feel that it shouldn’t be necessary to spend time understanding how power works in the organisation. This could well be true if you’ve been rewarded for achieving great team results employing a collaborative approach, and have concluded that the overt use of power is ‘old school’.
What Is the Truth?
It’s possible that you don’t really want to understand how power operates, because you often see power being used for selfish motives.
You may well believe that if you don’t engage in this type of behaviour you will be a better human being – that it is nobler to stay out of the realm of office politics and the overt use of power.
While understandable, there’s a lot that can’t be achieved when you turn a blind eye to the reality of power. Ignoring this reality is risking throwing the baby out with the bath water!
Power is not limited to leaders or organisations, and it’s not restricted to acts of domination. It’s a basic force in every social interaction. Power defines the way we relate to each other. It dictates whether you get listened to, and determines whether your needs take priority – or get any attention at all.
The truth is that each of us expresses power in a way that best meets our six needs as a human, as explained by Tony Robbins and summarised in the following table.
Driven By Needs
Beyond safety (certainty) and stimulation (uncertainty) we want to be looked up to and have purpose and direction (significance), as well as bonding with others to grow our sense of who we are (connection). Above and beyond this, we want to learn, grow, and contribute to others.
Like it or not we are all, in our own way, driven by these needs.
It is important to note that these needs are not always, or even often, met in a positive way. It is extremely common for people to find significance by exerting power in a very passive way, such as resistance and refusal to engage, as well as aggressively – for example through dictatorial behaviour and language.
Whether at home or at work, connection with others is ideally achieved through genuinely supportive relationships. However, the need to be accepted and fit in can also be met by constantly seeking to please, even where a high level of self-sacrifice is involved.
We are not only humans, we are mammals; and as mammals we group together for safety, support, and connection. All groups of mammals have some form of pecking order, and we’re all familiar with the concept and role of an ‘alpha’ being head of the herd. This is no different in the corporate world.
In my experience, only a small percentage of senior executives have learnt how to balance power and decisiveness with empathy and connection. Many err on the side of decisiveness and single-mindedness; not so many veer towards connection and broad engagement.
To ignore this truth is to leave yourself at the mercy of behaviours that you don’t understand and can’t deal with. Understanding does not mean you have to behave in a way that doesn’t sit well with you.
To avoid burnout, and steer yourself and your transformation program to a successful outcome, you will benefit enormously from appreciating more deeply why others act the way they do.