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Home > Blogs > Leslie Kossoff > On corporate politics - and what can be done about it

On corporate politics - and what can be done about it

Corporate politics | On corporate politics - and what can be done about it Leslie Kossoff

Everyone complains about corporate politics but, interestingly, it’s rare that anyone admits they participate in them. It’s more of a victim thing.

For the most part, that’s correct. There are far more victims than perpetrators of corporate politics. The problem is, the “perps” are too often in the power positions – which leads to a general disempowerment and disengagement of the majority of people.

That means, financially, corporate politics translates to revenue and profit losses, missed innovation opportunities and, quite frequently, the exodus of the best and the brightest to organizations that don’t put those blocks in their way. Like the competition.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at where corporate politics comes from and then what you, individually – no matter what your hierarchical level – can do about it.

Survival of the Fittest

Corporate politics is perpetrated by people who on some primeval, lizard-brain, survival-thinking basis are convinced that that's the only way they can succeed. So the perps use politics to undermine others who not only have good ideas but act on them to create and further a greater good.

They’re afraid. Of you. Of change. Of anything that could negatively impact their comfortable world. The world they created and protect – and which runs by their rules.

If you think of them through that very Darwinian lens, they not only make more sense to you. They empower you to action.

Cowards and Bullies

Because once you understand that the perps’ personal motivation is fear, it becomes easier to deal with what's going on and why. It also becomes easier to determine what your strategy and tactics will be.

The perps are, quite simply, cowards and bullies. Their unstated, deeply personal fear is that they will not succeed on their own merit and, as a result, need to tamp down or set aside anyone who can. That makes them cowards. As a result, rather than trying to succeed based on what they know and can do, they'd rather play politics to make themselves look good by making others look either bad or invisible.

It's a sad thing, actually. For themselves and for the organization. If you think about the smarts (because they are smart), the time and energy they are expending on playing a game that could otherwise be directed toward making the organization a success, you see the waste on all its levels. But, they're going to play their game their way.

The way they play is to bully. Because bullies, at the core, are cowards. And the perps are those cowards. So they bully anyone and everyone they know or think might be in the way of their misbegotten success. And the way they do that is by creating fear - mostly of them and what they can or might do to you or others. Which speaks to the culture of the organization.

A Culture of Politics

So now we need to take on the question of the organization's culture, its most senior leadership and how consciously those two intersect. Or don't.

Are the members of your senior executive team known as cowards and bullies? Any of them? All? Are they, directly or indirectly, supporting the games that their subordinate bullies are playing? Is that how they succeeded? Do they, too, have the reputation of being perps? (We’re assuming here, of course, that you’re not a perp.)

You'll know the answer by seeing how and the extent to which the mid- and lower level perps are being rewarded - in word, deed, promotion or money - for their unacceptable behavior.

If there is a trend of rewarding those who play - but don't actually contribute - then you've got an organization that is designed to support that culture. In that case, you've got a bunch of executives or managers or even Board members who have created and are maintaining a toxic least for anyone who doesn't play that way.

Sometimes (and this is far more frequent than any senior executive, founder or Board member ever wants to admit), things are going on from one to one hundred levels below them that they don't have a clue about. Then you've got a different problem altogether.

In that case, these well-intentioned, ill-informed types need to be shown something different.
And that's your opening.

But What Should You Do?

There are five easy steps to determining what’s going on in the corporate political landscape of your organization and what you need to do to stop the problem. They are:

1. Assess the Culture

Take a step back and look at how the organization operates. Does it include a toxic structure and system that is perpetuated by a legacy of perps? If so, and you want it to stop, move to Step 2.

2. Give Your Guys a Chance

If you're not sure whether it's a culture of perps or you think that it's really not, then it's on you to show everyone that there's another way. And that's by doing what you want to do – and do so well.

Innovating. Creating solutions. Moving things forward. Generating ideas and executing on them. Growing the company, its reputation, profits and well as the image of your senior executives.

3. Big Yourself Up

Then, while you're conveying your successes, sing your own praises. Big time. You know the expression, "Nothing succeeds like success." Well, it's true. And it's especially true in organizations that are looking for answers to existing and emerging problems.

Quantify your successes. Put dollar or yen or euro or yuan numbers to the results. State, specifically, the annualized savings or productivity increases or any form of positive market, profit and revenue impact what you're doing is having on the organization.

Remember...the reason the perps succeed is because they make it seem to their bosses as if they're making their bosses look good. The difference between you and them is that you really are making your bosses look good – no matter whether your boss is a first level supervisor or the CEO.

Let them know it. In clear terms that they can understand - and use to their own benefit, too.

4. Be ready for the perps' reactions.

The good news is, the perps have a pretty predictable reaction to this sort of thing - which makes it easy for you to prepare even before you start.

First, they'll try to figure out if there's a way to discredit you. When they realize that that's not going to work...

Next, they'll try to figure out if there's a way to take credit for what you did. The better you are at having identified what your senior management values (i.e., on what they're rewarded) and having presented it to them in a form they can use (before, during and after execution), the less the perps will be able to succeed in taking your credit away from you. Which will lead them to...

Taking credit for you. They will be all over how wonderful you are, what a great job you're doing, how important your contribution is to the organization....because the last thing they want is to be seen to be left out.

Then they're hoping that this was a one-off. That you just got lucky. That you won't be able to do it again - or worse, get others involved. That will lead them to both keep a close eye on you and figure out how to work the three way system described above at the drop of a hat.

You may have won, but they're still perps...and you still scare them. Big time. Now more than ever. So, your next big win is to...

5. Spread the Word

Throughout your organization, there are loads of people like you at every level who have wonderful ideas and have become both disenchanted and disenfranchised because of the perps.

You are now in the perfect position to change that - for them and for the organization. Make sure that your colleagues know what you did by spreading the word about what you did and how you did it. Tell them that they can win by doing the same...and that you'll help. Get them involved in your next thoughts, actions and initiatives. Get involved in theirs. Build teams and team players. Create opportunities for collaborative, open discussions. Give them credit for their achievements - even as you're getting credit for having created the opportunity. (This is the dual-level Big Up.) Invite your (and their) management to join in the fun.

Frankly, the better a job you did in your first go-round of getting the rewards for your managers and executives right, the more likely that you'll be promoted or moved all the faster into a position better suited to what you actually bring to the organization.

Who Owns the Playing Field?

There are those who are going to argue that I've got it completely wrong - and that's fine. We want as many different perspectives as we can get.

The main reason that others will think I've got it wrong is because of the question of who thinks they own the playing field. Notice, I didn't say who owns it. I said, who thinks they own it. And that's a very big difference.

You need to know the game, which you'll learn by watching the successful players. Look back at your own experience and look at others'. Figure out how the perps succeeded in achieving their goals through nefarious actions and means. Be analytical. Learn their rules. Learn their style. Learn their follow-through.

Then, when you're ready, you act. You get to choose your choice of timing as well as actions.

Because, if you've done your analysis correctly (and remember, that includes nailing the win for the guys that the perps are sucking up to), you'll be able to play the edges of the field where the perps aren't covered. You'll work your agenda - ostensibly, from their perspective, within their rules - and then break out and have the field to yourself. And your team. And the executives, founders and Board members who will love you.

That's the game you want to be playing.

Shhh. Keep This Part Secret.

In the earliest stages of your coup (because that's what it is), you need to keep quiet. If you're a complainer, stop complaining. If you're an idea-generator, keep being participative but play your cards closer to your chest than ever before.

It's never a good idea to broadcast what you're going to do when you're looking at creating change. And, whether you would normally define it that way or not, what you're doing is, in fact, initiating a major culture shift in your organization.

Welcome to being a change agent, where the best of the best do it from within the beast rather than trying to superimpose something that never quite fits onto it.

The Bigger Picture

Two things are going to happen when what you're doing works.

First, you'll see the executives and managers much more actively working to figure out how to expand on what they've (for which, read 'you've') achieved. These are very smart people - and, like I said before, unless they're perps themselves, they are looking for the answers that have previously been unknown and unknowable to them that you're now providing. With profits.

The second thing (and it usually doesn't take long) is that the worst of the perps will start making their way out of the organization. Toxic types only stay in organizations that support that environment. Just like healthy types only want to work in positive, creative, supportive environments.

Think of it like a petri dish. You'll have identified the bad germs in a way that no one can miss - with or without a microscope. To mix my metaphors, those bad germs will quickly jump ship and find another petri dish that suits them better.

You'll also be surprised at the number of former perps who turn into really good people with whom to work. Remember, there are a lot of your co-workers at all levels who have been living under the same toxic specter of fear that you've been experiencing. They'll be happy to get out, too.

A Final Word

There are no guarantees in any organization - other than those that come with you being true to yourself and playing the game the way you want to play it. And that's even true for the perps. Once you've done your analysis, you'll know what to do. And when you do it, you'll succeed.

The best part is, as you succeed, you’ll not only be doing well for yourself, you’ll be doing good for others.

There’s nothing better.

Copyright © 2011 by Leslie L. Kossoff
A version of this article was first published on “Obtuse Angles,” Leslie L. Kossoff’s developmental resource for entrepreneurs and executives. For more, go to She can be reached at

Tags: corporate culture , corporate governance , corporate social responsibility
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