Politics and Position on the Ladder

Originally published 9/4/10

Here is a second concept surrounding politics -- The higher up the corporate ladder you climb, the more important understanding and playing politics is to your success and survival.

Why, you might ask, would that be true? I think there are three primary reasons --

  1. Defining whether an employee is performing gets harder the further up the ladder you go. For an individual contributor, you look at what was their personal output, and how did it stack up against expectations. For a senior manager though, factors like: changes in the market, performance of subordinates, validity of assumptions, and trade-offs between choices, all tend to muddy the waters (I could probably make a much longer list). When you can't easily gage the persons output, there is a tendency to rely on watching what they do -- except you can't take the time to watch it all, so perceptions that are established by what others say. Of course, the little one actually sees become extremely important. That is the stuff of politics. Politics is all about developing and protecting perceptions of how you are doing, and potentially manipulating perceptions about others.
  2. There are more politicians at higher levels in the company, and they tend to have more skill. I'm not sure why that is -- a Darwinian survival characteristic, perhaps? Since a part of politics surrounds manipulation of perceptions about others, you need political skills at higher levels, if for no other reason to protect yourself. An individual contributor who has few enemies can probably get by at most companies by ignoring politics. Senior managers won't survive being a-political, no matter how nice they are. There are just too many sharks in the water up there.
  3. At higher levels you are a bigger target for the political machinations of others. This tends to happen for a couple of reasons -- senior managers are a more useful target of manipulation because they hold formal organizational power, and they have less time available to intimately know others in the organization thus making them more vulnerable to manipulation. For some senior managers, they end up surrounded by yes-men (or yes-women) who give the manager the sense that their perceptions are always correct, while at the same time subtly manipulating those perceptions. This seems to happen to the chief executive fairly frequently.

So kind readers -- what do you think? Do politics get thicker and more ruthless as you climb the corporate ladder? Or do the stakes just get higher? Or, do you totally disagree and think political games are played uniformly across the company?