Most of us have tripped over workplace politics at some point in our career. Many think they can take the high road and avoid playing the political game altogether. Perhaps a better approach is to take the high road AND engage with workplace politics, since it really can’t be avoided anyway.
In this episode, executive coach and psychologist Mira Brancu shares her definition of workplace politics. She also gives her advice on how to navigate political systems while remaining authentically ourselves, and help to build a workplace culture that elevates everyone—and creates positive impact.
Listen to the podcast here:
How To Be Politically Savvy, with Mira Brancu
Most of this episode is going to be a conversation I had with Dr. Mira Brancu on office politics and her book that has been published on MILLENNIALS’ GUIDE TO WORKPLACE POLITICS. Let’s start off with lisa, what do you think of office politics? Something you like or you don’t like? Have you tripped over? Have you managed to maneuver with an incredible amount of astute skill and savvy?
Maybe if I had read Mira’s book when I was a millennial or in that age group, I’ve had many experiences with office politics, particularly dealing with the hierarchy in organizations. A small example, in one organization I worked in, the CEO had reached out directly to me: I had a relationship with her.
She asked me for some of my thinking on a project that she was toying around with. I sent her a half-page on a couple of considerations, and after I did that, I got in touch with my boss. I said, “Catherine asked me to put this together for her and I want to make sure that you know.” His response to me was that I had to have gone through him and the fact that I didn’t was insubordination.
The word insubordination just gives me chills. Do we still use this word in offices now? “You’re being insubordinate.”
It was a learning experience. Whether this was the system that I was a part of or this was an insecure leader who I worked for, I learned pretty quickly that I am to never put my hand in the cookie jar in regards to having a direct relationship with someone who’s my boss’ boss.
Maybe the CEO wanted your unfiltered thoughts, maybe there is a reason why she went that route. Because of the field we’re in, you and I have done a barrage of psychometric assessments throughout our career and we’ve utilized them with clients, but I do remember doing an assessment that indicated that I was somewhere above the 90th percentile on integrity in behavioral competency that demonstrates character and low in political astuteness. That has been a challenge for me in my career, especially those two combined.
The way it was explained to me is that I probably go about my life and work with the assumption that everybody is operating with the same level of integrity, openness and honesty that I am… but if I’m in the 90th percentile, that means 9 people out of 10 in the room is operating with less of that than I am. Beginning to understand that was hugely important for me, and definitely allowed me to think a little differently about how I was maneuvering and conducting myself in the workplace. It’s a challenge for sure and lots to learn about maneuvering in office environments from a political point of view. We can’t get away from it, right?
Not at all. First of all, it’s everywhere. It’s not just at work. It is in our communities, our neighborhoods, our kids in school and our friendships as well, but in the workplace, it can be particularly vehement and disturbing.
Let’s hear what the expert has to say.
Thanks for having me here.
It’s good to have you. I’m excited about this conversation because we’re talking about office politics. This is a topic that I know for me in my career, I feel like I’ve tripped over a little bit and supporting other people in their careers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say they like office politics. It’s something that is a challenge for sure, so getting savvy and smart about it is probably a good idea to help navigate one’s career.
It’s not all bad but it’s certainly unavoidable. We can agree with that. You’re not going to avoid it because it’s people and wherever there are people, there’s going to be politics. You said it doesn’t have to be bad. It doesn’t have to be all smarmy and gross. Let’s start with that. How would you define office politics and what’s the difference between good and bad politics?
Office politics is one of my favorite topics to talk about. That wasn’t always the case though because it used to be the case that I experienced it in the same exact way that everybody does, which is dirty, smarmy, ugly, conniving and manipulative. We associate office politics with that behavior because that’s what we often hear about and think about.
The reason that I like talking about it so much is that there is a way to flip it on its head completely and feel much more empowered around how to use it. I do have a unique definition of it which is another way to look at it so that you can use it for good or you can use it for bad and hopefully, my goal is for people to use it in honest ways with integrity.
The way that I see it is as a neutral term. Politics as a neutral term is about three things I think about. It’s the ability to have really strong emotional intelligence. It’s the interaction with other people, the communication and the relational aspect of being in a work environment. We don’t work in a vacuum. We do work with other people and in order to be able to do that in an exceptional way, means having strong emotional intelligence.
The second piece to it is that’s not enough. We can have strong emotional intelligence and still find ourselves completely lost in these office spots. The second part is being able to understand systems. We are in a system wherever we are. You can almost think about this like a fish in an ocean. The fish may not realize that they’re in an ocean, but they are in an ocean. That’s an ecosystem. There are parts of the ocean that affect everything that fish does, whether it’s where the coral reefs are or where the other fish are and everything happening around.
Those fish that survived the best know what is happening around them, how to avoid the bad parts and how to get to the good parts. It’s the same thing with people. Whether you’re around your family, your community, out in a grocery store and especially at work, there are systems around you and being able to put your head up and look around and see, “What am I part of? What am I contributing to? What is contributing to me and my success, or holding me back from creating barriers? Is it people? Is it systems? Is it the policies? Is it a group? Is it a team? Is it a leader? Is it silos?”
You can use the same ideas and systems in ways that are positive, with integrity for you and everyone else around you.
All of these parts of the system are critical to understand in order to know what to do with it. The final piece though is once you understand the systems and have good emotional intelligence, there’s also the part about driving results. You are trying to get some outcome as part of your job. You have something you’re supposed to be doing with your job. Goals, performance outcomes, and when you put all of this together, you could imagine that people could have strong emotional intelligence, understand the system and know how to drive results in a way that causes damage and destruction all along the way just so that they could win and they could get all of the glory or the power or whatever it is that they’re seeking.
That is the negative politics that we know about, that we hear about most often because we’re usually the collateral or the damaged part. However, you could also have somebody who has strong emotional intelligence, understands the system and can drive results but in a way that brings everybody with them. That elevates everybody and recognizes that there’s something that may be bigger than themselves and that there are organizational strategic priorities, for example. That they can meet and align with which will not only drive results for the organization, but you look good when you do it, and your team looks good when you do it. You can use the same kind of ideas and systems in ways that are healthy and positive with integrity for you and everyone else around you, too.
Do you think that’s a choice that individuals need to make? Hopefully to not be a sociopath or a narcissist would be helpful.
It’s a choice for many of us to not engage and it’s a choice to engage. For a lot of people, it is a choice to bring others up with you and support them and your team versus not having any interest. There are plenty of people though that I think are doing it unintentionally just for other reasons like they’ve had such bad experiences that they say, “I’m in it for myself. Forget all the other people around me,” or they might be undermining because nobody’s telling them, “You’re undermining me. When you do this, it has this effect on me. I’m not sure you realize this.”
That probably goes back to something around emotional intelligence or low self-awareness, but this is a feedback loop that needs to be happening all the time. Ideally, we’re giving in an environment and in a culture where that is normalized and people can be giving and receiving that kind of feedback. The idea is development. We’re all hopefully learning as we go in developing if we’re open and receptive to that.
The systems piece for me is an interesting one because we’re at a time where we want to see some systems change. There’s so much focus now on equity, inclusion, overall wellness and well-being. How are people doing at work? The pandemic has shined a light on these things and other challenges at work.
I saw this post by Adam Grant, who’s an organizational psychologist and has done a fair bit of work in the area of gender equality. This post of his said that there are 63 studies that show that when women assert themselves, make direct requests and advocate for themselves, they’re less liked and less likely to get hired. We’re in that system. We’ve got to figure out how to work in the system but at the same time, we want to change the system. How is politics different for women? Is there different advice for women?
It is true that women and many people from marginalized communities, in general, are sent plenty of messages that they have this narrow band of acceptable behavior. That is a term coined in the book, Breaking The Glass Ceiling. It’s true that we are still fighting against very inaccurate perceptions, but the perceptions are still there. It reminds me of the Psychology blog series that I have. I’ve written quite a bit on this. It’s called, A New Look at Women’s Leadership. The most recent series was focused on what levers would create the greatest impact in changing the outcomes for women.
The first part is starting with several ways that women continue to be perceived in the workplace that are holding women back. That includes things like women being seen as having less ambition, which is not true. The research shows we have plenty of ambition. Are we dissuaded overtime when our contributions aren’t necessarily valued or when we get messages that we’re not a good fit? Yeah, but that doesn’t have to do with ambition though.
We get more messages about people being concerned about our focus on children taking away from our focus on career or that we fear success, risk, failure, or that we lack confidence, negotiation skills or adequate leadership skills. The researchers show over and over again that none of this is true. We have the same level of risk-taking ability and great leadership skills. However, and this is what drives me absolutely crazy, is that there are coaching programs and other kinds of programs out there that continue to target helping women with “confidence,” or increasing their confidence and helping women with our “fear of risk-taking. Fear of failure.”
These things might again be true as an outcome of the messages that we’ve received, but the answer is not fixing women, but rather the system. These are all tied to gender biases. Women are judged differently on performance reviews. Men get a lot more leeway. Judged more on their potential rather than their achievement than women. There is the leadership bias which is thinking that there’s only one kind of leadership style that works best, which is not the case. We were learning that many other leadership styles work better and women have the capacity to demonstrate those very well.
We are still fighting against very inaccurate perceptions, but the perceptions are still there.
We’re getting messages around benevolent sexism. It’s protecting us from the challenges because we can’t take something on because of the burdens of having children and the family. Not getting opportunities because they’re trying to protect us. There are all of these messages and meetings that we aren’t valued, being interrupted or repeating what we said, and then male colleagues getting the credit for something we said. Things that we’ve been reading a lot in various articles that happen, so how does all of that play into politics?
As we’re engaging in these political behaviors, you end up back in that, “If I engage, how am I going to be seen?” It’s not how I am going to be successful, but how I am going to be seen, which impacts my success. I do think that’s why my definition of the way that I see neutral politics will benefit both men and women.
Regardless of gender and even race, somebody with stronger emotional intelligence, stronger understanding of systems and stronger ability to drive results is much more likely to be able to build the right kind of relationships and the right kind of stakeholders who have more power and influence to support those decisions and driving those results forward. Ideally, the point is gathering the momentum for that systems-level change that we all so desperately desire and seek.
It’s been something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. How do more marginalized groups navigate that while at the same time, we’re trying to create change?
I do think that piece, especially systems and emotional intelligence are related to building your informal board of directors, for example. Identifying advocates or people who are interested in your work, people who can serve as sponsors and use their own social capital and influence to be able to support the work that you’re doing, but it does mean being able to be willing to put yourself out there and get to know people.
That might be a little bit intimidating at first, but there are slow, steady and easy ways to do that by contributing in lots of different ways. Getting on committees that are decision-making committees, not the household tasks committees of a work environment, but decision-making groups or task forces where more people can get to know your work and you can build a stronger network of people who value and support what you do.
Do you have some general top tips for navigating office politics?
The first is to know what you’re working with. Know yourself incredibly well, and that takes time. Not just the one-shot deal, but one that comes with taking assessments about your strengths and abilities, coaching, therapy, mentorship, supervision, getting feedback often, 360s, any ways that you can continue to get feedback and grow to understand who you are and what you bring to the table.
That also means not just the strengths that you bring to the table, but maybe your blind spots or the triggers that will set you off. That’s important because you don’t want to engage in something that you end up unintentionally escalating because it’s a trigger for you and you didn’t catch it in time. You have to know yourself.
I have not heard that term used a lot in the business or in boardrooms, this idea of being triggered by something. I had a friend and colleague say a while back, “Wouldn’t it be great if in a meeting it would be perfectly fine if somebody said, I’m feeling triggered right now. I’m feeling a little bit triggered by this. I would like to take a pause and explore what’s going on for me right now. Maybe I need to do that alone or maybe I need to have some honest and open dialogue with some members of the group or the whole group, but wouldn’t it be great if we could get to a place where that was acceptable and cool?” Many people I know in my experience in the past wouldn’t feel too comfortable doing that.
It’s interesting that you see that because this is exactly what they are saying that allies should be doing in the diversity equity and inclusion space, is stopping meetings and saying, “Did anybody else catch that? That made me uncomfortable.” Naming it, being transparent about how it affected you and pulling in some actual feelings about how you’re feeling uncomfortable. The fact that it hasn’t been talked about is because everyone’s uncomfortable going there and yet, it’s so critical for making that kind of change.
Think about how often people are pretending to be okay with stuff. That’s partly why I went down this path. That was a big part of why I wanted to start this show. There’s just so much pretending and faking it going on. How could people show up as their best if that’s what’s happening?
They let a lot of things go where probably a majority of the room feels like, “Does anybody else feel the way that I do right now?” Understanding yourself is critical for why you just pointed it out. Being that self-aware to know what it is that is about you versus somebody else. I always say this, understand where you stop and someone else starts. If you can understand that, you can bring that into the room in a very powerful way and know that it’s not about you.
You have to have done the work to understand yourself to know when it’s really not about you at all, and then to feel comfortable. Often, people who are really emotionally intelligent that way will automatically know if something’s wrong in the room, because they will know it’s not about them, and if it’s not about them, then other people are thinking it, so I should bring it up.
It’s a lot of courage to go there too.
Understand where you stop and someone else starts.
It starts with getting to know yourself well enough to feel comfortable with understanding that. The second is building your capital. Just like you might be building a portfolio of diverse assets in your financial life, it’s the same in your people life and your office life. That includes informational capital. The more information you have about how decisions are made, who makes the decisions, why they make those kinds of decisions and what the policy says versus what happens. All of that is organizational information that the more you build, the more power and influence you can have, and it’s credible because you’ve gathered your information and gathered your facts.
People talk about this all the time. Social capital is actual people who might have more power, more influence or just be advocates, be allies and be people who truly are aligned with having a passion for change. All of those people could fall into your social capital bucket. There could be decision-making capital. Being able to sit on a variety of committees or contribute in a variety of ways where you can help with decisions for the organization, especially difficult decisions. It helps you grow that influence and wider scope and range.
It helps you build your political savvy as well. It also helps you understand what is happening beyond you. We make an awful lot of assumptions about why a leader made a certain decision without really knowing all the facts. This happened to me a while ago in my last career. I embarrassed myself by making an assumption that a leader was doing something unethical and calling them out on it, which was so embarrassing. The problem though is, I didn’t have all of the details. I was making an awful lot of assumptions about how decisions were made and I wasn’t even at the decision-making table. That’s not good for me and it’s not fair to them.
The third and final is when you start getting concerned about problematic ongoing issues. After you’ve already developed this system of people and information and understanding how things work, then you’re able to seek out people you trust to check in on what you’re seeing and get more feedback and get more support. You might need to document and it will help you make easier and better decisions about: “Is there a way to resolve this? If so, how? How does this work in order to get this resolved? Are things getting worse? What are my options without burning bridges?” and instead, creating more avenues for yourself for decision-making purposes.
Including maybe sometimes making an exit, extracting yourself from the situation if it gets too toxic. Is that a word you’d use?
I have used toxic before, and I got into this entire social media back and forth about my use of toxic, so now I’m a little bit more hesitant to use it. I use toxic in a very specific way. A lot of people use it just like we talked about the word trigger. We should not be using the word trigger unless it’s truly traumatic. Same thing with toxic. I try to reserve it for something that is abusive and longer-term abusive that is causing me problems with my health, with other people’s health and wellness as opposed to gossip and bad-mouthing backroom deals. We don’t like those. It adds to a breakdown in communication. They are mild grabs for power, but they’re not emotional abuse, psychological abuse, bullying and harassment, which is how I wouldn’t define toxic.
Politics, as a neutral term, is about having strong emotional intelligence.
You used the word communication and that comes to mind a lot for me. Maybe you filed this under the emotional intelligence aspect of it, but it seems to me that having really well-developed communication skills to listen, respond appropriately and be able to check-in is important to this whole political piece. Would you agree with that? Do you file it under emotional intelligence? You didn’t use the word before.
Emotional intelligence definitely includes communication, which includes listening, empathy skills, understanding other people and where they’re coming from and taking the time to care enough to understand them. It’s not just verbal communication, it’s non-verbal. Honing in your observational skills of what you see happening. Even your sensory like: “Do I feel the tension in the room?” What is that like? Are people raising their voices often? Are people cutting each other off or being snippy with each other?
Are people folding their hands and not contributing at all? It’s silent, but it feels very uncomfortable. With all of these sorts of observational skills and tracking, how does the environment feel? Is that conducive to allowing people to feel like they can be themselves at work or is it creating these situations where people have to put up a front and fake it all, which is exhausting.
We don’t get our best problem-solving ideas and innovation. It’s not conducive to any of those things. The other thing science is clearly showing is it’s a more relaxed brain that is going to be able to innovate, be creative and problem solve. As a leader, how do you create that atmosphere as opposed to that tension? I feel like those things are palpable to me. You can see if you’re paying attention.
It is a skill that some people have more than others and it can be developed, but you can see when someone’s uncomfortable. You can see when someone’s not participating or contributing the way they usually do, or the way that you see them interacting with people outside that meeting versus inside the meeting. There’s a change. I’ve seen that a ton and I’ve very rarely seen it addressed or called out.
What I’ve seen happen is, “Nobody is participating in this meeting. Should we even bother having this meeting? Maybe you guys don’t even appreciate the meeting.” It’s almost like the participants are blamed or shamed in some way as opposed to the leader saying, “This is a clue for me. This is great information for me to work with.”
You’re adding another piece to this which is that part of emotional intelligence where in order to see a highly competent leader who has not only conquered the political terrain, but demonstrating how to create a healthy environment for all is someone who could also add that humility piece that maybe they should check in with their people and say: “This meeting feels tense. Anybody noticing that? What’s happening right now? Anybody willing to share?” Even asking for feedback, like: “How did that meeting go? Should we be changing our meetings around in some way?” Coming at it with not just humility, but curiosity, instead of defensiveness. All of that adds to a bigger picture culture change.
Many organizations are putting a focus on that now and have struggled to make culture change. One of the learnings is it’s one thing to say you’re going to change but doing that is an entirely different ball game. The way you’ve described getting to know the system and getting to know yourself, all those things take time.
Often, we see a leader plugged into a situation and told: “Change this fast. Turn this around and turn it around quick.” It seems as though doing things fast is often more important than doing them right. Just with what you’re describing, it takes pacing yourself. I’m building relationships and understanding what’s going on. Do you have any thoughts on that?
It makes me think about how I feel about the age-old recommendation of the first 90 days in a leader’s new position. I often think: “Is that enough time to know your people and for your people to trust you enough, or hear enough from you that they’ll automatically say, ‘Any idea that you have, we’re right behind you.’”
If you’ve been doing this for a long time, it comes faster and you can develop trust very quickly by just presenting yourself as someone who understands yourself well… accepts themselves with our flaws, and is also open to feedback and learning and approaches things with that kind of humility and curiosity. That automatically addresses so many pieces of emotional intelligence and then being able to learn about the system. You can start learning about it in those first 90 days.
I do think that it takes longer at times, and I do see that a lot of younger leaders will come in and this was me too. I can talk about myself too. I’m overzealous and want to take on the world. I want to change everything, I have great ideas and then quickly feeling defeated or burned out or shocked. It has to do with what you’re talking about, not taking enough time to gather that emotional and people intelligence. They focus on the driving results and of that three-part stool and not on the other two.
The trust factor is so important there. If you don’t have the people’s trust, it’s going to be a real challenge. You’re going to have some major obstacles. This was amazing. Thank you so much for this. I want you to tell us about your book and where people can find out more about you, but before we do that, is there anything else you think we didn’t cover that you think people should know about?
There are some times when the situation is tenuous and you’ve put in, you’ve tried and you’ve done your part. What I do want people to know is, you do not have to feel obliged to try more and more. You do not have to feel guilty if you’ve gotten to the point where you’re waking up on Sundays dreading Mondays. You’re feeling sick to your stomach health-wise, having trouble sleeping or you’re noticing problems with your relationships.
These are all signs that maybe it’s time to move on and this environment is unhealthy for you. That’s okay. I do not want to send any message that you should keep trying when it’s an unhealthy environment and it’s causing problems for you or others, or if you have other opportunities. When you’ve tried everything else and you feel like it’s time to move on, how do you move on without burning bridges? How do you move on in a way that feels right, that feels aligned with their values and preserves your integrity?
In any relationship, you have to have some healthy boundaries and you can’t abandon yourself. Your self is most important. If you find that you’re abandoning yourself and if you’re feeling the way you just described, that’s a sign that you don’t want to ignore. That is not a failure. This is a really important thing. Choosing not to stay in that situation is not a failure. That’s a success. You’re putting yourself first. You have a healthy boundary. That’s a good thing. Staying in a situation like that is not a good choice. It’s not going to go: “If I just keep doing it, something’s going to change or be different.”
There’s nothing all that special about being a martyr or throwing yourselves at the wolves. It’s okay to preserve your own sanity, and that’s important. It’s important for yourself, for everybody around you, and for your future success in an environment.
Tell us a little bit where they can find out more about you and where they can get a copy of the book.
This is the MILLENNIALS’ GUIDE TO WORKPLACE POLITICS. It’s co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Wisdom, who has the Millennials’ Guide books series, so there are many other guides for millennials. This one is focused on my greatest interest, which is workplace politics. That’s what I added to it. You can find it on Amazon. If you want to find out more about me and my work and what I do, you could go to www.BrancuAssociates.com. You could sign up for my newsletter, and you can read my blog posts there. I’m connected to my psychology blog series, and I’m looking forward to connecting with people. You can also find me on LinkedIn and everywhere else on social media, @MiraBrancu.
Thank you so much for doing this. This is a great conversation. I appreciate it.
Thank you for having me on. It was super fun.
- MILLENNIALS’ GUIDE TO WORKPLACE POLITICS
- Dr. Mira Brancu
- Breaking The Glass Ceiling
- A New Look at Women’s Leadership
- Amazon – MILLENNIALS’ GUIDE TO WORKPLACE POLITICS: What No One Ever Told You About Power and Influence
- LinkedIn – Dr. Mira Brancu
- @MiraBrancu – Twitter
About Mira Brancu
Three years after starting to work as a psychologist supporting a large research study for a regional translational science center in the Department of Veterans Affairs, Mira was tapped to serve in a leadership role helping to manage a crisis. Given her past missteps in a different career and how early she was in her new career, she wasn’t sure she could do it. But this experience proved to be a defining start to a successful career with multiple amazing leadership opportunities of increasing scope and responsibility.
In 2018, Mira started a leadership consulting company to help other leaders in the same way she got support. In particular, she focuses on demystifying the unspoken rules of workplace politics and coaching leaders through the process of gaining the influence, power, resilience, and people skills to succeed in today’s diverse, complex, and ever-changing world. She specializes in working with emerging, and under-represented women leaders and the companies who want to support their retention and career growth.
She also loves helping small business owners and entrepreneurs successfully move into the next phase of business in leading a team of employees, as well as how to gain visibility and credibility for their expertise.