Being Afraid of Office Politics is the Worst Mistake a CEO Can Make

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by | Jul 6, 2020

  • As a new CEO, you’d be a fool to think you can stay above office politics.

  • Your every word and behaviour will be scrutinised while people will be less honest with you.

  • Read the political situation carefully and tap into it to increase your influence as an effective leader.

Many things can sink a new CEO. You’re already managing external competitive threats, the challenging business climate, and from within your target markets. But one major source of instability is at work with you every day, and it needs just as much attention.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) reported that ‘one-third to one-half of new chief executives fail within their first 18 months’. Their first common mistake was that ‘they don’t read the political situation well enough to build necessary relationships and coalitions’.

This failure can trip up new CEOs quickly or slowly strangle a promising tenure. Either way, you face big political pitfalls from the corner office. Here are 6 truths to keep in mind as you get used to the top office view as a CEO.

1. You can’t enjoy a rational existence above the political fray


If politics is all about favouritism, closed-door meetings, and making decisions that don’t follow data or business logic, aren’t the best leaders apolitical? Not according to Professor Michael Jarrett in HBR:

“The reality is that politics is normal. […] It is important to understand that the root cause of political activities are often scarce resources (including time pressures), social and structural inequalities, and individual personal motivations.”

Groups of people involve personal agendas, informal alliances and networks of influence. You can’t wish this away. Instead, you need to read the political flows in your organisation and find your place inside them.

Fortunately, organisational politics is not always negative. As you detect and wield political influence, you’ll build momentum behind initiatives that you, as CEO, also support in more formal ways. Acknowledging internal politics can even improve your image as an honest leader.

As long ago as 1970, HBR author Professor Abraham Zaleznik, said that ‘disbelief occurs when managers purport to make decisions in rationalistic terms while most observers and participants know that personalities and politics play a significant if not an overriding role’.

Or, in plain English: If you try to stay out of politics, you’ll just come across as disconnected and insincere.

2. You’re not as prepared as you think you are

Almost every new CEO finds surprises in the political landscape. Things are very different, even compared to other executive roles.

CEOs have no ‘boss’ per se, no peers, and receive much more attention. This is an unfamiliar political situation, no matter how much knowledge or confidence you came in with. Expect the Unexpected: The experiences of first-time CEOs, published by The River Group, is based on surveys and conversations with 75 CEOs. They found that most CEOs were less prepared than they thought:

“Six months into the job, first time CEOs find they are much less prepared to be the CEO than they thought they were. The spotlight is sharper, the stress is higher, and the isolation —’being alone in a crowd’—unsettling.”

What’s more, everyone else thinks you’re 100% ready for the job! Your uncertainty or political clumsiness looks like personal and professional failure, not a normal sign of someone learning from experience.

3. People won’t treat you like they used to, or like you want them to

Your title and power make you less approachable than you used to be. The River Group warns that, “CEOs find themselves isolated and at the centre of attention simultaneously”.

Relationships change. As soon as you step into a CEO role, former peers, even close ones, will believe that they have less to bring to your relationship. This imbalance changes the way they treat you. Your old networks will not function like they did, and this will affect both how you are heard and what you hear.


4. Your words will carry more weight than you expect


Before you were CEO, you could think out loud, sound uncertain, or pause for thought without anyone taking too much notice. Not anymore. You’ve lost the privilege of having unguarded moments.

People will analyse everything, including your silence. When you’re in a room, observers – you will always be observed – will note who you do and don’t speak with. They’ll look for the political meaning in every throwaway sentence and superficial interaction.

The paradox here is that because people are listening so hard, you need to become a clearer communicator. A lot of clarity comes from consistency over time and across channels. You will often find a political channel of influence worth tapping into.


5. Everything you hear will be carefully tailored


It’s hard for CEOs to get unfiltered, honest information and feedback from within their own company. Ironically, straight talk becomes more valuable at the same time.

Be aware of this at every meeting, lunch, presentation and interaction. How can you convince people to sand back their words? Your formal power probably won’t help much.

Even those exchanges that seem frank might not be. As one CEO told , ‘colleagues [used to] offer advice that was usually intended to help me. Once I became the CEO, people would offer me advice intended to help them’.

Ignoring this is naïve. Conversely, looking too hard for hidden agendas is paranoid. You need to find the right balance. If you miss or misread the political angles that people work into conversations with you, your thinking and your decisions will suffer.


6. Positive politics can speed up your best initiatives


It often seems that the best CEOs lead organisations that don’t need to be told what to do. These leaders channel the political currents rather than sit on-high issuing edicts. Their influence is at least as important as their formal power.

Without understanding the political dimension, you cannot be an effective business leader. You probably won’t be a long-lasting one either. Another potential CEO will soon be having a quiet, possibly influential, chat with the board.

By putting enough effort into understanding the politics around you, you’ll earn the time you need to build your influence.


In summary


As a new CEO, your ability to work with your organisation’s politics is crucial to your ability to survive and thrive. It changes not just how people treat you, but what you hear, how people interpret your behaviour, and how effective are your initiatives. By becoming adept at handling office politics – in the broadest sense – you will become a leader of influence. And influence is where you really need to be.

Susan Sadler is the Director of Red Wagon Workplace Solutions, a commercial human resources firm that provides workplace support to help you to achieve better business and employee outcomes. She is President of the AHRI SA State Council and a certified HR practitioner.

Susan Sadler is the Director of Red Wagon Workplace Solutions, a commercial human resources firm that specialises in supporting balanced, outcomes-driven transformation. She is vice-president of the AHRI SA State Council and a certified HR practitioner.

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