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Playing Politics - but now it's all online

By Dr Phil Renshaw and Jenny Robinson

Whenever we facilitate a leadership programme at Cranfield Executive Development (CED), inevitably at coffee break, the conversations drift to how politics gets played in the corridors of power. Part of the skilful influencing conversation.

Well, now we’re all online, we notice that those manoeuvrings continue in different ways and with more subtle consequences. And the impact can be harder on us, as we no longer have that physical sense of being part of the team. Here we offer our reflections and antidotes.

Politicking comes in many shapes: you may think you’re being side-lined as you are left off an email chain, or conversations happen on Zoom/Teams/Lync without you, decisions happen and you’re the last to know. Recently, a colleague of ours took our idea and sold it as her own: we were dumbfounded. That’s bad, but at the more pernicious end of the spectrum, sometimes colleagues can misrepresent your views or advice or implicate you in activities that you’re unaware of. Drawing from the playbook of coaching as a leadership skill, here’s our advice.

Hold Good Intentions

It is easy to believe that all these actions are malicious and meant…and yet it is possible they’re not. As a starting point, we recommend you choose to believe that people are tired, pressured and mindlessly pursing their own course and hence they actually intended you (or others) no harm. They are simply and doggedly getting on with things, with insufficient thought to how they impact others. Don’t overreact. Honestly, they may have forgotten to copy you in on that email. Or, they may have not thought to include you in a quick conversation, which after all was just a sidebar to another larger and even more important discussion.

Use a straight bat

Even as you hold good intentions, it is possible to look after your own interests. Our advice; treat the situation with a straight bat, that is, make your response in the most honest and simple way. For example, call out the behaviour or action but without naming it as political and without any accusatory tone. In our book Coaching On the Go, we talk about the "when / then" technique which is absolutely made for this situation. You structure your feedback to your colleague using this format; "when you do this, then it creates the following…".

Use the phone

Pick up the phone. We find that because so much is now taking place online, people are fighting fire with fire. Well that just doubles the fire power. Instead, if email is the source of the problem desist from using email to solve it. Similarly, you don’t need a Zoom call to have a quick chat to clear the air. People are still answering the phone and they can be more receptive to hearing your feedback than an email or a video call. You can role model effective communications.

It’s business as usual

Don’t make it a big deal, deal with it as business as usual. Beware the tendency to overthink and to escalate. Just take it all in your stride. Next meeting, bring up the subject and discuss it in a straightforward way. You can frame it in a neutral and non-confrontational manner, without appearing to be a patsy (technical term for doormat!). Consider using the sentence stem “last week, we got our lines of communication confused, I’d like to talk it through”, or personalise this idea to your situation. How you name the situation is incredibly important and sets the scene for the discussion that follows. Naming is a term we use for all sorts of situations; dispute resolution, negotiations, office politics to list a few (more about this again in our book).

Take your time

Time and timing are on your side. By which we mean, take a breath, take your time, there is absolutely no harm in letting this settle for a couple of hours and possibly overnight. There’s a good chance you’ll think of a more effective way to respond. While you’re waiting and considering your best response - by which we mean the least harmful to your colleague, your relationship and yourself - consider how this will feel in 10 years’ time? Take the long view on all this and maybe, just maybe, let it go.


About the Authors

Dr Phil Renshaw and Jenny Robinson are academics, entrepreneurs, teachers, and both have extensive private coaching businesses. Both deliver workshops for Cranfield Executive Development and Cranfield School of Management. Phil and Jenny met on the first day of their PhDs and immediately realised that they shared a depth of business experience from around the world that, combined with coaching, provided a unique perspective on leaders and their leadership. They are the authors of Coaching on the Go (Pearson, 2019), which offers a unique perspective on coaching skills for leaders and the power of coaching by focusing on everyday life situations. To learn more and to respond to their views please contact them at www.coachingonthego.co.uk

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