People very rarely like to talk about politics in the workplace. Perhaps we don’t even like to admit that it’s a thing. But the fact is that everyone in your organisation is acting in a political way.
That’s because workplace politics is about how we behave towards each other, and what our motivations are in doing so. It’s all about power, authority and relationships. This power can come from different sources: It could be based on someone’s role, experience, knowledge, professional or personal network, or charisma.
The term ‘office politics’ usually has negative connotations, but is it really always a bad thing? The answer is no – but it depends what kind of politics are in play. Good politics is about doing things correctly and fairly in the interest of the group and the overall vision, whereas bad politics is about acting out of self-interest. Particularly during the process of change, behaviour needs to be driven by politics – there needs to be somebody who is able to engage people and take them on a journey. That’s what change leadership is all about.
As a manager of people who will behave according to their own politics, awareness is key. Often change leaders involve people for the wrong reasons. It’s easy to make the mistake of involving someone because of their position or their relationship with you.
Recognising the political motivations of your people will help you to assign useful, productive roles to them which utilise their skills and experience and help achieve a goal that’s for the overall good. It’s vital for those times when you need to rely on people who can lead and get things done for the good of the organisation, its people and its goals. So what political game are your people playing? A useful way of identifying the political style and motivations of your team members is using the model developed by Simon Baddeley and Kim James, as shown in this diagram:
It splits people into one of four categories: sheep, donkeys, owls and foxes. Once you understand which category a person fits into, you’ll have an idea of how they will approach things, and what kind of role they should take on a project. It can be particularly helpful when implementing change and thinking about the kind of people you can rely on to lead it successfully.
So what kind of characteristics does each animal show, and what does this mean for their role in the team?
Sheep are politically naïve but act in the group’s interest, because they think it’s the right thing for the organisation and the people. They are loyal and industrious but need to be led.
Donkeys, like sheep, are politically naïve – but the difference is that they act out of self-interest.
Owls are politically aware of the situation and the environment but ask how to do things for the overarching goal and the people. Loyal to the organisation, they possess integrity, and are respected by colleagues.
Foxes are also politically aware but act out of self-interest, putting themselves before others and even before the organisation. But there’s no doubt that they can make things happen, even though they are doing it for their benefit. There’s nothing wrong with sending a wily fox into a difficult situation as long as you are prepared to manage them closely. Foxes are useful, but make sure you’re aware of their motivation, how they are likely to behave and the opportunities they may want to seize for themselves.
Dealing with these different personalities as a manager can be difficult, but the first step is to recognise who fits into each category, and to understand who should therefore be placed in a key role for a specific project, and who needs to be carefully managed. Owls are clearly prime candidates, although they may as well be unicorns as they are so hard to find! Perhaps you may like or require the ambition and drive of foxes.
The role of a leader is not to get lost in politics or to turn a fox into an owl. It’s about recognising which political ‘animals’ are in your team, and being aware of how best to manage them.
Baddeley, S. and James, K., 1987. Owl, fox, donkey or sheep: Political skills for managers. Management Education and Development, 18(1), pp.3-19.