Seven essential principles for managing power and politics

Use these tools to manage well.


There are seven essential principles for managing power and politics in organizations. They are based on the philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli, the classic theorist in the field. Not even skilled and relatively sophisticated people can succeed in management — and be seen as leaders — without internalizing these principles, although they may have minor short-term successes. In the long run, they will be undermined because they can’t build and keep alliances, protect themselves from the grapevine or influence top management. Here are the principles:

1. To gain cooperation from subordinates or peers, show how it will benefit the individual. Most managers worry about how to motivate people. It can’t be done. Trying to motivate someone is like pushing on the end of a string. Persuading a subordinate to do something for the “good of the organization” is futile. This is especially true when dealing with Baby Busters who have a lifetime immunity against organizational loyalty.

Treat organizational change as a political issue and determine who has an interest or who can be given an interest in the changes the organization needs to make. Too often, no attempt is made to build a consensus around change because the change is “necessary” or “logical.” The successful politician’s mindset is, “What can I do for you that will make you want to do it my way?” People motivate themselves when they see clearly that what you want them to do will benefit them.

For cooperation from colleagues, establishing a peer relationship is essential. People who don’t or can’t do this will encounter jealousy, resentment or other relationship-destroying feelings in co-workers whose help they need most. For example, the medical director who doesn’t believe the nursing vice president or hospital CEO is his/her organizational equal had best give an Oscar-winning performance to the contrary. The lawyer who wants a paralegal to think as she does must exhibit nothing but egalitarianism.

Submerge all thoughts that, because you are better educated and hold a higher rank, you’re entitled to respect. Entitlement is a career killer, whatever your rank.

2. Plug into and monitor the grapevine. It’s the best way to establish an early warning system. It’s imperative that you know how people think about organizational issues. Too many managers (though not the truly powerful) are disdainful of office gossip. “Petty stuff” or “personal trivia,” they say. Wrong! The grapevine is accurate at least 85 percent of the time — and that’s a conservative estimate. It also carries the word from the grassroots. Unless you are plugged in, events will surprise you. You might shoot from the hip and undermine your position. Managers are expected to be in control of themselves as well as events.

Test your level of knowledge: Has anything happened in your organization in the past month that you learned about from your boss before you heard it in the grapevine? If so, there are gaps in your intelligence system. Fill them by identifying the entrenched power people, usually long-term support staff, and building alliances with them.

3. Always exhibit absolutely predictable behavior. If you asked workers at every level, everywhere, which boss (and/or co-worker) bothered them most, they would say, “The one that goes crazy over a missed deadline one month and does not respond that way next month. I can never figure out how he/she will react.” Predictable responses allow subordinates to manage up, peers to mesh effectively and teach everyone how to manage you.

4. Give all the credit and take all the blame. The power position is always giving credit, never receiving it. People who solicit praise for their work either have ego deficits or no desire for power or both. The grapevine knows who did what. The need for adulation is an infallible sign of insecurity and undermines the troops’ confidence in management.

Taking the blame means that people will hurt themselves scrambling to work with and for you. They will realize that a mistake that may have been as much an organizational as a personal failure won’t trash their careers. You, at least, don’t believe that blood sacrifice must follow every disaster to placate the organization. Don’t be surprised, as you shoulder the blame, when people rush to share a portion of the disaster. No one is allowed to hog the spotlight for more than 10 seconds, good or bad.

Without this attitude, getting people to take the risks needed to make changes or get the result would be difficult, even impossible. Why should anyone put herself on the line personally?

5. Anticipate needs before they go public. Here’s another reason to listen to the grapevine: Every gripe you hear represents an unmet need and an opportunity to go one-on-one with someone and meet his/her needs in exchange for whatever you want done.

6. Keep your ego hermetically sealed in an old mayo jar. Effective people are (relatively) ego-free. Nobody can aggravate you unless you agree to be aggravated. No one can insult you without your willing participation. Remember, work is a role. You are not what you do for a living. The people you work with don’t know you well enough to dislike you personally. That privilege is reserved for family and close friends. Disliking your plans for change or reorganization isn’t the same as disliking you personally. By the way, why do you care whether you’re liked? Isn’t respected and followed the key?

7. Keep score from results only. The motto for the new millennium is “Get the result.” Effort never counts and there is no such thing as a magnificent failure. All failures look pretty much the same. Process-oriented people, those determined to do things the “right” way, are rarely flexible or creative enough to dream up the solutions that will get the result.

How much or little you like people is not important; what counts is how well you work with them. It doesn’t matter if you love what you do as long as you appear to love it. It doesn’t matter if you’re sincere. Some fairly terrible things, e.g., giving someone your honest opinion, are done in the name of sincerity. Righteousness is another non-starter. People whose personal values are “right versus wrong” rather than “get the result” are in mortal danger of bashing their own – and other peoples’ – careers.

You won’t be able to oust the CEO by applying these principles but you might be able to succeed him/her. If you are the CEO or the leader of your own entrepreneurial venture, these same principles apply to help you stay in touch, connected and on top. No one who’s really in tune with Machiavelli has been less successful than someone whose M.O. is slash and burn. And the results for the organization are always more positive