Welcome to the final office hours article in this series, discussing real life workplace challenges. Leadership should not be a lonely endeavour. I’m a leadership coach and I’ll help you confidently own your potential.

Challenge #6 – How do I navigate organisational politics?


How do I hold onto my personal values of honesty and transparency, in an environment that rewards political strategy?

J.D. (no their real name)

There’s a lot lurking beneath the surface of this short question. We’ve all felt the frustration that comes from seeing other people get rewarded for what seems like bad behaviour and questionable values.

How would your coaching with JD unfold?

Listening and curiosity build empathy

There’s a lot to explore here, and I want to make a space for JD to fully populate and inhabit this narrative before we explore. I want to help JD name what’s present. What parts are venting, clearing the air, creating space for forward movement?

What are the rewards and what is rewarded in this picture?

What’s the distinction between rewards, success and impact?

What does the word politics conjure in this context?

What is strategy?

Sphere of control

The focus here seems to be on others. But what is happening for JD? 

How are JD’s own successes acknowledged and rewarded?

What’s important about rewards?

What’s the distinction between successes and rewards? 

The Big Agenda

What’s this really about?

There’s something bigger lying beneath the surface here. There’s a game playing out that JD doesn’t want to play. The messages being communicated to JD are generating dissonance with their values. 

Internal vs External experiences 

What assumptions are present in JD;s picture, and how might they be tested?

What biases are on display in this system?

What values are being honoured and being abused here?

What are the personal preferences in JD’s picture, and what challenges do they present? 

Deepen the understanding 

What is this costing JD?

What does JD want?

What has JD tried so far? 

JD’s use of the phrase political strategy feels negatively loaded for me, so I want to self-manage and check with JD what the phrase means in this context.

What other ways of viewing the situation are there?


Any system that involves people, structure, and authority naturally contains different opinions. There will be a business agenda, and personal agendas – diverse opinions on the best way to achieve goals.

Politics then, is perhaps a natural expression of the different opinions and values of the people within the system, influenced by their different roles and relationships. Another word could be influence. What’s a story about influence that could sit alongside the politics story?

In the system that is their current situation JD has constructed a narrative based on their interpretation of events, filtered through their own values, beliefs and experiences. We could co-create a different narrative, find new perspectives on this situation. 

At senior and executive levels, leadership is increasingly about presence. Executive Coach Harrison Monarth, holds that…

Executive presence is a fluid set of skills that all add up to a personal power that inspires and engages people.

Other aspects of executive presence are:

  • Influencing (across large parts of the organisation)
  • Generating buy-in and support
  • Communication ability
  • Managing up
  • Status and reputation

To what extent is there a self-limiting belief, or story about ‘not being political’, ‘I don’t do politics’, ‘politics is lies and backstabbing’. How might JD influence the system locally?

As a senior leader what does it look like to engage, inspire and influence people from a position of honesty, transparency, inclusion, kindness?

What risks are you ready to take?

If JD’s desired outcome is to influence, lead by example, lean into personal values, and change what is within their ability, then what are some of the options?

What skills will serve you in becoming more effective in this system? Are you willing to work on them? Where do you need to flex?

Most of us play multiple roles as partners, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons – each role is different but still us. Adding on one more ‘leader role’ which is different doesn’t have to mean that we are being inauthentic to our true selves.

Ferrier, 2016

How can you play the game while honouring your values?

  • Build a solid reputation of delivering what is required. This builds political capital through establishing confidence, trust and authority. This provides a platform for further long term action.
  • Seek feedback to find out how you are perceived within this system, and by whom (supporters and competitors).
  • Model the system – who are the key players and what are their motivations?
  • What’s your role in this? If the behaviours you walk past are the values you implicitly accept, what will you take a stand for?
  •  Make a list of all the elephants in the room (Murray, 2018b). Set aside time to think through the…

…awkward, uncomfortable realities that haven’t been discussed out in the open

Speak up when you see undesirable behaviours. Stop avoiding drama and conflict.

    Lean into the conflicts you fear most — tactfully

    Murray, 2018a

        • What network of people will help support your goals? How could you tap into that value?
        • Manage upwards. How can you better have your voice heard? If you’re not telling your leadership of your successes someone else will be (mis-)representing your efforts.

    Competent Courage 

    Is it possible to create positive change without ruining your career?

    It is, if you are competently courageous (Detert, 2018). In his article James Detert identifies behaviours that can learned, upon which success can be found. He describes these in four different areas: laying the groundwork, picking battles, influencing, and following up.

    Emotional Courage

    Taking a stand asks you to take a risk, lean into your values, believe in the potential of the outcome, accept the costs of failure, and above all, it asks for emotional courage.

    What would you offer JD to lighten the load of this leadership challenge? What tips do you have on how to navigate organisational politics? Please add to the comments. And share your feedback about this office hours leadership challenge.

    Please re-share this article. Leadership need not be a lonely endeavour.


    Further Reading

    There’s a great deal of excellent material on this subject. Some of the sources that might be useful are below.

    Detert, J. (2018) Cultivating Everyday Courage (article). Harvard Business Review, November-December. Available from https://hbr.org/2018/11/cultivating-everyday-courage [Accessed: 09 October 2019].

    Ferrier, M. (2016) How to navigate organization politics authentically (article). LinkedIn, January 30. Available from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-navigate-organization-politics-authentically-mellissa-ferrier/ [Accessed: 12 October 2019].

    MindTools (no date) 7 Ways to Use Office Politics Positively : Getting What You Want Without “Playing Dirty” (blog). MindTools. Available from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCDV_85.htm [Accessed: 11 October 2019].

    Murray, D. (2018a) Stop Avoiding Drama And Politics At Work (article). Forbes, January 03. Available from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2018/01/03/stop-avoiding-drama-and-politics-at-work/#2e9e307538cf [Accessed: 11 October 2019].

    Murray, D. (2018b) 10 Effective Ways To Navigate Work Politics (article). Forbes, February 07. Available from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2018/02/07/10-effective-ways-to-navigate-work-politics/#302f85f6ef53 [Accessed: 10 October 2019].

    Yorges, S. (no date) 10 Must-Have Methods To Skillfully Navigate Workplace Politics [blog]. Leadership Development. Available from https://leadinghigher.com/skillfully-navigate-workplace-politics/ [Accessed: 11 October 2019].