ceo magazine office politics
Jack Godwin

What’s the key to managing office politics? It’s like the “broken window” theory of police work, which involves fixing problems when they are small—repairing broken windows and cleaning up litter—to reduce vandalism. The idea is that one broken window sends a signal that nobody cares, and nobody will care about another one.

If that’s the key, where’s the lock? You may not like this but you, the CEO, are the lock. By that, I mean you have to turn inward, police your own minor transgressions and get rid of your own bad habits. Why? Because managing office politics is all about self-discipline, self-control and self-mastery.

I’ll share an anecdote to make the point. I read a news article recently about two men who shared an interest in judo. The two men did not know one another and met by accident while waiting at a train station after a baseball game. One man saw the other wearing a judo jacket, approached him and started up a conversation. The two started sparring but it escalated somehow. One landed in the hospital and the other landed in jail.

According to the deputy district attorney quoted in the article, the defendant (who happened to be a national judo competitor) lost his self-control and became more interested in demonstrating his dominance. This story caught my eye because people with this kind of training rarely engage in this kind of street fighting. However, the district attorney’s observation that some people care more about demonstrating their dominance than demonstrating their self-mastery sounded all too familiar.

Self-mastery is important for the same reason the opening break shot in a game of pool is important. If you have no goal in mind and do not care whether you leave the balls in a cluster, touching each other, or touching the rail, then there is no need to master the break shot. Similarly, if you do not care whether you announce to all your employees that the table is open, then there is no need for self-mastery.

Self-mastery is synonymous with self-control, but there’s more to it than that when it comes to office politics. Self-mastery also means you have situational awareness. And there are three elements. First, ask yourself what is the degree to which the situation lends itself to your personal intervention? Second, what is your position and status? That is, are you strategically placed within the situation? Third, what are your relative strengths and weaknesses—and what are the strengths and weaknesses of other individuals in the situation?

Now, I’m giving you the short version. But if you can read the field, read the players, list the alternative courses of action, consider the consequences of inaction, and then make your move all in the span of a few seconds—then you’ve achieved self-mastery. If you had a mentor, is this something you would want him to teach you? If you had a protégé, is this something you would want him to learn? I’ll let you answer those questions for yourself next time you’re thinking about succession planning.

Adapted from The Office Politics Handbook: Winning the Game of Power and Politics at Work © 2013 by Jack Godwin

About the Author

Jack Godwin, Ph.D. is a political scientist whose appeal spans the political spectrum. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Clintonomics, his previous book, a “must read,” an assessment seconded by conservative publisher Christopher Ruddy. Godwin is a former Peace Corps volunteer and five-time Fulbright scholar. He has been the Chief International Officer at California State University, Sacramento since 1999.



Jennifer Corob's picture
I agree that self-mastery is very important for leaders in the office. It is important to convey an image of confidence and decisiveness so others will have faith in your judgment and look to you for guidance.

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