The Political Game

Politics is much harder than business. –Warren Buffett

Politics is how we play the game of life

At its most basic, politics is how we human beings play the game of life. We communicate what we want and others in response say what they want. Together we negotiate what we are willing to do to get what we want. We first learn to negotiate during childhood. Few of us think of childish behavior as “political” or our family as a “political entity.” Political tactics may not seem like politics when children use them, perhaps because the attempted manipulation is so transparent. When children behave selfishly with great effect, we call the tactic “childish.” A temper tantrum is a childish tactic. Pouting and refusing to share are childish tactics. However, a child who finds such tactics effective may retain them as part of the adult political repertoire.

Whenever persons interact, politics occurs.

The ways most children pursue their goals become more complex and socially sophisticated when their spheres of influence and action grow, but their individual adaptations differ. If the child becomes particularly adept at influencing adults and peers, we may dub the child “a leader” and find him or her taking leadership roles in organizations such as Scouts or sports or social activism. Or parents and teachers may push a child into formal positions of leadership hoping that the child will pick up the skills to perform well. The successful child leader hones political tactics the same way a child hones skill at basketball or soccer, by doing more of what succeeds and less of what fails, getting ever better at the game.

The political leader of each nation-state came to power by practicing political tactics that were successful in the culture of that polity. Just as some children enjoy basketball and become especially adept at ball handling or enjoy singing and master music, a given child may enjoy leading or influencing others. Parents, depending on their own needs and background, may have ambivalent feelings about their budding politicians’ willfulness, stubbornness, occasional deceitfulness, self-centeredness, and so forth. It takes patience and insight to help a young leader practice positive political skills of tolerance, decisiveness, inclusiveness, empathy, and foresight while constraining or extinguishing negative behaviors

Politics involves mature coping skills

Those who cannot manage themselves cannot do politics well. Good leaders and good politicians have learned to cope with difficulty. In addition to mature coping skills, positive politics requires that a person value leadership and negotiation as tools for achievement. Unfortunately, over the years many Americans have come to see even the word “politics” as sordid. In the American Middle West where we grew up, our families portrayed politicians more or less as liars and cheats—usually allowing an exception for any politician they knew personally. Perhaps this attitude prevails in your neighborhood or your family as well. Because of this tendency to see all politics as negative politics, when we begin our careers, most of us have, at best, feelings of ambivalence about politics and, at worst, a revulsion against anything that smacks of political maneuvering or bargaining. It may all seem improper, “childish.”

Software developers and other technical persons, who value intelligence, efficiency, and “facts,” are often the worst sufferers of political revulsion and, as a result, may be exceedingly poor politicians. Such persons, though clever, honest, and diligent, often lose round after round of negotiation because they, in their minds, “speak only the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”--as they see the truth--and it seldom occurs to them that their “truth” may not be “the truth” for others in the situation. They may perceive the situation as “fact sharing” rather than as negotiation and be perplexed why “the facts” don’t “speak for themselves.”

Yet some Americans from the Middle West -- as well as the South, the East, and the West -- seem to be born diplomats. Ken’s coffee cup defines a diplomat as “Someone who can tell you to go to Hell and make you look forward to the trip.” Some of these political winners may seem to inherit their skill, but all have learned.

You can learn Politics

Between the truth-telling techie and the diplomat are all the rest of us who sometimes do well and sometimes not so well when we play the political game. Science fiction author Robert Heinlein once wrote, “Politics is the only sport for grownups.” Like any other sport, we can learn politics. Few of us will ever play politics with the proficiency of a President or golf like a PGA Champion, but with study and practice, we can improve our game. More importantly, we should all try to improve our game because positive politics played well makes life more enjoyable and safer for those around us as well as for ourselves.

We should study politics in all its manifest forms because politics affects our lives every day. We will always have the give and take, always the interplay with others. When the process turns nasty, we may give it a bad name such as “manipulation” or “fear-mongering” or “war.” When the process goes well, we give it a good name such as “coordination” or “charity” or “peace.” In both cases, nasty or good, it is politics.

Fundamental to learning Positive Politics is learning our definition of certain common terms. Consider us as teaching Positive Politics 101, complete with terms, such as politics and power that have special meaning, meaning that may differ from what you expect. Easily the most important definitions on which we base our discussion are terms we define in the Twelve Principles for Positive Politics.

You cannot escape politics

You have to use power to achieve goals. Positive approaches bring greater results. Since we cannot avoid the game, we will be more satisfied when we play politics well. While we believe that politics, even office politics, can and should be positive, others do not share that view. Lawrence B. Serven, author of The End of Office Politics As Usual, hinges admirable outcomes – “the best possible business decision, the one that will create the most value and build the most wealth for the organization” -- on getting rid of politics altogether. Serven asks the reader to “diminish political behavior and instead focus everyone on doing the right thing, on making the right decisions for the organization as a whole. Politics, for Serven, is stress brought on by inadequate sharing of goals inside a corporation. He says politics occurs, for example, when corporate management uses the latest faddish fix -- TQM and the like -- instead of focusing on removing “politics.”

Serven’s definition of politics is inadequate: He writes “When we discover that people who play by the rules don’t win after all and that people are rewarded for something other than merit, we find ourselves engaged in office politics… Many ‘new economy’ companies use the acronym ‘WOMBAT’ – or waste of money, brains, and time – to describe office politics.”

We reject the notion that any work environment can exist that is not political; we argue, instead, that understanding “the political” enables us to be more effective as “political actors.” We find Serven’s and other naive notions of “politics” flawed by narrowness and shortsightedness. Constructive as are many of Serven’s analyses and guidance, to ask an employee to believe we can escape politics is to leave the employee potentially weaker, in a funk when that heaven of “no politics” proves difficult to create or begins to slip away. For example, only through political interaction can leader and led come to share the objectives Serven says will remove politics. Without doubt, the greater the agreement on objectives, the easier group decision making will be. But Serven has to acknowledge that power calculations permeate goal setting. Given that reality, it should be obvious that the process continues throughout making the daily choices of how to pursue those objectives.

Believers and Doubters

To accept that politics is the name of the game of human interaction, that it has a great many forests, rugged streams, formidable crags, downpours, and floods to challenge us, will better equip us to strive to master the frame of mind, the strategy, and the tactics that can cope best with the challenge. The positive perspective this site offers will speak to two fundamental outlooks on politics. Ken spoke of these outlooks as Believers and Doubters, those who believe or doubt that politics can be positive. To move from doubting that positive politics is possible requires moving beyond conventional labels such as realist and idealist. For a political scientist (not a philosopher) the “realist” believes in the moral authority of a strict parent figure, that the threat of coercion infests every situation. The realist would say that while "in the short run some people will get hurt, but in the long run, if a societal standard of behavior is set and adhered to, the nation as a whole will be better off." Justice, duty, and order are critical concepts for a realist. Fear hems in hope. But we shall see that a “realist” is not necessarily better tuned in to reality than an “idealist.” The idealist, on the other hand, says that harmony, empathy, and nurturance are primary. Hope conquers fear. Following the Nurturing parent model, the idealist believes that children obey out of respect for a loving parent, not from fear of punishment. Idealists concentrate on education, institutions that help cooperation, and setting a good example. But being wedded to trusting others does not guarantee that others merit that trust.

In the US, the current Republican party speaks more to the realist and the current Democratic party more to the idealist. However, each of us is an individual, with individual predispositions with respect to politics. Both realists and idealists may try to renounce all politics Both realists and idealists may understand that management problems arise from the system more often than from the individual and that to improve management and chances of business success one should focus on changing the system by changing its rules and procedures. Managers, realist and idealist, get frustrated and wonder: “What if the problem is individuals?” Often the same person hosts struggling realist and idealist notions, unsure whether a rough situation is a crisis or an opportunity.

We hope to help the idealist and the realist understand themselves and each other and learn to build success together. We champion neither and both the realist and idealist. We champion positive politics rather than negative politics. We offer ideas from the Machiavelli of The Republic rather than the Machiavelli of The Prince. In contrast to Serven’s “flee politics” approach, Robert Greene, in a recent bestselling book titled The 48 Laws of Power, promotes the supposedly “realist” position that success requires aggressive even abrasive participation in office politics. Success requires that one control others and that one achieves control through ruthless, deceptive, and amoral action. Among the Laws that Greene proposes are #3 Conceal your intentions and #15 Crush your enemy totally and #11 Learn to keep people dependent on you. Although Greene describes instances where powerful people have used all these tactics to their advantage, we contend that such negative control strategies sow the seeds of failure, whether as future subversion or revolution. In any organization positive politics promise greater, healthy efficiency and effectiveness.

Negative politics may produce short-term advantage for a few individuals but will always leave the community worse off. It rewards, yes, but at the expense of greater advantage, longer term. As Henry Ford understood, a worker producing a good he cannot afford or is otherwise unwilling to buy will not contribute maximum benefit for the enterprise – including longer-term benefit for the few. The psychology of fear sets one up for a self-fulfilling prophecy: treating someone as a threat tends to make them a threat. Cooperation and productivity decline; everyone loses.

While realists may be more prone to espouse negative politics than idealists may, idealists seem prone to their own set of ineffective tactics. Idealists often demonstrate and pontificate without thoroughly understanding the “reality” that makes positive politics actually work. Running on half-baked notions of goodness without strategic thinking can leave the idealist vulnerable, handicapped in both achieving goals and in remaining positive. A special temptation for idealists is to hold that those playing negative politics are, shudder, “evil.” Acting from this outlook will undercut positive politics and become its own self-fulfilling and self-denying prophecy. Believing that all persons should be “nice” does not make them so; more importantly, their disagreeing with you does not mean that you cannot work with them.