Jane Perdue of The Braithewaite Group and the Life, Love & Leadership blog has introduced a challenging topic with a post called “Politics are Necessary but Not Necessarily Evil” where she suggests that many of the core characteristics of quality leadership are also the central tenets of office politics. Jane’s post is thought provoking: a must read and a fabulous kick off to this series.
Jane asked Jennifer Miller, Mike Henry and I to join her in exploring specific skills and characteristics of leadership that can occur as “political behavior” if done poorly and/or used without authenticity or integrity. Jennifer wrote about networking and relationship building in Networking Inside the Company Walls. Mike wrote about authenticity and sincerity in Sincerity in Office Politics. I encourage you to share your thoughts on any and all of these excellent posts.
Here is my addition to the series, an exploration of agendas and politics.
When an agenda has to do with a meeting or event, people appreciate and even expect one. Yet when we refer to a person’s agenda the connotation is typically not very positive.
According to the Encarta Dictionary (North America) the definition of “agenda” is as follows: 1. A list of things to do: a formal list of things to be done in a specific order, especially a list of things to be discussed at a meeting; 2. Matters needing attention: the various matters that somebody needs to deal with at a specific time; 3. Personal motivation: An underlying personal viewpoint or bias.
So the first two definitions above typically evoke a positive reaction. The third implies someone is up to something of a sinister nature and is typically the context in which the dark side of politics emerges. Perhaps the underlying theme here is that agendas for the sake of the group are perceived as “good” and agendas for the sake of the individual are perceived as “bad”. Here I want to focus on the third definition: personal motivation.
We ALL have agendas. You could say our ambitions, no matter how altruistic or noble they may be, are an agenda. We also have many underlying personal viewpoints and biases. Some we are aware of and some we are not. And they inform everything we think, say and do. So the fact that we have agendas is not inherently a problem.
There are two ways, however, this kind of agenda can be destructive.
The most obvious is when our motivation is perceived to be for purely personal gain and/or the gain of “us” at the expense of “them”. Those agenda’s are usually hidden. When we have them we keep them close and may not even share them at all. And when we interact with someone who has that kind of agenda, we can feel their affect on the dynamic of an interaction even though we don’t actually hear anyone speak them. These are the agenda’s that feed the rumor mill and are labeled as “political” in the negative sense.
Perhaps the less obvious agendas that can be destructive are the ones we have, but we are either unaware of or fail to examine together. Not everyone will have the best interests of others in mind. Yet most people have the best interests of some constituency in mind. A group of intelligent individuals does necessarily make an intelligent organization. Understanding the motivations and needs of all constituencies involved and affected by the conversations you are in and the work you are doing are essential to tapping that collective intelligence for the greater good. Unless we openly discuss our beliefs and motivations we are likely to miss important factors in our strategies and decisions.
And, yes, there are some people with predominantly self serving motivations, and they are not likely to admit to them. Sometimes a culture even encourages self interest. If that is the case the only thing to do may be to be honest about the reality of how the system is designed and move forward in a way that embraces what is, rather than trying to move forward with the proverbial blinders on. More often than not the individuals with predominantly self serving motivations are among the minority. At some point it is likely to cost them. It is a waste of effort to try and change it and a waste of your breath to complain about it. And if they get in the way of progress you will just need to find a way to deal with them.
I’ve talked about the dark side of agenda’s. So when is an agenda a good thing?
When our personal motivations, aka our agendas, are the source of our leadership. What makes these particular personal motivations distinct is that they are shared by and contribute to others.
These motivations may not be directly about us, but they are certainly very personal. And that is what gives them such power. This kind of agenda is the source of movements that change the world and change us in the process. They are the source of the stands we take. And when we take a stand for something we make our agenda public.
Using an agenda in this way is actually an essential political tool. When used well it provides the platform for leading effectively, although it would not be labeled “political” or likely to be interpreted as “political behavior”. It would more likely be called leadership.
What is the bottom line when it comes to agenda’s?
- Hidden agenda’s give politics a bad rap. But when an agenda is discussed openly it informs our decisions and strategies. When an agenda is expressed as a stand it sets direction, facilitates progress, and is interpreted as leadership.
- When we promote an agenda to facilitate progress of a group rather than personal progress, we have the capacity to transform the way people work together for the success and satisfaction of us all.
So what is your most personal, most passionately held agenda? Maybe it’s time to take a stand and make it known!