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High School and Organizational Politics…

High School probably seems like an odd place to begin writing about leadership; truthfully, it is. It’s also an honest place, because social politics and its unwritten rules thwarted many from sitting at the “cool” table during those formative teenage years.

I attest, the impact of those rules move well beyond high school and right into the workplace.

This is a difficult thing to rationalize, because we tend to think that we leave childish social dogma behind us when we “progress” through life.

We don’t.

The rules of social success – or more specifically the politics of success - exist in country clubs, neighbourhoods, the PTA, sports teams and even in our own families.

As they say, politics is perception.

To be clear, the players from your high school memories might have changed, but the positions within that hierarchy are firmly entrenched. So the quarterback of the football team, or the beautiful head cheerleader may no longer occupy their roles atop the social pyramid, but that informally engineered roadmap to success remains.

Consider for a moment that handsome professional in your office, well spoken, well dressed and by (most everyone’s assessment) an average performer. So why does the leadership team seem to believe this person is a star? Why? Because he looks and behaves like they do, or at least like they think they do. He fits.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes stars – really are stars, but like all things political, too often it is based on criteria that cannot be measured through work product – just perception.

Perhaps the reason your colleague is perceived to be a greater star than his work might otherwise indicate, is a reflection of his adherence to some unwritten rules.

  1. Well-groomed

  2. Well-spoken

  3. Engaging

Oh yeah… and being handsome doesn’t hurt either.

Perhaps you are thinking, “if this is how you get ahead, or fit with the leaders in a company, I don’t want any part of it…”

Just to be fair, these rules also apply to organizations that take great pride in being diverse and non-judgemental. The kind of place where people are supposed to rise because of their contributions to the greater good, not because of who they golf with, or (heaven-forbid), how they look.

Like I said before, the players might not be typical (no quarterback or cheerleader) but the game remains. Every organization has unwritten rules to follow, norms to adhere to and value judgements placed upon those inside. The only difference (perhaps) is that in your organization the former high school ‘nerd’ now makes the rules, instead of the ‘jock’. But anyway you slice it, it’s still a high school cafeteria.

So, is there such a thing as “good politics”? Yes. But that’s for another time.

Bad politics is the type most of us think about, the sort of interactions that are defined by deception, rumour, gossip, innuendo etc. Now consider your participation within your high school – ahem – I mean workplace…

Have you ever engaged in an ‘off-the-record’ chat with a colleague about another? Perhaps, remained in a gossip circle around the lunchroom, or boardroom table while speaking ill of a co-worker or two? When the mean stuff started, did you bring it abruptly to an end, or get up and leave? Perhaps you are thinking, yeah – but it’s okay, I only talk about the ditzy administrator on the second floor that dresses like a @!$@$…

Starting to sound familiar – starting to sound like high school? Maybe that “ditzy” gal is your organization’s cheerleader… but then I suppose she’s had it coming for a while, right?

See you soon…

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