Increasing HR’s influence

Many decisions, including who gets promoted and who gets laid off, are made less on the basis of performance and more as a matter of organisational politics.

Increasing HR’s influence

Many decisions, including who gets promoted and who gets laid off, are made less on the basis of performance and more as a matter of organisational politics. You may find this deplorable but it is the way the world works. The question is, what will you do about it?

You need to decide as an individual managing your own career how you will play the game of power and influence. Also, as an HR leader you need to decide what you can do to lessen the negative impact of organisational politics.

Pfeffer’s Answer

Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer is one of the world’s leading HR academics. In his new book Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t he makes his position clear: individuals need to learn to use the principles of power and politics to their own advantage.

It is important to understand that there is a lot of distance between the backstabbing manager who claws his way to the top leaving a trail of bodies behind him, and the naïve person who refuses to have anything to do with organisational politics. It’s not a matter of being one or the other; there is a middle ground. Realistic professionals will recognise they need to learn enough about the game of power and influence so that they are not the victim of the forces around them. You need never stoop to unethical behaviours, but you can’t pretend that simply working hard and doing the right thing will be enough to get ahead—it may not even be enough to keep your job!

Pfeffer tell his MBA students, “I want you to understand enough about power so that you never have to leave a job unwillingly.”

Power Tactics

As it turns out the tactics for power and influence are neither obscure nor sneaky. You need to project a confident manner in how you dress and speak. You need to be sure your accomplishments are highly visible. You need to devote time to networking even if it means hanging out with people you don’t particularly like. It means effective use of flattery. In many ways it is just common sense. Still, too many good people have a blind spot here and end up not protecting their own careers.

Responsibility as an HR Leader

Pfeffer believes that politics occurs in all organisations and that you need to learn to live with it rather than looking for some way to avoid it. His goal is very much to help individuals protect themselves in the sometimes nasty and often unfair world of organisations. However as an HR leader you have a professional duty to draw some lessons, not just for your own career but for the organisation. Here are four suggestions:

Promotion: In the real world, promotions are based on who looks good to management rather than who has done good work. The person who has gone golfing with the boss is more likely to be promoted than the one who stayed back to get the report done on time. Knowing this, HR needs to use rigorous assessment processes that counteract our natural tendency to make poor decisions about who to promote. The most important tool is getting extensive peer and subordinate feedback on the quality of the candidates for promotion.

Training on Power and Influence: Many of your best performers will focus on getting great results and doing the right thing. As a result they pay little attention to power and their careers suffer. People trained in technical areas like engineering are particularly vulnerable because they have worked incredibly hard mastering their craft and want to believe that it’s great work and not great politicking that matters. When your best performers suffer, the organisation suffers. You need to train young managers enough about the real world of power and influence that they don’t end up disillusioned, outmanoeuvred or fired.

Minimise Status Differences: The bigger the rewards for getting ahead, the more people are likely to stoop to ugly levels of power and politics. Consultants may say you should have big rewards for performance but in the real world of organisations, that becomes big rewards for politicking. You can’t eliminate politics, but don’t make it worse by generously rewarding it.

Build in Rules of Engagement: To get ahead, one strategy is to be visible in meetings and that means talking a lot, interrupting and perhaps demeaning your colleagues’ ideas. In an ideal world this wouldn’t work, but in the real world it often does. The organisation should promote rules of engagement where there are certain expectations in meetings such as: not interrupting others, no side conversations, and giving everyone a chance to speak. This doesn’t solve the problem of politicking in meetings but it helps.

Pfeffer’s point is that in the real world is not fair and that acting as if it were will just damage our careers. As individuals we need to embrace the game of power, but hopefully not to the point of compromising our ethics. As HR leaders we need to look for mechanisms that counter some of the ill-effects of organisational politics. If you are interested in this topic, Pfeffer’s book Power is a great place to start

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human capital management. He can be reached at


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