Succeeding in a Politically Charged Higher Education Environment

When I first began my career in higher education more than a decade ago, I swore I’d never get wrapped up in the “political games” played in the business environment.  I was convinced that office politics were bad and only resulted in bickering and in-fighting.  Fast forward and boy was I wrong.

Understanding organizational politics is an essential skill that, when implemented appropriately, is a series of very positive strategies for accomplishing your individual and organizational goals.  I see this as coming down to two essential components: Relationships and Leverage.

To begiPolitical Adeptness (Borrowed from with, as the ACUI skill set of Political Adeptness within the core competency of Leadership states, we must have a foundational knowledge of group dynamics.  This includes understanding theories and applications such as Tuckman’s Stages of Group Dynamics (Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing) and Peck’s Stages of Community Building (Pseudocommunity, Chaos, Emptiness and True Community).

To get back to our two main components of Relationships and Leverage, let’s look at some organizational facts of life:
1) Organizations are not democracies;
2) Some people have more power than others;
3) Virtually all decisions are subjective;
4) Your boss has control over much of your professional life;
5) Fairness is an impossible goal (and it’s irrelevant);
6) The person with the most power usually wins.

Decisions are inherently subjective because they are made by people who base conclusions on their own values, beliefs, goals and preferences.  In order to be successful at office politics, you must learn how to leverage your own power and that of others.  And remember, the boss does not necessarily always have the most influence.

In any organization it is important to have a “knowledge of institutional and organizational constituencies and relationships among individuals and groups” (as stated by ACUI).  Relationships can be divided into Allies and Adversaries.

Allies take time to cultivate, so spend time with these people and get to know them.  They include:
1) Friends – colleagues with common interests and similar temperaments;
2) Partners – colleagues who depend on each other to produce results;
3) Connections – people you can temporarily hook-up with with you need assistance or information.

Adversaries on the other hand are people who stands between you and the accomplishments of your goals.  When you come across these individuals (or groups) you need to decide the best course of action which could be to try and confront them and play damage control to protect your reputation or to work towards converting them into an ally or a non-factor.  Much of this will depend on the reason behind their behavior and whether or not it is malicious, emotional, vengeful, or just a series of misunderstandings or disagreements.

The more adept that you can become at identifying these potential Allies and Adversaries, the more successful you will be at leveraging your relationships to accomplish your goals and objectives within the organization and office environment.

ACUI also states that we must have the “ability to assess an environment’s political climate and adapt behavior as appropriate.” To do so, build positive relationships in all directions.  This means with your boss, higher level executives, your co-workers and your reports.

To close, I offer some tips for effective leadership in a politically charged business environment:
1) Realize that you’re a manager, not a monarch (for those of you who have management responsibilities);
2) Worry about being respected, not liked – you must be able to make the tough calls;
3) Learn to successfully manage the performance of other people (motivate, inspire, set clear goals, give helpful feedback, implement changes and address performance issues);
4) Appreciate the power of inclusion – learn when to involve employees in decisions and help them to understand the big picture;
5) Help them “be all they can be” by recognizing superior performers and help them reach their goals.

To hear more about this and other ideas please take the time to join us for a more in-depth examination of this skill set on the next College Unions and Activities Discussion (CUAD) podcast on November 29, at 2pm ( and then further discussions on Twitter by following #ACUICC.

This post was originally seen on the Association of College Unions International’s (ACUI) Blog The Commons as part of a year-long series of educating about the association’s Core Competencies.

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