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Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch: Trust and Office Politics

I often hear people say, “I don’t really like politics, it’s not in my nature.” Unfortunately that comment is based on a false premise. People are inherently political beings. Our brains are hard wired to work towards influencing and impacting our surrounding environments.

According to Merriam Webster dictionary on such definition of politics is:

"activities that relate to influencing the actions and policies of a government or getting and keeping power in a government."

For purposes of this blog post we will focus on the word “influencing’ as related to office politics. Every single one of us (both consciously and unconsciously) attempts to influence our environment hundreds of times each day. The exertion of influence has become a de facto social currency. This is the exciting and yet dangerous conundrum that is office politics….the never ending, always churning process of trying to obtain social status and authority within our professional settings.

Trust and influencing people are inexorably related. In order to illustrate the importance of building trust in the context of work cultures, I will share a personal story. I started with Principal Global Investors in 2006 and found it to be a great place to work. I was surrounded by good people and had good pay and benefits. During the latter part of 2007 the culture started to change as the recession wreaked havoc on the investments markets and the macro economy. I personally witnessed three rounds of lay-offs. I was fortunate to not lose my job, but I watched many good people get let go. The water cooler effect went rampant as many people waited for the proverbial ax to drop.

Around this same time a Vice President from another insurance in company in town started recruiting me to help build part of their marketing team. I politely declined her requests for over six months until she gave me an offer I could not turn down. After some hesitation and soul searching I accepted the position. The first day I showed up she came over to me and said, “I just wanted to let you know I have accepted a one year position over in England. I will be leaving in a week.“  Needless to say that I was shocked and irate. The person I had hitched my professional wagon too and left a great job for was leaving me at the proverbial alter. The trust I had put in her and by default the organization was completely gone. From that moment on, things would not be the same. I was aligned with two other senior vice presidents with a dotted line to each. The lack of trust I had with management eventually led me to leave the company six months later. The stakes with trust are so high, that one situation can lead to negative professional consequences.

Needless to say, without trust there is no political currency. Trust is something that takes a long time to build, up but just a moment to destroy. The moral of this story is: With trust comes a great amount of responsibility, be careful not to abuse its privileges.