Office politics: How to know if the hill is worth dying on

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It’s just a hill. But it is your hill. It’s a strategic hill. You don’t know if you want to be a hero. And if you really need to be a hero to keep this hill, you could be dead already. Let’s get concrete for a moment!

This ‘hill’ could be that your boss caves every time a client criticises your area and you have to pick up the pieces, backtrack and rework things. It could be that you need to take
time off outside normal days and your boss doesn’t believe in that kind of stuff. Maybe you are convinced that following current strategy will shut off the company’s main source of income.

It’s not about the hill as such. It’s whether you will be the hero who takes the hill and goes off in a blaze of glory, or whether you will live to fight another day.

Here are five questions to help you decide.

Question 1. Who is your buddy?
In every good war movie the hero has buddies. From The Magnificent Seven to The Dirty Dozen via Platoon and Saving Private Ryan, it’s the people supporting you in taking the hill that make the difference. So, the first question to ask is, who is your buddy? Who is on your side?

If you are the only soldier standing up to the corporate psychopath, the only one trying to fix the supply chain problem or to reconfigure the roster, then you need some buddies before you start your assault.

Question 2: Who will see?
The second question is,who will see you? And who should see you? If you are behind enemy lines and are about to blow up the bridge before dawn, then it’s important that no one sees you. On the other hand, if this assault is an action designed to flush out the friendly locals, make sure it’s visible enough that those who understand what your action means
can find you. 

In real-world terms, if you want to be seen, consider some well-placed, strategically crafted questions at a work in progress meeting as a first salvo. If you don’t, then ask the same
question one-on-one, starting with the lowest-ranking person with power. Ideally you will gain an ally, and you won’t be blamed if they ask the question again themselves. 

Question 3: What's the escape route?
The third question is, what’s your escape route? Don’t blow up the bridge if you have no way of crossing it yourself. Or at least blow it up from the side you want to end up on. In corporate terms this means you need to put your feelers out to the market. Update your LinkedIn profile. First turn off those notifications that tell your boss you’re updating!

And talk to agents. Often. Just in case. Don’t wait to be found. Have lunch with your old boss and colleagues. Renew your network. Just in case you need more allies, a safe house or an escape route! As a sidebar: if your boss is part of the problem, consider giving their name to the agent!

Question 4: What does reconnaissance tell you?
Before soldiers blow up any bridge, they go on a reconnaissance. Reconnaissance is French for recognition. It literally means ‘re-know’.

So, if you have a political issue that you want to broach, a hill you have to take, go check out the territory. Re-know current policy. Re-know who supports it. Re-know the players in your industry. Is what you want already happening somewhere in your organisation? Is it happening somewhere in your industry? How does what you want align with industry best practice? How do your systems and procedures support it (or not)? Check out how big this hill really is. If you don’t know anyone to ask in your industry, then that’s a weakness you need to patch up pretty quickly!

Question 5: What are your special skills?
Every soldier has a special skill. Can you whistle, are you a ventriloquist, or do you have a friend in intelligence? Do you have a good heart, an eye for a bargain, or a lot of great connections? Ask yourself what makes you different, not just in terms of solving this political problem but also in terms of your value to the organisation. How can you use this special skill as leverage?

This isn’t just about your LinkedIn profile. It may be your family that will get you through. Or your loyalty. Maybe it is your ability to find the positive, transform people’s ideas, or just that you are resilient. Find your strengths and play to them. And let your weaknesses alone. They won’t help you here. There are also some things not to take into account in your hill assault.

When considering whether or not to take this hill, these things should not come into the equation:
I can’t afford to be a hero
It’s not good for the team
HR should look after me
This shouldn’t happen
Why me?

Every time you weigh up the pros and cons of taking that political hill, assemble your buddies, make sure you’re seen (or not) by the right people, get your escape route clear, do some reconnaissance, and work to your strengths. 

In the end hills don’t matter. Integrity, courage and connections within your platoon matter. Get to it, soldier!

Rider: I have never been to war. All I know about war I have learnt from my slim knowledge of war movies. Please take this metaphor in the way it is intended: as a tribute to soldiers who have worked hard and sacrificed their lives and livelihoods so that others may live better lives.

This is a slightly amended version of an article written by Cindy Tonkin. It has been shortened to make it suitable for web publishing.

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