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Opinion | How generosity can help you navigate power politics in the workplace

An inclusive decision-making process helps weed out intentional and unintentional blockers


Identity politics offers an interesting lens to understand Twitter wars and self-sabotaging moves by leaders. Take the recent discussions around the Amazon fires, for instance. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro had rejected the $20 million aid G7 countries were offering to help fight the fires, in effect telling other nations to mind their own business—only to later lay out terms for the aid’s acceptance. Bolsonaro said his government would accept the offer if his French counterpart apologized for criticizing his handling of the fires, and as long as it can decide how to use the assistance.

Simply put, identity politics is the process of positioning our identity to get what we want. It unfolds at all levels of daily life, especially in the office, and influences resources we have access to. Unless we are attuned to the power of identity politics, we will become its unwitting pawn.

There are four strategies that could help navigate the trap of identity politics. While they are designed for the workplace, most of them also hold true for tricky personal situations. Tricks of the trade First, map the political landscape. Key decision makers are contextual. Depending on the situation, we need to identify who they are, what they care about, and create synergies between their priorities and ours. In most cases, we cannot do this alone. We need the support of our informal support structure, especially people who are also trusted by the key decision makers. This is critical in case we don’t see eye to eye with the key decision makers or if they don’t trust us.

Second, be aware of intentional and unintentional blockers. There are always people who are keen on sabotaging agreements because their identity feels threatened by new relationships and reconciliations. They go out of the way, often secretly, to botch negotiations. While in most cases blockers don’t become strong allies, we can mitigate damage by partially adapting our stance to accommodate their fears.

Third, design an inclusive decision-making process. Despite our efforts to foster collaboration, people can sometimes feel excluded and work behind the scenes to sabotage things. That’s where Harvard International Negotiation Program founder Daniel Shapiro’s ECNI (Exclude, Consult, Negotiate, Inform) method provides a useful framework. It states that different stakeholders influence decision making differently. We need to exclude blockers, consult with mentors, negotiate with key decision makers or their trusted allies and inform everyone involved.

Fourth, be generous. No matter how hard we try, people can and will use identity politics against us. That is why it is important to take preemptive action.

The most effective strategy is to be generous and put conscious effort in being less threatening. Generosity is the most potent and resilient source of power. It expands influence, enhances structural power and increases trust. While generosity increases overall trust, it doesn’t automatically make us less threatening. We need to be seen as an ally chasing a shared goal. Being perceived as a threat has absolutely no advantage. Even if people admire you, they will do whatever they can to ensure you don’t get what you want. Simply put, we need to persistently position ourselves as people who maximize partnership and minimize resentment.

Next time you are in a high stress environment at work, or involved with multiple teams, try and identify the strands of identity politics. Remember, wherever there are people, there is politics.

Millennial Matters recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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