Published: Apr 26, 2014
The Politics Of Politics
by L.A. Morris (Leslie Centanni)

(This is an archive written by the late Leslie Centanni. October, 2005) I once took a job working for a retired military guy.  He and his elderly secretary ran a small trade office in a dusty, then-developing town in southern California, and I was recently relocated, in desperate need of work.  He was a lovely old gent, and his secretary, Helen, was a sweet lady.  I was 29, and an energetic, experienced office worker who was happy to have a nice place to work for the moment.  But there wasn't much to do, and I quickly realized the "old man" had hired me simply to bring a little sparkle to the place.

We worked in a tiny cape-cod style house that was an organizational nightmare.  In the front entrance room (where Helen and I were), several desks were shoved into a corner space.  The mail/supply area was dust-filled backroom, with lots of junk piled around.  The office overall was cluttered and hard to maneuver, and Helen and I spoke of it sometimes, with her lamenting that she couldn't do anything about it, and me offering to try and help.  When it became apparent that there wasn't enough work to share, and that Helen felt a bit intimidated by my burgeoning presence anyway, I tried to assuage her job-security fears by busying myself with menial tasks and staying quiet.

Besides her elderly-person ailments, Helen suffered with a limp.  It was clear there was no way she could tackle any major cleaning projects, so as an organizer, I naturally began to think of ways to reorganize to "make things better."  From a paperwork perspective, files were located across the room, and the heavy manuals Helen used were spread about.  She had a hard time leaning over to get them and put them back.  Back and forth she would go, moving painfully about the room, while I watched and tried not to make her feel like a cripple by rushing to her aid all the time.  The mailroom was in disarray, with boxes and papers scattered around, and the copier was shoved in a corner behind a table.  Something had to give.

After about 2 weeks on the job, I could take no more.  I went to the "old man" and asked him if he would mind if I did some rearranging.  He was delighted by the offer, intimating that "Helen can't really do that kind of stuff anymore, bless her soul."  He said I could do whatever I liked.  It was a small building, so there wasn't much harm, and I promised him I'd work all night to get it done.

Later that afternoon, since Helen had taken the day off anyway, I dove into the task at hand, and began to clean and straighten, moving furniture and getting rid of trash.  If I had a question, I asked the boss, just like you're supposed to do.  I tried to keep in mind all the while that Helen was the queen bee, so focused on her needs, too.  I put her credenza, files and manuals where she could simply turn around and get them, without even getting up from her chair.  I faced her desk toward the front of the building, so she could look out the window all day, and greet visitors more easily as they came in, which she liked to do.  I dusted and washed and vacuumed, bundled trash bags into the street, and answered the phones all the while.

By the time he left, the old man was thrilled, and told me to continue on my path.  When I was done cleaning the entire office, every paperclip in its place, it was late into the night and I was exhausted.  But the whole place was truly transformed.  Now the office was a nicely designed, user-friendly space, with clearly delineated work areas, and a really smart appearance, instead of a musty old building.

The next day, Helen came back to work.  I didn't expect a parade, but I truly did think she'd be somewhat happy to have the place spruced up.  Instead, she was shocked and frankly speechless.  She moved slowly over to her chair and sat down, looking around at all the changes.  Then, she began to cry, tears sliding down her pale little cheeks.  I was mortified.

"Helen, what is it?!  Did I do something wrong?  I thought you would like it!  See?  I put your stuff over here, by you!"  She didn't answer, but looked where I pointed.  I continued eagerly around the room, telling her what I'd done and why.  "See? See?"  She dabbed her eyes with a tissue, trying to regain her composure, and finally said, "It's okay.  Really.  I just didn't expect it."  But her crestfallen face told a different story.

Right then was when I learned the lesson of the politics of politics.  The problem with Helen wasn't the cleaning or the changes.  The problem was "no one told her"!  My heart sank.  The politics of office life are very important to its inhabitants, and the importance grows exponentially the smaller the office population gets.  In this case, I had done the best thing politically for the overall business (the place received endless compliments from visitors), but the very worst thing politically in the office hierarchy.

Matters were made worse when our boss openly enthused about the changes.  I told him privately of my dismay regarding Helen's hurt feelings, and he pooh-poohed it.  But it honestly took weeks for the three of us to adjust to the emotional upheaval caused by my well-intentioned actions.  I promised myself I would never again make a major change in any environment without the "buy-in" of ALL my colleagues.  Helen did eventually come to admit it had been for the good, and that she actually enjoyed the changes.  But it was a hard way to learn an important lesson, and twenty years later, I have not since repeated my mistake.

Politicians would do well to understand this lesson, too.  It's what I call "the guiding principles of subjective courses of action or belief" or "the politics of politics."  If you truly believe, or even know, you are doing something that will serve the greater good of your workplace, town, city, nation, the world--or even just the Helen of your office--you must make sure to get every affected person involved, right from the beginning.

In a delicate and measured way, always lay out your ideas in a clear, open-minded manner, and state your case using plain facts and simple logic.  Make it understood from the outset that you want to hear what others are thinking.  Ask for suggestions, pose questions, elicit feedback.  Listen -- to their words, their eyes, their hearts -- and learn.

Diplomacy tells us we should have everyone in agreement.  Reality tells us that we will never be in complete agreement.  Leadership tells us someone must make a decision.  The point is to make everyone know their feelings are valued, and ensure they are part of the process by including them in the process.  We must take into consideration the thoughts of each person before making a decision.  Let people know why you did or did not use their ideas in a respectful, unemotional way, and encourage more no matter what the reaction.

Great rulers over the history of time have had the smarts to seek to understand the nature of human nature, and put that knowledge to work in the political arena.  But the same principle works in the home, at the job, on the team, or in our everyday lives.  Communication is the key to success.

Put another way:  Make sure you talk to Helen before you talk to the boss!

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