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Navigating shadow organizations in the workplace

4 min read


Your company has a shadow organization, whether you realize it or not.

That doesn’t mean that your company is running a spy collective worthy of the CIA. It means that your business has an unofficial set of relationships that influences how things are done in your organization.

Navigating these shadow organizations can be the difference between surviving and succeeding in the workplace. Here’s how you can find your way through:

1. Reframe “office politics.” Workplace surveys show that the majority of employees reluctantly engage in office politics, and nearly half of them believe it detracts from productivity. So how can you boost your career without engaging in dog-eat-dog politics? Start by reorienting your assumptions about what the term “office politics” means.

  • Replace the word “politics” with “awareness.”
  • Recognize that organizational awareness is all about communication and relationships.
  • Commit to using organizational awareness in a way that benefits everyone, not just you.

People who navigate office politics successfully are perceived as sincere, socially astute, influential, and good networkers, according to University of Florida researchers. There’s nothing sleazy or unethical about that.

Organizational awareness sets you apart as someone who fosters relationships and influences key decisions. Leaders take note and reward employees who advance the company without pulling power plays and making enemies.

2. Ask yourself, “How can navigating our shadow organization help me climb the career ladder?” Avoiding politics altogether can be deadly for your career. Every workplace has an intricate system of power, and you can — and should — work it (ethically) to your advantage. By becoming politically adept, you can learn to:

  • Rise above power plays and interpersonal conflicts.
  • Build a reputation as a go-to person.
  • Gain access to resources, information, and opportunities.
  • Influence outcomes and get buy-in for ideas and initiatives.

These are all skills you’ll need in a position with recognized influence.

3. Identify how you can use shadow organizations to stand out as a leader.

Map your company’s shadow organization parallel to its traditional organizational chart. If you understand your shadow organization, you understand how power and influence are won in your company.

Pay attention to the nonverbal behaviors of the people around you. Sense how people are feeling beyond what they’re saying. Participating in active listening — and withholding judgment — allows you to understand subtext.

4. Build relationships. Identify people with whom you should build relationships. Take at least one month to build your network without imposing an agenda on any of these relationships. Map an “ideal network” chart, then look at it from three perspectives: Where you have positive relationships, enhance them; where you have no relationships, build them; and where you have damaged relationships, repair them.

5. Create strategic networks. Effective networking isn’t about the number of people you’re connected to. In fact, according to Rob Cross, an expert in organizational network analysis, there is a statistically significant negative likelihood of becoming and staying a successful leader if you simply know many people. The quality of your network matters more than its quantity.

6. Leverage your network. As relationships mature, your network can help you build visibility, improve difficult relationships, gain access to information and attract opportunities. For this to work, you must be clear on your career goals and who in the organization can help you achieve them.

Networking connects you with people in the know — lending greater insight and more leverage in building your own visibility and influence. A well-developed network helps you move more easily across geographic and departmental lines. And excellent connections can help you further understand the informal structure of your company.

While your organization may not be a spy agency comparable to the CIA, it does have its own murky underworld to navigate. If you can identify the informal relationships and power struggles in your company, you’ll be ahead of the game — and that much closer to casting a shadow of your own.

Bobbie LaPorte is founder and CEO of RAL & Associates, a career and leadership development firm helping senior-level executives create professional goals. Bobbie previously served as GM, COO, and CMO at companies such as IBM, GE, and UnitedHealthcare, as well as two health care technology startups.

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