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Using Politics and Culture to Lead Without Authority

Aparna Ramesh is vice president of the Financial Support Office at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and a member of the MIT EMBA class of 2015.


How do you make change happen if you don’t have enterprise-wide authority? If you’re not the CEO or at a similar level, how do you lead change?

This is a challenging problem for many executives. It’s even more challenging when you’re in an analytical environment where the focus is on data. In that world, things tend to be very black and white and we assume the data speaks for itself. We can be very disappointed when our brilliant (at least it’s brilliant to us) analysis isn’t adopted.

While applying an analytical lens to a proposed initiative is helpful, research in Organizational Behavior tell us that cultural and political lenses can be just as important. The key is being aware of their existence and then correctly applying them. If you only use an analytical framework and don’t consider the cultural and political environment, you won’t get very far. But if you’re aware of your context, build the right relationships, know your stakeholders and how your organization works before you try to make change, you’ll be a lot more effective.

Here are a few tips for using these three lenses:

Know your Facts

First, make sure you’re solid when it comes to the analytical lens. Build a reputation as an honest broker when presenting data to different groups in your organization. Be neutral, show no emotions, and make sure your data is right.

Know your Culture

That data may lead you to conclude that a change management effort is necessary. Now you need to use those other lenses. Start with the cultural lens, which helps you understand the culture in which you are operating because implementing change differs among contexts. Are you at a smaller organization with less bureaucracy where it might be easier to trigger change based on the data? Or are you at a larger organization that requires navigating subcultures? For example, one division may be title-oriented so a junior analyst may not have access to talk to a senior vice president whereas another division may have an open-door policy among its leadership. Don’t assume every division is the same. Know those cultural nuances before you attempt to make change.

Know your Peers

Before you try to convince other divisions of the need for change, you need to build support among your peers. They are the ones most familiar with the issues and can be your toughest critics. If you don’t have their respect, it will be hard to gain trust from anyone else.

Know who has the Keys

You also need to know who holds the keys to the kingdom. Who is really moving the needle within divisions? This is where the political lens comes into play. If you go the wrong person, your initiative can die. Make sure you’re spending your energy on the right people. This means selling them on why your initiative is not only in the best interest of the company, but also in their division’s best interest.

Using these lenses may sound intuitive, but it’s easier said than done. It’s helpful to think about them in terms of these smaller steps because if you follow them, you’ll have a better chance of success.

How have you applied a cultural and political lens to leading a change process at your organization?

Originally Published: MIT Executive Insights Blog
Author: Aparna Ramesh