Guest Post: Neil Brown on the dreaded P-word

PThere’s a word that’s silently woven into our role as in-house designers – the dreaded P word. No, not PowerPoint, although that does seem to eat up more of our time than we’d all like. I’m talking about politics – as in office politics.

Although I’ve never heard the phrase “office politics” used in a positive manner, I believe there’s a positive use for “‘corporate politics” in our roles as in-house designers. Like PowerPoint, office politics aren’t something usually discussed at design school, but they’re a powerful tool and, when used wisely, can bring about great results for our careers, our team’s success and for the company as whole.

When I took on my current position as creative director for an in-house group, I was a 20-year veteran of design agencies. I thought I had seen it all – impossible deadlines, unreasonable clients, exhausting all-nighters and more. But even with all that experience, I was unprepared for the challenge of office politics that pervade the corporate environment.

On the agency side, the client/designer relationship is like casual dating. Neither of you has any illusions the relationship is going to last. And if the relationship starts to sour, the deadline is usually not far off and you can part on civil terms and promise to keep in touch (which you don’t). You just move on to the next client.

The in-house world is different. It’s more like a marriage. Relationships are deeper and breaking up isn’t really an option. You’re both in it for the long haul. So how do you survive and even thrive as a designer in the corporate world? Here are some insights I’ve gathered along the way:

Understand the landscape.
Just like starting a design project, your first task when starting a new job is to observe – understanding the culture will clue you in as to how the politics work. Some companies place a high value on mutual respect while others make you feel like a gladiator stepping out into the Colosseum.

Don’t let politics distract you from your job.
Corporate politics are unavoidable but resist the temptation to make them the focus of your job. Do what you were hired for: great work, on time, with great service. The relationships you build along the way are stronger and the trust you build is greater. And trust builds influence.

Design Tutorial: Fight the System, In-house management

Want to learn ways to get the job done? For more advice on avoiding office politics, unnecessary distractions and the best ways to get your job done in an in-house environment, don’t miss Paul Boag’s OnDemand design tutorial, Fight the System.

Plus, at the end of the day, what do you want to be known as? A politician or someone who raised the level of creative services in your company?

Look at motivation not just actions.
This insight came from my current boss and it’s something I try to remind myself of often. Assume people have the best intentions at heart. They may be going about solving a problem in a completely different and sometimes baffling way to you would but that doesn’t make them wrong. And it’s not always a political power play – they may be just trying to do their job.

The people we serve within our company have their own pressures that are not always apparent to us. When we take the time to understand their problems they view us as partners who can help them overcome these problems rather than the weird graphics person at the end of the hallway who flips out when they use a non-approved font in their PowerPoint presentation. (Really, I have nothing against PowerPoint but it is such an easy target).

Resolve issues quickly.
Nobody likes confrontation … well I can think of a few people … but since most designers are passionate and protective of their work, disagreements and misunderstandings with team members and clients are inevitable. It is here you can take note from the best professional politicians – don’t shy away from public view and hide, which can be really easy in larger corporations. Pick up the phone or – even better – go talk to the person face-to-face. When handled like this, the issue often turns out to be smaller than it initially appears, and you create a reputation as someone who knows how to handle tough business issues.

Don’t talk trash.
So the client doesn’t “get” the concept – we’ve all been there and done that. Be professional and respectful rather than mouthing off to colleagues and managers about how stupid the client is. During our careers at a corporation, we and our coworkers form many relationships with people in our own and other departments. Things have a habit of getting repeated. Don’t let something you said in the heat of the moment come back to haunt you over and over again in the future.

Friends versus Facebook friends.
Think very carefully before you add coworkers and clients to your social networks. ‘Nuff said.

Learn from others.
The good news about politics at work is it’s nothing new. Seek out people in your department and company who have been with the company for a while and have thriving corporate “marriages” with their co-workers.  Learn from them either through casual observation or by asking them mentor you.

When in Rome, speak as the Romans do.
We often forget that we speak an alien language to pretty much everyone else in the company – ever had the “resolution talk” and explain why a photo taken on a phone will not print onto a 30-foot banner? Learn how to explain what you do in a way your non-design clients and coworkers can understand.

In addition, learn how to speak their language. It will build bridges of understanding and trust critical your relationships with them.

In Conclusion
Like PowerPoint, corporate politics don’t have to be liked or even mastered, but they are an integral part of your company. Learning them will not only make your time at work more enjoyable, but in the long run could help advance your career and position your team for ongoing success.

Additional Resource

As an in-house designer, you have a lot on your plate. With HOW’s In-House Design Handbook, focused solely on issues relevant to you – from career to inspiration to client relationships – you’ll learn how to effectively navigate all of the challenges thrown at you.