Navigating Social Politics with Crystal Richards

”This is a part of our work lives, quite frankly. And what I like about putting a label around it is that it helps you understand the framework and how you can navigate through it."

You’ve been there: leadership doesn’t tell you things, rumors happen, ...Social politics are a part of our work lives, whether we like it or not. And did you know that there’s a positive aspect to them as well? In this episode, Brett talks to trainer, facilitator, and project manager Crystal Richards all about navigating the sometimes rough waters of social politics at work, including:

  • How to detect good vs. bad social politics
  • How to observe and navigate social politics as a new team member
  • How to untangle messes created by social politics
  • Ways to build relationships at work
  • Using social politics to do good

About our guest


Crystal J. Richards, PMP, PMI-ACP
Principal and Owner, Mosaic Resource Group

Crystal is the Principal and Owner of Mosaic Resource Group, a talent development consulting firm dedicated to helping business professionals better themselves in all things project management, communications, and leadership. Crystal is a dynamic trainer, results-oriented facilitator, and versatile project manager with over 15 years of experience in healthcare management and project management working with private- and public-sector clients. Crystal is a certified project management professional, a PMI agile certified practitioner, a member of the Agile Alliance, and a member of the Association for Talent Development.  

Crystal maintains a blog and videos on project management and leadership better practices. You can access Crystal’s blog articles from her website

Episode Transcript


Brett:              Hey. Thanks for listening to Time Limit. I'm pretty excited about this episode, and I think that's because it's a topic that we can all relate to on many levels, and that's social politics. I mean, we've all experienced it in some way. I know I sure have. And my guest, Crystal Richards, totally gets it. In fact, the first thing she says in the interview is that social politics is a part of our work lives. Crystal's the owner of The Mosaic Resource Group, where she helps organizations better themselves around project management, leadership, and communications. And she's definitely seen her fair share of social politics as well. The thing she shed some light on for me is that social politics doesn't have to be all negative. You can use social politics for good. I think that's really interesting. All right. I'm going to stop talking now so you can hear it for yourself, so check it out.

Brett:  Hi Crystal. Thanks so much for joining me on Time Limit today.

Crystal:            Pleasure to be here. Thanks.

Brett:              Awesome. I'm so happy to have you here to talk about what I think is a topic that really affects most of us. Right? And that's social politics. And I think that all came kind of into my view because you presented at the 2018 Digital PM Summit. And your breakout session was called Survivor: How To Deal With Social Politics In Your Organization. And I love the connection you made to the show Survivor, and how players kind of have to adapt to their game of social politics to make alliances and meet their goal of success. And I think we tend to do the same thing in business, whether we want to do that or not. And to me, that fact makes taking a job in a new organization, or even just being a part of an active team, it makes it kind of sound scary. And I'm wondering. Should this topic of social politics sound scary to people?

Crystal:            Not at all. This is a part of our work lives, quite frankly. And what I like about putting a label around it is that it helps you understand the framework and how you can navigate through it. This whole thing with social politics came about when I was watching Survivor, and it's something that I enjoy with my family, especially with my 16 year old. And there was this theme that kept coming back and forth in the show about people who are able to survive the game have this mastery of social politics. Like the nerd I am, I looked it up to see what it means, and I couldn't find anything that defined it. And then as I kept watching the show, I saw that these themes kept coming up about people being able to master the office politics, even though they're out in the jungle. There was office politics that they had to deal with. There was this need for having a sense of self and keeping your emotions in check, and then the ability to be a good negotiator. And that all fell in line with the whole social politics concept.

Brett:              Yeah. That's really interesting. I've seen that show. It's been a while since I watched it, but I can totally see how social politics comes into play. I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind maybe giving us an example of a situation where internal social politics are prevalent and impacting a team in a project, because obviously we'd be able to kind of apply that to the show Survivor. But what are the things that are happening in organizations realtime that you're seeing?

Crystal:            I think one of the biggest things is communications, lack thereof. Right? We don't know what's going on. Leadership's not telling us in a timely fashion. And so the bad side of that is that you create rumors. There's gossiping that ensures. People have all these wild ideas in their head. But the good politics is when you actually step up to the plate to management and say, "Hey. We want to help in the communication sharing. Do you think it would be helpful if we set up a Slack channel, or a newsletter, anything that we can do to help?" And it's that positive aspect that positions you to be someone that's a resource in the organization. And then when there's another great idea, or this thought bubble, you might be the first person that comes to mind when it comes to that thought bubble idea.

Brett:              Yeah. You mentioned kind of good and bad politics. And I'm curious about how you might be able to detect the good versus bad. I mean, obviously, you get a feeling. Right? You kind of just generally know when something's bad. But in my experience, these kind of things can take some time to uncover. So I'm just curious about if you have any methods for how to kind of uncover good versus bad politics or how to handle them.

Crystal:            Well, I think the telltale signs of when it's bad office politics, or negative connotation to office politics is, in a word, when you feel icky. You know that you're not feeling good about maybe what was said or shared. And you're like, "If this were me in this position." And then the good politics is if you are focused on: How do we solve this situation we're in? What's the potential resolution? I think that's where you can see a distinction when you're actually doing something to contribute and add value to the organization, or in the case of being a project manager, my world, adding value to the project, how you move it ahead.

Crystal:            It is definitely your values. If you feel that they are being undermined, if you are not feeling at your best, you're probably in a situation that's not in a good light of office politics. But if you are doing something that your leadership really values, they recognize it, and they consider you for other opportunities in the organization and move things forward, that's all for the good. When I did this presentation at another organization, someone summed up very well. There's the office drama. That's really the bad side to office politics. And then there's the good side to office politics. And so office drama, how they summed it was you're focused on rehashing the past, what they did, how they did it. But office politics is focused on moving forward. How do you get to know who the power players are? Who can help you kind of form alliances, who can ally yourself with to move ahead and move forward in the organization, and that's the key distinction there.

Brett:              Yeah. That absolutely makes sense, because while you were talking, I was thinking, "Well, a lot of this is personality." Right? There may be just personalities that I click with that you don't click with. And it's not necessarily politics. It's just kind of like personal behavior. But when you mention that it's about digging up the past, or focusing on the past, rather than focusing on the future, it kind of makes sense. It kind of opens up, like oh, this is why things are happening the way that they are. Right? There's a difference between the drama and the actual politics.

Crystal:            Right. And you said something there about the different personalities. I think it really drives it down to there are a cast of characters always in an organization, so I was kind of chuckling because I was thinking about it's the same cast of characters, just different names. You can call it The Office, you can call it a Dilbert's comic strip, whatever it is. But it's the same people. And there are two things that I always kind of coach people. Figure out who those characters are. There's the backstabber. There's the gossiper. There's the hard worker. There's the martyr, who stays until late. And then the second question you need to ask yourself: Well, who am I in all of this? And then you can kind of figure out how to navigate in that space. But it's always, even in just plain old politics, those folks down the street from me being in the Washington DC area, they figure out what their personal interests are, what they are focused on to get their constituents' needs met.

Crystal:            That is politics in and of itself, so when you bring it into the office, you need to know what their interests are, what they are interested in moving forward in the organization. And there are going to be some ideas that you come up with that are not popular. And there are some ideas that it requires that you get people who are going to support you and be up to bat for you. And that's in any organization that has human beings, you're going to have some type of politics, even in your own household.

Brett:              Yeah. It's funny that basically social media, or just the media, has kind of nailed the personas within organizations, just through cartoons and television. But I kind of feel like, yeah, we're aware of that. But for someone new, who's just kind of getting caught up in ... Or not getting caught up, but kind of like getting started in a new organization, let's say started at a new job, and you're aware that there's politics around. But what would your recommendation be for someone like that, who's kind of just stepping into a new job and wants to kind of observe and navigate the politics early on in an organization, where you don't have a lot of experience, you don't know the personalities? What's the best way to handle that?

Crystal:            It's asking questions. It's everything from: Who do I need to go to, to get the best pins around here? I know that this executive or this manager is really busy. Do I need to go through their administrative assistant, or their intern, to get on their calendar? And then you find out that you need to know that admin assistant and get to know them more so than having to actually bust down the door of that manager. I always liken this to stakeholder engagement when you start a project, and you put together your list of the points of contact. And you're asking those same questions. Who's who in the organization? What is their role? What are their interests? And as you start out in a job, it's being curious. It's humbling yourself. And it's a reasonable ask of, I want to make sure I don't step on any landmines. Is there anything that I need to know about, don't take someone's lunch? We loved sharing lunches at our last organization. And it's like, no, that's a big taboo. Don't do that.

Crystal:            Or asking questions of, "Hey. Do you all have happy hours, or lunch and learn sessions, so that people can get to know about some of the ins and outs of the organization?" They may say, "No. We don't have that." That's an opportunity for you to step in and kind of just ask on a curious level, "Do you think the organization would be amenable to that? I'd love to help out." And I think you always have to put yourself out there as helping out, as opposed to trying to change things. But I'd love to be of value to the organization. Do you think this is something that this organization would be okay with? It definitely is being curious and asking, so that you don't step on people's toes.

Brett:              Right. Yeah. I think it's really easy. I know that I've hired people, brought them into an organization, and see them asking questions in a way that isn't helpful, so I think the framing of the questions. Anyone who listens to anything that I do for TeamGantt knows that I always say, "Don't be scared to ask questions. Always ask questions." It's going to help you to build relationships. It'll help you to educate yourself. You'll learn about things that you don't know, people you don't know. Asking questions and being open is always good. I think there's an art to the framing of questions sometimes, and the followup, which I think you're also alluding to.

Brett:              I want to talk about another sit though. We covered kind of the new employee. Let's say that new employee is a year or two in, and they suddenly find themself caught up in politics within the organization. Now I know that this is kind of a tough one to answer. But are there any steps you would kind of recommend to take to kind of untangle that kind of mess that you find yourself in? Really, what we all want to do is go to work and produce good work, be successful, be good in our jobs, make people happy, earn our paycheck, so to speak. Right?

Crystal:            Right.

Brett:              And sometimes the politics gets in the way of feeling really good about doing that stuff. What do you do if you do find yourself in the middle of that kind of situation?

Crystal:            It certainly depends on your personality. I'm always the type that wants to take the stance of being a problem solver. And a lot of times, I don't know if it's necessarily obvious, but a lot of times the reason behind maybe the drama and the gossip is that there is a problem. There's some issue at hand. I always try to take the perspective of, we're getting nowhere, and I know this is really draining. What can I do to help you kind of resolve this? I try to nip it in the bud as early as possible when I start an organization. If someone comes to me, and they feel that they want to start gabbing, it's a couple of ways. I either deflect and say, "You know, I really, really want to talk to you right now, but I have to get this done." Sometimes I, depending on how close our relationship is, I'll always kind of quip, "I have drama at home. I cannot deal with it at work. If you need me to help you deal with this, you know I'm there for you. I definitely want to make sure that you can get over this."

Crystal:            Or sometimes, and even I can be the offender, and what I'll do is I'll say, "Look. I need you to give me five minutes to be petty. And then no longer than that, and then I need you to help me to figure this out." It helps a lot when you frame it.

Brett:              Interesting. Yeah.

Crystal:            Because we're human, we all get upset. Gosh, we talk about our significant others and our kids. And then you get over it, and then hopefully the friendships that you make, the relationships that you build in the organization, they can be people that you trust. And that's what it comes down to. We're going to slip and say things that probably, if it were recorded, that you would be embarrassed. But we have the best of intentions. Like you said, do good work, add value to the organization. There are definitely ways when you build the right relationships in the first place, there are ways to recover and say, "You know what, this is really draining on you and me. Is there anything that we can do to try to resolve this and still have a healthy relationship?"

Brett:              Definitely. It sounds like a couple of the things that you offered there, basically doing what you can to kind of steer clear of the politics, so that you can really focus, and in some ways, deflecting a little bit of the drama and giving in only at times where you feel like, okay, if I don't have this conversation now, it's either going to get worse, or I'm going to miss something, or whatever the case might be. Are there any other kind of ways that you think people could just completely steer clear of politics? I think back to my jobs in higher ed. And the type of employee there, for me, at least in my experience, it ranged.

Brett:              There were people who were leadership, and obviously deep into their careers, and making names for themselves. And there were people lower on the totem pole, so to speak, who were coming in to make a check every day, to earn their paycheck every day, and getting their work done no problem, but really steering clear socially as much as possible. I don't necessarily think that that's the best way to be. That's just my personal opinion. I'm wondering if you have thoughts on that, and if coming to work, doing your work, leaving is a healthy way of kind of handling your career.

Crystal:            I would definitely say it's not. I don't know if it's the healthy way. It's not the best way to move ahead if that's your goal. Just like as a consultant, I always get the reminder. People want to do work with folks they know, like, and trust. That's the same thing even in your office setting, if you're a full-time employee. People want to give you opportunities because they know, like, and trust you. And if you're just doing your work, getting your paycheck, and you're not building relationships, there are going to be others in the organization that are going to get ahead just because of the fact that they build the relationships, they've had the small talk. They've gone to the office social gatherings. That is just the way we work, and the world works, the work world works.

Brett:              It's very true.

Crystal:            But I think the problem for folks is the boundaries. There's the TMI that we have to say to each other. There is, I love going to the golf course, and that's where you have a conversation about, "Oh, what are you doing to take lessons? Where did you go? I bought a new golf club." Those are the relationship building. It's the boundaries when I go to the golf course because I cannot stand my wife. Whoa. That's TMI. That becomes the drama factor. And there are folks that the boundary is obviously that person who made that comment, they crossed the boundary. But you can still overcome that as the recipient of that information by not letting it go beyond that, beyond that two way conversation.

Crystal:            And this is where they feel that they can trust you. Now obviously, if they're the type of person that's kind of loose lips with a lot of people, then that makes you uncomfortable in general. And sometimes you might have to just kind of, when they do that, like, "Whoa. That was interesting. You know what, I have to go check, make this phone call. I need to go check on this report, the TPS report. I need to get out the door." There are definitely ... Sometimes I think I have on my forehead, share a lot.

Crystal:            And I appreciate that they're comfortable with me to share that information. But it does put me in an uncomfortable position that I have to set those boundaries. And depending on how far along we're in the relationship, I might have to just say, "I really, really love our time together talking about golf. But I'm not in a position to hear that because I feel like I need to give you advice, and I'm not equipped to do that." And people recognize that, you know what, I've said too much. It really does put me in a really uncomfortable position with this person.

Brett:              Yeah. That's interesting because you're right, I think our lives are made up of relationships. And we have to work at building those relationships, whether it's a friendship with a coworker, or a relationship with a spouse or a partner. Right? It's just all on different levels. And I think setting up those boundaries is not really something I actually thought of in the workplace. Obviously, I'm not good at social politics. But I do see the value in building relationships and getting to know people. And clearly, that's kind of the cornerstone of how you do a lot of ... I guess, how you're successful in a lot of what you do in your career. I'm wondering if you've got any kind of tips or tactics for how folks can build relationships with team members, or even just coworkers, or managers.

Crystal:            The easy one's coffee, whether it's in the break room, whether you're driving in, and text before you get on the road. Hey, I'm going to stop at Starbucks. Do you want anything? And just building those relationships there. And it doesn't have to be an hour long conversation. It can be 20 minutes to talk about, "You've been here a long time, and I've noticed." And that's a way of some of those questions. I've noticed you've been able to handle yourself, or you're able to navigate this really sticky situation. How do you do that? And picking their brain about that, and people love to share about their experiences. And they're flattered when you recognize a talent that they have, or ability to kind of navigate through a sticky situation. Most folks are willing to share. Certainly, you're going to run into those folks like, "I don't know. I just figured it out." But most folks are, I think, intentional enough, and value that you seek their opinion.

Crystal:            Being in the DC area, it gets hot in July and August. And do you want to go the fro yo place? That is such a unique thing to ask someone at 2:00, 3:00. 3:00, let's face it. Most of us are pretty much done for the day. So walking over and getting some exercise and a breath of fresh air, and just getting out of the office, I have built many relationships with folks that way, working on a consulting engagement a few years back. Those are just some of the memorable moments. I just always seem to recall them kind of put a smile on my face. And that's a way that I've found building relationships. So it doesn't require that you go to happy hour. If you just have, whether it's social, or personal issues around being an alcohol based functions, religious, what have you. But there are definitely ways that you can still reach out.

Crystal:            Show up to a meeting that's scheduled at 9:00, show up at 8:45. I guarantee you there are a couple of folks in there who are early. Or if you're the first one there, they're going to come in like, "Oh, I thought I was the early bird." And it's like, "Yeah. I try to be early because here's what I try to do." And if you start sharing something, a unique quirk about you, they're like, "I do that too."

Brett:              I like that.

Crystal:            Then you start building. And there are some people, who even if you're not a small talk person, there are some people who really need that. And when you feed that need, and again, if you just let them talk, they'll talk your heart out, and you don't have to say a word. If you ask the right questions, they'll be telling you all about maybe their weekend, or how they navigated. Or how did they get through a meeting that has 45 people? Those are things that you can gain from those interactions.

Brett:              Interesting. If you're an introvert, show up to your meetings a little bit early. You might not have to do much work at conversations, or starting conversations. And you'll just get people to like you.

Crystal:            Exactly. Exactly.

Brett:              I think one of the things that I wanted to cover is that when you hear the terms social politics, or even politics within your organization, it feels kind of like a negative thing. And I'm wondering if there's such a thing as positive politics within an organization.

Crystal:            There is. I run this program where I'm mentoring a group of folks, and a lot of times, they just love less talking to me and more talking to each other to find out we're all going through the same issues. And office politics is something that came up. And we had this debate about office politics, it has such a negative connotation. And we kind of reframed it. Well, how about political awareness or political savviness? It's still one and the same, but if it makes you feel better to say that. But the politics is there. That, you cannot avoid. And if you are aware of who the power players are, if you aware of who can advance your mission of your career, or advance the mission of your project, or whatever initiative you're working on, that is an aspect of office politics.

Brett:              Interesting. Wondering if you can use those politics to do good, either within your organization, for your organization, or on behalf of yourself. Have you ever seen anyone kind of turn politics around to make it into a positive situation?

Crystal:            Yes. And it's just there, and you kind of figure out which direction you're going to take. I worked with an organization that I felt they were too niched in one particular area, and they weren't really expanding. And instead of me complaining about it, talking about how leadership needs to do this, I actually gave them an idea. And it was actually something career wise I wanted to move forward with. So I had introduced, how about we provide a training and development service line. And they're like, "Okay. We'll do some research on it." All right. Great.

Crystal:            I said, "I'm also working on getting my graduate certificate in training development, so that can be a capability that we can add to our capability statement." And they're like, "Oh, that sounds really interesting. Tell me more." So as I was doing more research, I was presenting it back. And now that I had offered this idea, it put me in a position to put out there, "Well, can I attend this meeting? And I can come back and present to you all the lessons that I've learned and the findings." They're like, "Absolutely."

Crystal:            If I had just said I wanted to go to this with no context, with no kind of background as to why it's going to benefit the organization, I probably would've been hard pressed to get that opportunity. So if you can put it out there as a way that adds value, and that also gives you an opportunity to add more value to the organization, that's the positive side. And you know who to talk to and approach this to, that is the positive side to politics.

Brett:              Yeah. Absolutely. And I feel like project managers are really well suited to that because they kind of sit in the middle of teams and management and managers of kind of disciplines. They're kind of all knowing in some respects, and seeing all of the kind of moving people, I guess, and moving projects and deadlines. There's a lot of info to take in there, and a lot of kind of wade through to figure out. How can we turn this situation that might feel like it could be negative into a positive? Whether that's on a project, or within an organization, or a team. That's really interesting.

Brett:              All right. I have one last question for you. As you know, our show is called Time Limit because we know that most people are trying to do the most they can at work with pretty serious constraints. And it seems like dealing with social politics could in some ways be a real drain on your time at work. I'm wondering if you have any tips for someone who may be experiencing issues related to social politics, but is also trying to focus on getting a mountain of work done, and lead a real healthy, balanced life between work and home. I guess what I'm asking is essentially: How do you deal with politics in the least amount of time?

Crystal:            It's the same techniques that I talked about before, showing up 10, 15 minutes early before the meeting. If you're leading the meeting, oh my gosh, if you can end it 15 minutes early, you are not only a god for the day because you gave people 15 minutes back, but that also gives you an opportunity to maybe catch somebody after the meeting. If there's nothing else on the agenda, I give you all your time back, and then grab them and see if you can get ... Because they already had it booked anyway, see if you can get a little bit, five, 10 minute one on one time with them.

Brett:              I like that. Yeah.

Crystal:            The afternoon walks, again, if you're in an area that it's nice weather, and you've got comfortable shoes on, having those afternoon walks to just catch your breath, I think that is valuable. And if there are things that your HR team, I think one of the valuable kind of fun ways that I've built relationships, our HR team had a health challenge. And it was competitive, so it still spoke to our competitive nature. But they were quick wins that we could have, as well as staying healthy. Giving everybody pedometers. Is that what that's called?

Brett:              Yeah. You got it.

Crystal:            Having people do points value with what they ate today. And we just would talk about that like, "What salad did you get today?" And, "Ooh, this is really good." And that's where you can integrate some of those elements of having that personal relationship, while showing up early to a meeting, or saying, "I'm going to get tea as opposed to coffee." And these are all things that you can even do virtually. We didn't get into that. But I have built a relationship with someone I haven't met, and she pushes things that I need to get pushed through the contracting office lickety-split, all because I built a relationship with her about gardening.

Brett:              Yeah. I always feel like whether you're dealing with a partner within an organization, a stakeholder within, or even a client outside of the organization, making that little extra time to just be a human and connect with someone on something that isn't necessarily just about work, I think gets you further ahead in that relationship in the long run. So if things do get difficult, and you've built that relationship, maybe it won't be as difficult as it could've been had you not really taken the time to get to know one another.

Crystal:            Yeah. And I had someone come up to me. She said, "What you said made so much sense because now when I think about, when I ask people to do things that maybe were outside of their scope, or outside of their lane, they would always say to me, 'Because it's you, I'll do it.'" And it's exactly because she built that relationship. And we're going to go up to bat. We're going to stretch ourselves for people who we know, like, and trust, all because we built those relationships.

Brett:              Sounds like politics to me.

Crystal:            Yeah.

Brett:              Hey, are there any other topics or tips that you wanted to cover while I've got you on Time Limit?

Crystal:            Yeah. Ask. That is something so simple, but people have a hard time. But just think about asking, whether it is salary, new opportunity, a new service line that you want to introduce to the group, the worst they can say is no. And just asking, so that you're not caught up in this mental abyss of, "Well, what if they yes. What if they say no?" Just ask.

Brett:              Right. Just do it. Get over the hump.

Crystal:            Exactly.

Brett:              Do it the first time, then you'll do it every other time.

Crystal:            Exactly, until they say, "Stop calling me."

Brett:              Leave me alone. Well, Crystal, thank you so much for joining me today on Time Limit. Really appreciate it, and I hope you get to join again sometime in the future.

Crystal:            That would be awesome. Thanks so much.

Brett:              Thanks. So there you have it. Whether you're in the middle of an awkward or maddening work situation right now, or you're just trying to find your path in your organization, I hope this episode with Crystal has helped you. And if you're liking Time Limit, we'd love it if you rated the show. Sure, we'll take five stars, or whatever you give us. But seriously, we hope you enjoy the interviews, and will reach out if there's something you'd like to hear about on the show, or if there's a guest you'd like to hear from. Thanks again for checking out Time Limit, and we'll see you on the next episode.

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