Navigating Institutional Politics

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(Or how I learned what I wore mattered more than I thought)

Institutional politics can be just as frustrating as office politics. Understanding your political voice is grounded in that power you have implicitly will change how you approach politics. See how I began to see and use my own political voice to make a place for me at the table.

I recently asked my readers to help me pick a topic to explore in a blog post and was not surprised by the choice to explore office politics. To be completely honest, this topic has scared me to explore because I have approached my blogs from a personal perspective on my jobs and what has impacted the development of my values. I have been waiting to write about this topic because I knew it was going to stress me out and make me worry about the politics of relationships in offices I haven’t worked in for years, decades even!

However, I have committed myself to explore professional development topics from a place of vulnerability, really looking at the choices that reinforced my personal values, or helped me re-learn a new way to express my values. These behaviors have been challenging to share, but all of the behaviors have been my own. And in this topic, I am now including former co-workers who helped shaped the office and its political landscape. In order to maintain some professional respect for these co-workers, I will refrain from talking about the institution but will use the preferred pronouns they expressed at the time to help me avoid talking in obtuse terms. I can only promise to tell the situations as I remembered them and as how I processed the learning, and I respectfully offer to change any details I may have forgotten.

I have also decided to offer this topic as a series, and will explore creating and challenging an existing institutional culture in this second entry. So here we go:

Addressing the Institutional Politics and Picking Your Battles

Last week, I began to explore office politics in a student affairs office I had worked in for a number of years. I shared what I had learned from the experiences working in a department that had developed an office culture I found hard to work within. I began to share some very personal parts of my life that I have tried to move on from, believing that the things I had learned were mine to claim. Now I see that the lessons learned were more from surviving the situation than managing it. I understand, now, that the lessons learned in crisis and pain are easy to forget once we have moved on from those painful experiences, even if the pain persists.

Once I left that office and moved on to a new institution and role, I was ready to help create and sustain a healthy office culture. I had high hopes for this position, given my previous professional experience that left me distrusting and wary, and oh so tired. While this was going to be my third position in five years, I still felt very unprepared and lacking the confidence in my skills that I had gotten me that far. But I had hope, which made me feel that I could craft a professional identity that reflected the best of my talents and mitigated the areas where I was still learning about myself.

Sadly this reminds me of one of the reasons I decided to quit a job.

I had many good intentions when I first began working in the office. I wanted to make sure I was open about my skills in ways that were not focused on my own expertise but were about advancing the mission of the department, tackling office subcultures that felt purposefully exclusive, making sure that we were always speaking the truth and avoiding manipulating behaviors that affected how we worked together as a staff team.

And what I did was do the exact opposite of all of this, and found myself in a heap of institutional culture I couldn’t avoid. I learned that I would need to pick my battles and stop a few I created.

One – Other Duties as Assigned or Finding My Own Political Voice

I remember speaking with one of the secondary supervisors I had during a one-on-one. We were speaking about what my professional goals were going to be for the following year and what she could do to help me in achieving them. I remember saying that I wanted to be better at working with and understanding institutional politics better to help me advance the goals of the projects I was working on. She stopped me and said, “Joseph, you deal with politics every day. You don’t need to do anything different or learn to do anything more than just paying attention to who has the power in the room and what you’re doing to use the power you already have.”

It was one of the first times in the nearly 10 years I had worked in higher education that someone told me that I had power in the workplace. It resonated with me because up until that point, I felt like a pawn in the institution and someone whose skills were used to the advantage of the division rather than using them to advance my own values or purpose. While its purpose was higher education, the university was a political entity by its sheer existence, and distributed power accordingly.

I was used to being ‘volun-told‘ to help solve many different institutional issues including being asked to supervise an RA staff without any compensation for a year (other than free housing but no meal plan either). Up to this point, I had been so scared to speak up for myself, given my previous office experience, that I was worried about being targeted as someone who wasn’t a team player. In retrospect, I see now that this feeling was purposefully perpetuated as a way to remove my voice from the political power. But I still did what I was ‘volun-told’ and tried very hard to look happy with the choices offered to me.

Joseph, you deal with politics every day. You don’t need to do anything different or learn to do anything more than just paying attention to who has the power in the room and what you’re doing to use the power you already have.

But then something happened that reminded me that I had my own political voice. At the end of the year, after spending nearly 12 months working nearly 60 hours a week working in two offices and still volunteering to help others within the division, I was surprised that my annual evaluation did not reflect this changing work environment and was not awarded any merit pay for the year.

Not Enough Side Eye in the World

This wasn’t about sour grapes. Though merit pay isn’t a given any year and awards were for those who scored near perfect on their evaluations, I was shocked that my giving up of my personal time and living in the fish-bowl of a residence hall without pay wasn’t recognized as outside the normal work environment. I was also very shocked that another department within the division had awarded nearly all of their staff with merit pay, meaning that nearly everyone in the department had scored this fabled near-perfect score.

There isn’t enough side-eye one can do to replicate how I felt at the time. I felt used and abused, and more importantly, I didn’t feel valued for my work. Where I had maybe complained among friends about the workload and silently suffered, I realized this was the battle I needed to engage in. I understood that my work was being devalued and there was no way to stop this from happening again. So I began to catalog what this meant for the departments I was working in and for the division. Up until this point I had accumulated many ‘other duties as assigned’ that fell into multiple buckets:

  • Leadership programming (Office 1)
  • Diversity programming (Office 1)
  • Fraternity and sorority leadership development (Office 1)
  • Student union/late night programming (Office 1)
  • First year seminar development & student portal engagement operations (Office 2)
  • Orientation leader training/operations (Office 2)
  • RA supervision and learning community development (Office 3)

I wore lots of hats, but I look really good in hats so I didn’t mind at the time.

Knowing My Own Boundaries

Mind you, this wasn’t a traditional small school, and we had very distinct hierarchical structures that kept each office autonomous. Except for me. I had become the catch-all person who was brought in to help solve some sort of divisional problem or program. And it was at this point I realized that my institutional power rested in the staff dollars saved by my cooperation and participation in any of these other duties. My voice was going to be exerted by my saying that, unless I was properly compensated for the work I was giving to the institution, I was going to leave for another job elsewhere and replacing me would take up to three different people.

This sounds threatening, but only to people who hold and wield power. To me, it was finally acknowledging that I was willing to continue being a team player but only if my talents and skills were properly recognized and compensated. I began to understand that my complicit agreement with always doing more and more without compensation was never going to be rewarded unless I disrupted the status quo. My values in collaboration and finding common purpose would never diminish, but it was no longer acceptable to ask Joseph to be the problem-solver unless (1) I was having something removed from my to-do list or (2) my pay would match the work I was contributing to the division of student affairs.

I wore lots of hats, but I look really good in hats so I didn’t mind at the time.

Thinking back, I have a very clear memory of walking into the office of one of my many supervisors and saying very clearly “I wanted to let you know that I am beginning to re-evaluate the work I have given to the school, and since I wasn’t recognized or compensated for my work for all of last year I need to find a new job that places value on what I am doing. I was disappointed that my evaluation did not recognize this reality, and perhaps it is time for the school to look at replacing the work I am doing with more than one person because right now, as the one person doing it, there is no way to do it in a way that meets the needs of the institution to be awarded merit.”

Really I loved working with this supervisor (I would work for her again in a second!) and was not shocked that she was surprised I would walk away from all I had accomplished. But as the person representing the interests of the institution in her role, she was doing what she needed to do at the time to make her staffing dollars stretch as far as they could. And I was certainly prepared to walk away from it all, at the time. I had found my voice, and spoke to the one institutional value that would get attention: how expensive it would be to replace me. I don’t think I really understood what this meant until I actually did leave this role and it actually did take at least 3 people to do the work I had been doing up until that point. But more on that later.

What I learned: Don’t be afraid to do your homework

Don’t be afraid to do your homework to see how comparable positions in your region are being compensated for the work you are doing, as assigned.

And then ask for more money or a title that matches the work you are doing. Find out how money is being distributed across the division as recognition for merit, because in a capitalist workplace, this information is purposefully kept private to keep workers from sharing knowledge that helps the community rather than the slim few.

One can’t be upset about what one is purposefully kept ignorant about – so make sure you’re doing what you can to disrupt this behavior. Knowing that women and people of color are statistically underpaid across the work spectrum, its incredibly important to make sure that your work is fairly compensated

I also learned that it was to my advantage to take on a manageable amount of other duties assigned. Perhaps doing work for three different departments wasn’t in anyone’s best interest, but the transferable skills I learned were invaluable in the long-run.

What I Learned: Take your skills seriously since they are the power you can wield

I also learned that I can speak to student learning outcomes across divisional silos and knew how to collaborate differently than my peers who only ever worked in their one office. Once I understood the political power I had in accessing this skill would be one of the best skills I ever learned, and it meant I was no longer relegated to supporting roles in the department and would be called on to collaborate outside of the division of student affairs.

Most importantly, I learned that I had more political chops than I understood. As a queer person of color, I struggled to be seen and taken seriously for the work I was hoping to accomplish and to be invited to the table to make decisions as a divisional leader. People always expected the funny, ever-witty, not-taken-seriously Joseph to show up at professional events, since that was the persona I wore when working with students. What I learned was that my work was taken incredibly seriously by those taking advantage of it, but it wasn’t being compensated, and when I began to point this out I could leverage for more resources and more pay.

What I Learned: Our outsider identities allow us to read the room differently

Once I began to be included in more leadership roles, I took advantage of this new ‘insider’ status. Because I had spent most of my professional life feeling like an outsider with an insider status, I was committed to developing ways to include more and more people at the table. I was acutely aware of who was missing and sought ways to bring this to the attention of those who made leadership decisions.

In any other context, this would have exhausted me, being the voice of the ‘other’ but I also knew that my on-up identities (being a cis-gender, pale skinned Latino, middle-class, man educated in private schools) would allow me permission to speak up when I needed to. I knew how to read the room because of my otherness, but I needed to trust my voice as the expertise that only I knew I had. This lesson has been the hardest to learn but it was one I have begun to teach to those new to the field of student affairs.

Two Blame it on ____________________ (take your pick)

The student affairs organization I worked in was challenging, at the best at times. To my understanding and memory, there were suspect hiring processes, unrealistic expectations for student engagement given the always-diminishing budget, removing work from some colleagues to-do list because they ‘had too much to do.’ And worse of all, the manipulating behavior I had described in the previous post in the series.

I’m not exactly proud to admit that I instigated this behavior in my department, more than once. I admit that I wanted to exert whatever power I had accumulated to determine how the office was run, evaluated and what work was going to be valued among my new peers. This is an example of internalized oppression, since I was putting into practice the same behavior that alienated me from my previous coworkers and created a hostile working environment. But in many ways I was not surprised that I adapted this behavior for a new office environment. I believe now that I was trying to show how great I was at my job by showing how poorly people were performing theirs. I was operating in a leadership model that valued political power rather than collegial power, and this surprised me, given my values of justice and equity.

Many of us join the rank and file of student affairs organizations because either our student experience was something we wanted to replicate for new students or so tremendously challenging we wanted to fix the system. When we begin working in a student affairs office, we are often struck by how much bureaucracy there is within the organization hidden from the student experience. And that is where our management experience really begins.

I had always thought that a collegial model was how student affairs organizations were supposed to work. But I realized after my previous position I knew that different types of environments exist that either make us want to leave or teach us the skills to survive in the organization.

Sally Lorentson, the director of orientation and family programs and services at George Mason University, shared, “Some people really like knowing the system and process they need to get something to happen. Even if they have to cut through some red tape, they really like that it’s clear-cut and a straight path. Other people say, ‘I can’t stand that I can’t get a meeting with my vice president.’ I need to have that relationship. I need to be on a collegial campus where there is that community, where there is that connection. Knowing your values around that is critical in making that transition and deciding which kind of campus you’re willing to make that transition to.”

What I learned: I am capable of my own shady behavior

I thought I was committed to creating a collegial environment but instead was teaching my students to engage in what I can only describe as shady behavior. Again, I am not proud of what I had done but it was part of that institutional power dynamic that made people fight for power by diminishing the work of others. I think when I was younger, I blamed the organization for this type of shady behavior but looking back I can identify times when I was complicit and the one perpetuating the behavior.

I learned that it is important to know what kind of landscape you want to nurture. While I was intending to nurture the collegial model, there was more power in the political model and I wanted to be perceived as someone who could wield power among his peers. I have found places that valued collegial relationships and I had to dial-down the power model I was used to working from, so I found it possible to personally change. I certainly encourage others to do this type of soul-searching to know what they want to nuture.

Also, I learned that internalized oppression can drive us to reinforce the negative environments we are trying to escape. Because I didn’t place value in how I showed up authentically, I believed I had to act like the people who had power in order to be taken seriously.

By the time I left this institution, I quickly realized that it was all for naught. There was little I could have done to change the minds of those who had the most power in the organization and no matter what I thought I needed to do, I was always going to be judged by how I looked doing the job rather than the outcome of the work I was accomplishing. My administration might say differently but that’s what I believed.

Three When It’s Time to Move On

One of the very first times I documented my work-life experience in print was an article I wrote for the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors publication Essentials titled “When It’s Time to Move On.” At the time, I was describing some of the factors that led to my departure from my position I had held for seven years and the reasons I believe might support other professionals considering leaving their long-held positions. I still believe the reasons I documented but left out a very personal and political reason that sealed the deal on signing a resignation letter.

I believed that the impact I had on the students and developing a values-based leadership and diversity experience within the organization was the proof I needed to demonstrate what I did was valued by others. People learned, students participated, staff were engaged, and I was doing what was valued by people who were in charge in the division. But I never tried to do my best, because I was personally exhausted nearly all of the time.

By the time I made the decision to leave my position, I was working for two different supervisors with competing calendars – one job was busy during the summer save two weeks and the other did programming year-round from the start of classes through graduation. The way I was operating was unsustainable and likely affecting the quality of work I was doing. Though, of course, no one ever brought this up in any way to take items off of my to-do list.

I could see around me, though, that some staff were being protected and know for certain items were re-allocated from their job to others (including me). At this point, I couldn’t ignore this and was at the point I needed to do something that protected my own professional future. I decided to apply for graduate school both locally and across the country.

During this time, I was responsible for an institutional celebration that had grown in attendance during my tenure. While I was on stage for approximately 15 minutes, I did welcome the guests and introduced the president of the institution. Given how understaffed we often were (see above to see all the hats I wore), I often set-up the event with the help of students who were trying to study for their own final exams and working on final projects. And because the program happened during the start of the warm weather, I usually did not wear a sports coat because they were too warm on the stage and, quite honestly, I couldn’t afford one of my own on the salary I was being paid. I always turned an outfit but always without a sports coat.

That is, until about fifteen minutes before the start of the ceremony when my director pulled me into her office and shared that the SSAO in our division would not let me get on stage without a sports coat. Sadly, I remember sitting in her office thinking that all my work was going to be reduced to what I was wearing and how humiliating this felt to know I wouldn’t be able to complete this task with only fifteen minutes notice.

I was exhausted from fighting the fight for the respect I felt I deserved and decided that perhaps in an organization that valued my clothing over my impact wasn’t the type of organization where I would thrive. Then, I went to my own office, wrote a letter of resignation that I left unsigned, and went to borrow a sports coat from a co-worker who was easily two sizes larger than me. With minutes to spare, I went on stage in this over-sized, unmatched coat to welcome people to the ceremony.

The Story I Didn’t Share

What I had not shared with my colleagues at that point was that I had been accepted not to one but two graduate schools, one nearby and one across the country. Prior to the ceremony I was going to commit to the local institution for their doctoral program but quickly believed that staying in that organization would not be in my personal best interests. Before the sports coat incident, I was willing to stick around and in the words of Tim Gunn, I was going to “make it work.”

But in that moment in my office, writing that letter, I realized that no matter my sacrifice, no matter how much I wanted to improve for the organization with an advanced degree, no matter the impact I was going to continue having on the student population, I was going to be reduced to how I looked among my peers and I was never going to look or sound professional enough. The next morning I went to my office and signed the letter and began the next step in my career.

I knew then it was time to go. I can see now the pressure that people from oppressed communities face in professional work environments, from the classist approach to looking professional to code switching to sound professional in the workplace. At the time, I didn’t recognize the unwritten rules against which I was going to be measured and was shocked at how simply the rules were defined for me at the last minute. Now I look for these unwritten rules all the time and make sure to challenge them for clarity and understanding. I can’t be complicit in my lack of response anymore.

What I learned: I am the best advocate for what I need in the workplace

I remember feeling sorry that my supervisor was put in the position to hold me accountable for an unfair rule, but in the end it was her responsibility to do so. I couldn’t rely on her to ‘protect’ me from these unwritten rules, as she had her own issues to tackle. However, once these rules were expressed to her explicitly, then I could hold her accountable and make sure that in the future she wasn’t complicit in these behaviors that cost her a staff member. I chose to leave before holding her accountable, but I learned to do so in the future with other supervisors.

I also learned that my self-worth wasn’t measured in the money I was making or how I presented myself but in the impact I could measure. Sadly, I was entirely disappointed that a senior leader felt he could determine how I presented myself to students and even this many years later I am angry at the situation. Still, I continue to challenge myself to look past the clothes or title but instead look at the content of the learning environment. I was willing earlier in my career to look past the times when a supervisor or senior leader tried to define my importance in the workplace, but I knew then and know now that I would rather walk away than try to defend my worth.

And finally, I learned I don’t need to convince someone I am good enough. I already am.


About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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