If you don’t do politics, politics will do you with Niven Postma

“Invisible contributions have no value”

– Niven Postma

Niven Postma is a strategy, leadership and culture consultant, speaker, best-selling author and the leading expert in office politics. On this episode of On Work and Revolution podcast, Niven Postma reveals why office politics actually do matter. “It’s not that talent and hard work aren’t necessary — of course they are. But they’re not enough.” Debbie and Niven dig deep and share how to take your career to the next level by mastering the art of work politics.

Debbie & Niven discuss:

✓ Why people feel that office politics are toxic.
✓ The DOs and DON’Ts of office politics.
✓ Debunk common myths surrounding office politics.
✓ Reveal the biggest mistakes women make at work.
✓ How remote work is changing how people build political capital.

About our guest, Niven Postma:

Niven is a strategy, leadership and culture consultant partnering with clients in diverse industries around the world to (re)ignite the discretionary energy of people and teams, and build enabling culture. She is an expert in organizational politics, and author of ‘If You Don’t Do Politics, Politics Will Do You- A guide to navigating office politics ethically and successfully ”.

She lives in Johannesburg with her partner and gets to be the proud and happy aunt to 6 siblings in South Africa, Kenya, and New Zealand.

Helpful Links:

Niven’s website: www.nivenpostma.com
Niven’s book: If You Don’t Do Politics, Politics Will Do You
Follow Niven on LinkedIn

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Open for Full Episode Transcript


Niven Postma

Thu, Oct 13, 2022 1:25PM • 32:59


Debbie Goodman  00:05

Welcome to On Work and Revolution, where we talk about what’s shaking up in the world of work right now. And there’s a lot hand mostly how we can make work life suck a little less. For people who know me, they know that, like, I’m trying to keep trying to go for a little higher bar than that I wanted to create amazing workplaces. But for some, you know, sacrifice isn’t such a bad deal right now. I’m your host, Debbie Goodman, and today we have the amazing Niven Postma. As our guest, Niven is one of the foremost global experts in organizational politics, and author of the best selling book, if you don’t do politics, politics will do you a guide to navigating office politics, ethically and successfully. So that’s what we’re talking about Office and corporate politics.


Debbie Goodman  00:54

So this book is an absolute must read. It’ll absolutely completely change and blow your mind. So while you’re listening to this, listeners do a quick Google and download it on Kindle or Amazon and plan to get this book. I’ll include the information in the show notes. Niven is not just a consultant and a strategist, she’s actually had firsthand experience in the trenches, which is why her book and her work and her knowledge is so real and impressive. There are very few women that I know who have had careers that have spanned publicly traded companies, nonprofits, and government institutions. And Niven has done it all. She is an international speaker, contributor to Harvard Business Review, she has been awarded the Archbishop Tutu leadership fellowship, and she’s currently doing her PhD. So welcome Niven!


Niven Postma  05:44

I think there were two one was when I was working for a toxic manager, and unfortunately, only ever had that once in my career, but the the head bashing politically that happened and the kind of contagion effect from that experience and my resisting what was going on, and then how it damaged my reputation. And how I became somebody nobody wants to do engage with, I can’t believe that. Oh, yeah, no, no, no, no, no, Debbie. When if we see each other again, in person, I’ll open up a bottle of wine. And I’ll tell you the whole long, sad story. But for this, I’ll just keep to the basics. And then the second one, was really when I overestimated my leverage. And when I talk about career suicide, this is one of the things I talk about. So I had enormous leverage. I haven’t looked for a role since my very first one. As with all my roles, I’ve been hit entered into this. I’ve been headhunted on the basis, basis of my experience and my track record. And so I had an enormous amount of leverage, no question. And I had a whole bunch of support. And I had a big mandate, I didn’t have quite as much as I thought. And so I really overplayed my hand in saying what needed to change. And really, from pretty much from one week to the next, things change quite drastically. And the person that I was reporting into who was very senior on exco, called me in on a Friday and said, look, it’s been absolutely fabulous having you here. And as I know, we had your performance evaluation about two months ago, and it was glowing. And we thought you were the bee’s knees. And you really, really are. But we’re going to move all of this work back into business as usual. And so it’s Friday today, you don’t need to come to work on Monday. And here’s an here is a retrenchment data. And so thanks very much. Thanks very much. But the position is now redundant. And so are you.


Niven Postma  07:28

I remember it was in November, I remember walking out of the building, I remember what I was wearing and finding my partner and being off the charts delighted. So I’ve just been retrenched. I was so happy because it was becoming an intractable situation. And of course, you know, retrenchment is a hugely traumatic experience for many people. For me, it wasn’t, they paid me a lot of money to go. And so I thought, well, hallelujah, the situation is resolved. And it was my partner who actually had to point out to me, Nevin, you haven’t been retrenched. What are you talking about? Here’s the letter, here’s the money in my bank, this is what I need to do in the week to handover. No, no, you’ve been fired? No, I have not, you know, what maybe I have. And so in that realizing. And interestingly, in terms of timing, that whole experience happened at the same time, as a good friend of mine was saying she needed a workshop developed for a leadership development program she runs. So she needed a day long module on office politics. Suddenly, I thought I told him, I have been fired. So what does that mean? And what did I not know? And in not knowing what I need to learn, and if I can learn, I can teach. And so it was actually funny, all these things happen, right? Kierkegaard quote, life can only be understood backwards, but has to be lived forwards. It was it was really a catalytic moment. And experience generally,


Debbie Goodman  08:46

I mean, I encounter in my role of running an executive search firm and interviewing people who are on the edge of feeling like they have been alienated in their organizations, because they might have overplayed their hand, they haven’t used their leverage, or they’re just a victim. It’s a very confusing state. For so many people, because they haven’t been able to see in the rearview mirror mirror yet, they often mostly just feel a victim. And they haven’t understood the dynamics of what’s been at play in order to get to the situation where they met may have thought of themselves as an absolutely Sterling performer, and have been given all the kudos and reviews and, you know, performance evaluations to prove that and to validate that for themselves, and all of a sudden find themselves completely on the backfoot.


Debbie Goodman  09:36

In fact, that actually happened to me now that I’m thinking about it. Way, way back when I was still working as a professional dancer. I was in the dance company and I was the darling of the artistic director. I was called on for everything. I was like always front and center. And then seemingly overnight, something changed. And it was a devastating experience for me because I did not I understand what had happened. And I was literally shunned. And my contract was discontinued, same thing not fired, discontinued. And it was an incredibly traumatic experience for me, because I did not understand it. And so I’m sure there are people listening who’ve experienced this experiencing this, or seeing it as maybe the always talk about, well, it’s just toxic. But perhaps there’s a role that they’ve played or just not understood what’s gone on. And I’m wondering, you know, you talk about the five myths of politics, corporate politics, I’m wondering if we can just dig into that, because I haven’t I’m sure that almost everybody who’s ever worked, has somehow had a brush or a really traumatic experience with something like this.


Niven Postma  10:49

Oh, absolutely. And I think, look for you, it’s going to be even more traumatic because it was a shock. For me, it was certainly a shock. But it was also a relief, because the situation had become so unpleasant. So yeah, I mean, I think, in that shock, if you can take some time to reflect on what role you played, because a toxic environment, look, you’ve got to run like hell. But in every other environment, what did you not understand about that environment about the rules. And so the five myths that I’ve distilled are ones that I think are really as universal as they are wrong, and as widespread as they are naive. And and when I say naive, listen, I don’t wake up in the morning to go and be a cynic. Life is too short and work and the things that matter to patients to be cynical. But somewhere between rampant idealism and cynicism, and burnout is some degree of pragmatism.


Niven Postma  11:40

And so let’s get pragmatic around how people and organizations work. And the first myth for me is the foundational myth, this, this really prevalent idea that I can either be a good person, I can have some degree of values, or I can play politics. Well, yes, of course, if you think politics are only one thing, you will think that because the one thing that they’re generally seen as is dreadful. So that’s the first one. And what I really try to teach people and you can often see a light bulb coming on is it’s not an either or it can be a both and, and in that, what are the opportunities.


Niven Postma  12:15

The second one is this myth that you can escape politics. And this is often where I hear the signs of heart breaking, you know, even if it’s people 1000 kilometers away from me. White done, I’m really sorry. If you’ve been nurturing and burnishing this fantasy that one day, you’re going to find this place where there’s just no politics, and amen, hallelujah, get on with your job. Did it go? Okay? Because you will always is you will always find politics, the question is not whether organizations will have politics, but what kind of politics they’re going to have. And so your best bet is to match up your political preferences and style with the kind of political culture that you’re going to be walking into, but to wish for a fantasy good, like, it’s never going to happen.


Niven Postma  13:00

And then the third one is a myth of regret. And I’ve said when I hear this, because people say, Gosh, I wish I’d known this at the beginning of my career. If I had known a tad different it could have been. And it’s this this myth that politics don’t make a difference to your career or your success. And I love my book title. I think it’s genius. But I think the second best book title on the subject is the one by Kathleen Kelly Reardon, where she was called, it’s all politics. And the subtitle is winning in a world with talent and hard work are not enough. And what she says and what I say, it’s not that talent and hard work are necessary. Of course they are, but they’re not enough. And all things being equal, you can take the technical ability for granted the differentiators the political capital that you have or that you don’t


Debbie Goodman  13:48

That is so profound, because I think that’s what people really miss. They’re like, I’m a I’m a hard worker, and I’m talented. And I’ve got all this validation around me to show that. And so a, why am I not getting on in my career? I often hear that from people I’ve reached the ceiling, other people are being promoted ahead of me, I’m stagnating, or I’m just, they play fit, they play favorites. And so there’s that, well, if I just work harder, I will be able to rectify the situation which feels unsatisfactory considering my skill and talent. And what you’re saying is there’s another element that we’re not taught, we don’t necessarily even know about that is standing in the witness of like, invisible barrier. Can you imagine this? Like in that you’re banging on going? Let me out or let me through. And then, right. So, okay, that is profound. Now. I’ll let you go on to number four.


Niven Postma  14:48

I mean, what you’re saying is so important, so let’s stay with us for a little while, maybe? Yeah, a few things. I don’t know how many times people have said to me, no, I don’t have to worry about this too. because my work will speak for itself, to which I can only reply with a very obvious that work does not speak. Okay, who is speaking for you? And what are they saying? The second one is building on a theme from Carla Harris’s brilliant TED Talk. So she was the first black female investment bank on Wall Street to get to a very high position, very lovely woman from all the stuff that I’ve seen. And she talks about who’s in the room for you. And it echoes advice that I was given at the beginning of my career, which is, some of the most important decisions of your career are going to be made when you’re not in the room. So who is in that room for you? And what are they saying? That is not something in job descriptions or formal responsibilities, better, right? influence and power and reputation in relationships, as to who’s going to be saying what for you? I think the third thing is, particularly with women, not only with women, and of course, not with all women, but particularly with women. Sally Krawczyk wrote a wonderful article a few years ago on LinkedIn, called the single biggest mistake I’ve seen women make at work. And she went on to say that the mistake was that we treat work like school. So exactly to your point, if I put my head down, and I just work really hard. Somebody’s going to notice and they’re going to give me an A. And it’s simply not how work works. Work is not school. But knowing, as you say, tells you this. And for me, it’s amazing how hardwired it is in so many people. So I’ll tell you a quick story of two young graduates who at a bank that I was at, both Chartered Accountants are both very smart in the graduate program. So early 20s, this young girl came to me and when she was in her early 20s, I called a young girl, young woman came to me said, I’m really, I’m really struggling because I’m smart. I’m capable. I got higher marks all through university, I got higher performance appraisals, and all this stuff that I’ve done in all the work that I’ve done as a chartered accountant. But this guy that I was at university with is like a rockstar, we’re in the same graduate program in this bank. And I walked down the passage, and people know him, people from outside of our division people more senior to us, is in me being invited here. They’re everywhere. It shouldn’t, and I don’t understand it, because technically, I’m a bit of Chartered Accountant. So I said, oh, so So I went to him. And I asked him, you know, what are you doing? How come you’re so well known, and all kinds of opportunities seem to be opening up for you. And he said to me, I just made sure that my boss knows what I’m doing, and that my boss’s boss knows what I’m doing. So I listen to this. I’m like, Okay. And then she looked at me, she’s like, but isn’t that disgusting? And I thought, gosh, you know, she didn’t say that the way that he did, it was disgusting, and totally overbearing, the obnoxious. She just said that he owned his reputation and owned his impact and made sure that other people were aware of it. And I thought, Gosh, good news is that you’re so young, you can hopefully change this. But the bad news is, you’re so young, and this distaste, any owning your value is So hardwired,


Debbie Goodman  18:05

I do think that that is that distaste for maneuvering and for promoting oneself. I definitely see that in certain cultures less so in American culture. I think it’s definitely people, particularly women are considered less distasteful. But definitely that idea of over promotion that’s kind of looked down on. And so when is it considered smart and savvy? And when is it considered by kissing? In order to get ahead? Is there anything bad about doing some good, ingratiating behavior?


Niven Postma  18:37

So, a couple of things, Debbie, I think, and interestingly is I think there are cultural nuances and just this week, lectured to a group of women, very senior women all in the US. And this was as much a revelation to them as it is to most people and women. It’s I think, it starts with Why Why am I doing this? Is it so that I can build some leverage so that I can benefit myself in my team? Or is it purely about being sycophantic? Now, I’m not sure anyone who is a sycophant would admit it to themselves. But often people you have got this aversion. When I say to them, Why would you do this? Why would you need to do this? How would it benefit you? And if you can focus on that, and then start to engage in the activities that will help you be very clear on your intentions and your motors that can make things a whole bunch easier? Often, I find people saying, oh, it’s about self promotion, when he is self promotion also has an element of of something distasteful. And so it’s also important for me that people look at how they frame things. Because if I see it as self promotion, I’m probably going to do it with my teeth gritted if I do it at all, whereas if I see it is listen, invisible contributions have no value. So do I know what my contribution is and cannot own it?


Debbie Goodman  19:57

Invisible contributions have no value, if it is not seen, it cannot be valued. And so how do you make your contribution seen so that it can be valued and appreciated by your colleagues? And superiors and yourself? Actually?


Niven Postma  20:15

And so the answer to that is it depends. It’s contextual, right? It depends on what your preferences are, how far you’re prepared to go depends on the context as well. I mean, what will be completely acceptable with one manager in one context, will be completely frowned upon in another one. I mean, I’ve seen that in my career, where in one environment, the behavior that I engaged in, was was loaded and seen as why I was brilliant in the job, I go to another environment, and people think I’m trying to run the place. So you have to figure it out for yourself. What about this feels distasteful? Is it an assumption? Or is it real? How much of this am I prepared to flex? And how much of this am I prepared to own? Like I said, How do I know when I’ve actually contributed to this organization? And an outcome is not the same as output? Don’t tell me how busy you’ve been? Tell me what you’ve achieved? And then who is it that needs to hear this? And how are they best likely to receive it? And when are they best likely to hear it? So again, we’re the most interesting, successful, astonishingly impressive people I’ve ever met. And we both know, in fact, told me when said at the beginning of her career, she sat down. And she said, every month I’m going to get deliberate about this. I don’t know what prompted her to do this. Actually, I should have asked her but she said every month, I’m going to think about who do I need to have a meeting with, to tell them what I’m doing. It wasn’t just a manager, to tell them what I’m doing, to ask for their help to get their advice to sell some things that I think they need to know about. So who do I need to have a meeting with? Who do I need to have lunch with whatever it was, every month, she did that. And all of a sudden, they’re 45, she’s on the x curve, or 60,000, strong organization. Or maybe it wasn’t. So all of a sudden, because she was so deliberate around at intentional and this wasn’t just an afterthought, it was a practice. So it depends.


Debbie Goodman  22:02

So I want to just dig in to another layer of this idea of invisible contribution and needing to not just be seen, but actually communicate what you’re doing and how you’re working to relevant people and stakeholders in the world that we are finding ourselves now, which is hybrid or remote. Because right now we are I what I’m seeing is that there are constituencies, communities, certain groups of people who are unable to really build their professional or in this case, political capital in an organization because they’re isolated, they may be working in their sort of enchilada teams, and so their own teams might know what they’re doing. But beyond that, they don’t have the opportunity to engage in the way that they might have in person. To add to that, we also know that when the option exists for remote or in person is that there are more women who are choosing the remote flexible options, because they usually carry the burden, and additional load of kids and home and all the rest. And so they are in fact, I mean, there’s already data out about how they are being disadvantaged from Korea. In fact, anybody who’s choosing remote versus in person is being disadvantaged regarding career promotions, and opportunities. So let’s like bring it to now because that’s like a real I mean, it’s hard enough navigating when you’re in person. But now, I think many people have thought, Oh, this is great. I don’t have to deal with office politics, I’m at home. But let’s let’s just talk about that. It’s so important. Right now,


Niven Postma  23:48

the myth is that politics disappear in a virtual environment and exactly to your point, they don’t so yes, before COVID. In the associated lockdowns, there was a lot of research already that people who take on remote work are disadvantaged both in terms of their engagements, but also in terms of perceptions. They’re not that committed, apparently they are working.


Debbie Goodman  24:09

And that the the little inverted commas, right,


Niven Postma  24:13

get lighter, and we’re in the office, and they’re doing whatever they’re doing. So you know, I think, of course, COVID change that for pretty much the entire working world, other than those essential services that couldn’t work from home. But yes, I think what I’ve seen in my work is that the form of how people build influence has changed, but the need for it hasn’t. And so if you never saw the need for it, you probably saw this as a great relief. no office, no office politics, but if you have seen the need for it, then you found different ways of making it work for you. So in my experience, people have become a lot more intentional and deliberate around who they’re picking up the phone to, who they’re engaging with, beyond the meeting about something as small as putting your camera on in the meeting. I mean, it still blows my mind how many meetings I voted. And it’s just a circle with initials, I mean, invisible contributions from invisible people, let’s amplify how little value that has. Yeah. And I think also the, there are so many opportunities now that I’ve certainly seen some people actually have used this time to burnish their image and their reputation. I mean, social media has many ills, let’s not even get started. But it is also an amazing platform to showcase your thoughts to showcase your experience, and who you are and to build your brand. And in that, to understand who it is you could and should be reaching us too, as well. Because, you know, building your political capital in your organization is really important, of course. And so getting deliberate and intentional about who should I be engaging with and doing some homework because it’s not going to happen automatically. The kind of creative collisions at the watercooler that McKinsey talks about, yes, you have to think about it. But there’s interesting research repeatedly. That is actually the weak ties and your nature of the people who don’t see all the time who don’t know you all that well, that actually can benefit you more in your network. Because being on the periphery, they see different things, they know different things to what you do. And so they can give you opportunities you may not have had access to otherwise information that you won’t normally come across is I think there’s multiple ways of doing it. But it requires a real step change in effort and deliberateness. As opposed to just hoping for the best if I pump into somebody in the coffee shop. Yeah. So the fifth one is this idea that political intelligence is a is a trait that you’re born with. Lucky you if you have it. Sorry, better luck next time if you don’t know,


Debbie Goodman  26:41

like leadership qualities, right? Yeah.


Niven Postma  26:44

Or in my case, long legs, I put in an order next time around, I’m having long legs, but in the summer odd, I don’t. Okay, this is a skill. And like with all skills, if you want to learn it, you can it takes application, it takes effort, it takes practice, but it is a skill. And so yes, it is a skill that comes more easily more naturally to some people. But it is a skill that everyone can learn. And very, very interesting experience is shared in workshops in lectures about people who have learned a new language. So in South Africa, I mean, you’ll know the reality that a lot of manufacturing industries are Afrikaans speaking, people who never spoke, Africans learned to speak Afrikaans it wasn’t officially required. But then you if I’m going to form relationships, and full matrix here, I need to have an in and not speaking the language. Even though the language of business is English, the informal language is Africans, people in the language, people took up a hobby they wouldn’t have been interested in otherwise. And as I say that the limit really pushed back very strongly to this whole idea of well, I don’t play golf, and I don’t mountain back, therefore I’m excluded. Well, maybe you are. In which case, do you want to learn those things? Or maybe you’re not? Because, you know, we all have the potential to form human connections, and find areas of interest in and find areas of common concern with other people, particularly at work? What what is it that people are trying to achieve? So often this thing that when I don’t play golf, or don’t smoke, I hear it and have to say it rubs me the wrong way? Because it’s more of an excuse than a reason. People are people, they are connection opportunities everywhere, how do you find them and maximize them?


Debbie Goodman  28:19

As you’re saying that I’m realizing how many times I’ve actually said, I don’t do golf, and I definitely don’t smoke. So, but there’s the coffee machine that it has, I realize it has been a bit of an excuse for me, I mean, I am a shocking golf player. So it would be more of an embarrassment than anything else, it would not be my reputation. Absolutely, that would be very embarrassing experience for me. But I know that I have actually used that as an excuse, because I find networking quite hard. And the idea of of needing to spend a whole day on a golf course, with I mean, that whole idea of that activity is just so horrific to me that I’ve absolutely used that as a as an excuse to not engage in that. And I’ve said, Well, you know, the business gets done on the on the golf course, therefore, I’m excluded from that type of business engagement. And that’s bullshit. Actually, I if I’m saying no to golf, for justifiable reasons, I should need to find my alternatives in in other ways, which I guess I have, as you’ve been talking, I think I’ve been thinking about the, what could people do right now, there have been a few little sort of nuggets that you’ve dropped through the conversation, and I’d love to consolidate towards the end to spend entertaining and informative, but what are the things that we should be thinking about doing right now for somebody who’s going okay, I’ve just got this has been such an aha, for me. I’m doing politics. So let me do it well, in a way that works for me. And there could be some small shifts that that’s that we could all be taking to help ourselves navigate the complexity of our work worlds.


Niven Postma  29:58

I think there’s three things The first is awareness. So either the awareness is, or I have been doing politics and therefore let me do it well, or I haven’t, and hold on a second, there’s a whole universe of possibilities here that I’m missing out on, I need to get deliberate and intentional and smarter on this stuff. So for me, the awareness, whatever awareness it is, is already, you’ve moved somewhere along the line of learning. And that’s valuable. The second thing then is Okay, so now I’m aware, let me start to assess myself. So if people go to my website, there’s a free workbook that they can download. There’s nine exercises that they can go through understanding how much power do they have? What kind of network do they have auditing their network, looking at the leverage that they have. So really nice opportunities to reflect on themselves, they their styles, their preferences and the context that they’re in. And then the last thing is, will now start to take action. And so the last exercise as well, is around your political strategy and crafting it. What are you trying to achieve? Either in this job, or in this quarter or with this project? You know, whatever frame of reference you have for what you’re trying to achieve? Who do you need on side? Who’s against you? How do you maximize the support? Minimize the opposition, opposition? How do you use your finite energy wisely? Because there’s infinite demands on it? How do you stay focused? And how do you use your leverage all over which you know, becomes a lot clearer once you’ve gone through the exercises? And of course, the answer will be different for everyone. So for me, awareness, assessment, action, and that action really continues for the rest of your career, though, right?


Debbie Goodman  31:33

Okay, so we will put it in the show notes. But if you’re listening, it’s Nevin Postma, P. O S. T ma.com. For access to a new world of how to navigate corporate politics, well, I’ve actually seen some of those exercises and worksheets and worksheets, they’re really really amazing. Definitely put your damn video on when you’re cool. I’ll see you if you want to be more invisible than you might already be. You know, that’s just like one amazing tip. A lot of people have gone I don’t want to do video. But hey, you got to be seen in order to get out there. And then they’ve just been so many other amazing insights during the session. So thank you so much for listeners who are interested in engaging with Nevin for speaking or workshops or all the rest. She’s available all over the world. And so you should definitely make contact. That’s nubbin. customer.com. And thank you so much. I have had the best time talking with you today.


Niven Postma  32:30

And I always have a great time talking to you. Likewise.


Debbie Goodman  32:33

Bye. Thanks for hanging around all the way to the end. It would mean the world if you would rate and review on working revolution on your favorite listening app. It helps people know that the show is worth listening to. And so I will really appreciate that. Thank you so much.


Kind podcast reviews help us make awesome content for you!

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience, analyse traffic and serve targeted content.