This article first appeared in our biweekly newsletter, The Executive’s Guide to the Content Galaxy.

Last week, I spoke to a class of graduate accounting students at Ball State about storytelling in their careers. We had a lovely and thoughtful discussion (and they rewarded my efforts with their rapt attention and a neat plaque).


Amid talk of the technicals of good storytelling and analysis of recent finance/communication failures (think FTX and SVB), we spent time applying this stuff in their accounting careers. They wanted to know: What can relatively entry-level talent actually do with storytelling in a company?


Storytelling is the basis of persuasion — directing folks toward a course of action through reason, emotion, and trust. It forms the backbone of interactions between people and teams within business organizations. Or, by another name, “office politics.”


In my experience, schools (and, later, companies) skip discussing “office politics” because it’s seen as gross, unlikable, and downright ugly. Office politics is the shady VP stealing credit for their underling’s work. It’s the CEO browbeating teams into submission on a course of action. It’s the gossip that transforms into problems and gets people fired. There’s tons of research about the many ways office politics goes wrong.


But we do ourselves and the next generation a massive disservice by ignoring the exercise of social and political capital within companies (a more abstract definition of office politics). Yeah, office politics can and does go very wrong, but it fuels significant change initiatives. It’s what makes “movers and shakers” move and shake.


So, what should we tell these soon-to-be graduates about office politics? And what roles do leaders play in all this?

I feel a change comin’ on

The World Economic Forum’s latest Future of Jobs Report reiterates the dire need for workers with soft skills in companies worldwide. They specifically note:


The socio-emotional attitudes which businesses consider to be growing in importance most quickly are curiosity and lifelong learning; resilience, flexibility and agility; and motivation and self-awareness – evidence that businesses emphasize the importance of resilient and reflective workers embracing a culture of lifelong learning as the lifecycle of their skills decreases.


So, coding languages change, but the curiosity and agility to learn new languages are what companies need from their people. These types of employees need environments that foster and reward lifelong learning.


And paramount to a culture of lifelong learning? Change. In a business context, change includes alterations to systems, processes, or resources and the advocacy, conflict, and support necessary to effect said change.


Change means moving something from a current state to a desired future state. Conducting that act with more than one person involves — you guessed it — politics.


Through time and experience, we build relationships with our coworkers, bosses, direct reports, and others in the working world. Those relationships operate on spectrums: sometimes, we lean more on a pal, and sometimes, they lean more on us. The ebbs and flows of relationships represent the transfer of “social capital” (or “political capital,” which I’ll use interchangeably).


That’s why you might feel iffy about asking for a week of PTO right after asking for a raise. You feel like your boss is doing you a favor, and you’re waiting to reciprocate that favor before asking for another one. This is social capital in action.


So, when you want to advocate for change, you encounter office politics. To succeed, you need soft skills (curiosity, agility, resilience) and practice applying political capital. Unfortunately, this is where most “thought leadership” today falls flat. Folks want to know the practical steps to deploy political capital within office politics. Instead, they receive either a generic “just avoid it” or well-meaning but toothless advice:

  • Encourage a culture that celebrates and rewards everyone’s achievements.
  • Institute policies that support open feedback.
  • Engage positively and strategically.
  • Develop networks through collaboration, not competition.

I call these the “No Shit, Sherlocks.” They’re the banal platitudes we throw out instead of contemplative answers reflecting our learned experiences.


Should you foster a positive, collaborative environment where everyone can be heard and applauded for contributions? Yes, duh. Is that a practical application of social and political capital, especially for entry-level talent? Nope.


Instead, we need our people to embrace the soft skills behind well-executed office politics — and be equipped with the tools and resources to champion change. They need to know how to deploy political capital responsibly to support their growth — and your business’s success.

It starts with negotiation

To avoid leaving you with a No Shit, Sherlock, I offer the next step to train your people on deploying capital wisely: practice with negotiation.


Exercising social and political capital effectively starts with strong negotiation skills. Negotiation sometimes has a dirty connotation, too, like office politics.


But it isn’t the hard-charging, fast-talking salesmanship of sleazy car dealers and stock brokers. Negotiation is persuasion. It’s listening to each other, empathizing with their position, and using logic and emotion to develop arguments to sway them toward a new position.


Negotiation is storytelling.


The best negotiation resource I’ve ever used is Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator with numerous international successes who turned his experiences into a consulting practice to teach others how to negotiate.


His TEDx video is a great introduction to his negotiation principles:

The soft skills he highlights, like active listening and demonstrating empathy, should sound familiar. Combined with wise social capital expenditures, trained employees can achieve organizationally positive outcomes. I won’t spoil Voss’ message, so dive into his material (which is usually packaged in easy-to-use templates and guides).


Now, not all office politics is above board. Credit thieves will steal your spotlight, jerks are real and plentiful, and cliques will whisper about secret love lives. But broadly instructing employees to Just Say No to office politics limits opportunities for newer talent to learn, develop, and grow soft skills — just when we all need them the most.


As company and agency leaders, we must foster the culture that all the thought leadership keeps telling us to create. Much of this isn’t being formally taught in schools or internships, so there’s a gap for emerging talent that agile organizations can solve to their benefit.


This doesn’t mean we sand every edge to spare our employees pain; advocating for change is hard, and negotiations can fall apart for many reasons. It does mean:

None of this is easy, but our organizations benefit from talent who know their way around a persuasive argument. You want people who listen to and empathize with each other (and their clients) and believe in working toward a common goal, even if they disagree on the steps to get there.


Organizations that embrace a healthy view of office politics and equip their leaders and team members with training and space will attract high-quality talent like the students I spoke to last week. They’ll build faster and better in a world demanding more soft-skill usage. And they’ll deploy social capital intelligently to create the kinds of dreams teams you and your clients desire.

A lot of my work is managing relationships and political capital during change initiatives. If your PR agency is thinking about changing a few things around content, let’s talk about how I can help you navigate those conversations and get running in the right direction.