Let’s talk about Office Politics

Office politicsThis is clearly our most favorite aspect of office life to complain about. It’s hard to imagine a normal person expressing any liking for all the intrigues, gossips and “pointless” conversations filled with personal agendas and lacking any practical goal. Mostly we try to distance ourselves from “all that” or at least we like to think that we do.

In the spirit of AnyaWorkSmart I’d like to suggest taking a second look at how office politics really manifests in our day-to-day routine and how we can leverage its better understanding to our benefit instead of losing precious nerve cells over it 🙂

What is it?

Politics exists not only at the office: you encounter it when you bring your kid to a community centre and when you visit the wedding of your third cousin; when you negotiate with your partner who takes the garbage out and who does the groceries – every social situation that deals with distribution of power among members of social groups involves politics.

From Manager’s perspective, the essence of politics is to allow governance of more than one person, because at the very moment that any number of people joins together to form a social group, they need to regulate the distribution of power between them. And when the group begins to interact with other groups in the same field – there is an immediate need to divide power and resources between the groups. The main goal here is to make the distribution of power seem legitimate in everybody’s eyes in order to avoid open conflict. When the division is not accepted by all the players, there is a higher chance of such conflict, which may consume enough coveted resources so that very existence of the groups becomes impossible. In case of workplace politics this may well mean the closure of the department or even complete bankruptcy of the company.

So, the first thing any Manager should acknowledge in regard to office politics – there is no way escaping it, because this is how people function when they get together. The only options is to do it right.

Legitimate vs. Poisonous politics

Luckily, distinguishing between two main types of Office Politics can let us keep our integrity without completely abstaining from “playing the game”.

It’s important to distinguish between the following two types:

  • Legitimate politics – all the logistics of “working with people”. Knowing how to influence them, how to get at their best side, how to bring them together by building loyalty and solidarity; distributing different kinds of organizational power and resources, while emphasizing the meritocratic nature of this distribution; keeping the social structure intact by releasing tensions through gossip and casual interactions.
  • Poisonous politics – all the conflicts and intrigues people utilize to gain their      share of power and resources in attempt to bypass the “legitimate” path of distribution. Here gossip turns to badmouthing, meritocracy to nepotism, organizational loyalty is substituted by personal loyalties and the only way of influencing people seen as effective is manipulation.

It’s pretty easy to deduce from here that while Poisonous politics is clearly bad for the organization because it destroys its social fabric, disrupting trust and solidarity, Legitimate politics could be very beneficial when utilized correctly.    

So what we can take from all that:

Several very important thumb-rules could be derived from this basic understanding of Office Politics:

  1. An attempt to distribute organizational power and resources without seeking legitimacy from the involved players can easily turn the general mood from mutually beneficial Legitimate politics to mutually destructive Poisonous politics.
  2. When hiring people or dealing with ones already inside organization, it’s very important to understand their preferences for Poisonous politics. The organization may well do without someone problematic even though his or her professional skills are great – the amount of damage they may cause by their “poison” by far outweighs any potential benefit. When there is nothing to do about someone      who’s already inside – it’s always better to know what to expect and prepare accordingly.
  3. Invest in teaching your employees the basics of Legitimate politics. This may well prevent them from turning to Poisonous politics when they want to get something.

So remember, Office Politics is not your enemy, but rather a tool available to you, all you need is to use it properly.

In my next posts I’ll try to give some pointers for that task, so stay tuned 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Let’s talk about Office Politics

  1. Maybe there are two different meanings for the word Politics.
    1. The battle for power.
    2. The wisdom based negotiation about the responsibilities each of us have to bring harmony to our community.
    Instead of “make the distribution of power seem legitimate” I would try to “make the distribution of responsibilities be fair (the strongest shoulders carry more weight)”.
    Instead of “avoid open conflict” I suggest “resolve conflict openly”.

    I guess we are saying the same thing, but I am a stubborn radical, and you are a flexible practical person.
    I have been told that I am a dreamer.
    So be it.

  2. Yes, dear Fungus, we are saying the same thing 🙂

    However, from a purely academic perspective, a presentation of the
    problem should not include suggestions for a solution, just the
    problem itself.

    Distributing weight by the strength of one’s shoulders (commendable as
    it may be 🙂 is just one perspective on how this weight could be
    distributed. There are definitely more ways of doing it (for example,
    the strong can dump all the weight on the weak). In my definition of
    Politics I only stated the need for the distribution of the weight.
    Only after this need is accepted by everyone involved, possible
    solutions could be discussed.

    I’m always happy to know your perspective, though 🙂

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