Like many of you, I don’t like politics at the workplace.
Over time, though, I have realized that politics is an unfortunate reality in all organisations (big or small).
Therefore, learning to deal with politics is very important. We might think that we can simply ignore or refuse to get involved, but practically, this is almost impossible.
So, this week, my message explores the tricky world of office politics. What are the underlying reasons for this phenomenon? And how can we deal with it, as employees and as leaders?
Michael Jarrett, a professor in organisational behaviour at INSEAD, offers the following definition:
Organizational politics refers to a variety of activities associated with the use of influence tactics to improve personal or organizational interests. Studies show that individuals with political skills tend to do better in gaining more personal power as well as managing stress and job demands, than their politically naive counterparts.
At some level, all organisations are political. Office politics are rooted in human psychology, which includes complex emotions, underlying biases and deep-rooted insecurities. As Dale Carnegie wisely noted:
When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic but creatures of emotions.
Plus, workplaces inevitably create tug-of-war scenarios, pitting one party against another. During these power struggles, people resort to playing underhanded games. The desire to gain the favour of bosses can add to the tension.
While politics exist everywhere, the level of activity differs. Kathleen Kelley Reardon, an expert in workplace politics, outlines four categories of organisations:
- Minimally political: There is a sense of overall camaraderie. People occasionally grant favours and bend rules but surreptitious behaviours are largely absent.
- Moderately political: A team mindset can be found across the organisation, interspersed with pockets of politics and conflict.
- Highly political: There are several cliques at work, each with its own agenda. Who you know and get along with becomes very important.
- Pathologically political: Daily interactions are filled with friction, and surreptitious behaviours become the norm. It’s hard to get anything done without going around people or procedure.
In pathologically political organisations, unwritten rules govern who gets what – from talk-time and resources, to project approvals and promotions. Often, these decisions are in conflict with official policies. In other words, the system is rigged – and this is why most employees, especially those who are competent, diligent and well-intentioned, hate working in such organisations.
Out-of-control politicking is unhealthy for any organisation. It wears out and demoralizes employees and creates an atmosphere of ill-will. People start hoarding information or even actively working to undermine their co-workers. Simple tasks become mired in complexity, and talented employees start quitting. The organisation suffers.
Which begs the question – why do some leaders let politics run amok in the ranks? There are a few possible reasons. One is insecurity. If the leader takes a stand against politicking, they might become a target themselves, which could put their popularity or effectiveness in jeopardy. Another reason could be that the leader is manoeuvring office politics to their own advantage: playing on employees’ insecurities is one way to retain power. Finally, the way in which leaders achieve their success may also add to the problem, as explained in an article in the Harvard Business Review:
Because most organizations promote individuals who are politically savvy, managers and senior executives tend to perpetuate rather than inhibit office politics. If you are rewarded for playing the game, you surely have no incentive to stop playing.
Recommendations for leaders
Any politics in an organisation tend to be driven by the top leadership. While good leaders don’t indulge in underhanded political behaviours, they must certainly know how to manage interpersonal tensions and dynamics. As a leader, you are uniquely placed to foster more constructive engagement within your team and – by extension – the wider organisation. The idea is to ensure that the level of politics is minimal or moderate. As the company culture become healthier and less toxic, everyone gains!
Here are three suggestions to get you started:
1. Align words, intentions and actions.
At the heart of unhealthy politics is hypocrisy: to say one thing but mean another, to say one thing but do another. When employees see their boss demonstrating such behaviours, they either start doing the same – or become disillusioned.
Leaders who want to dial down office politics must begin by developing congruence between their own words, intentions and actions. Say what you mean and do what you say. Don’t leave room for ambiguity. Communicate your expectations clearly – and follow through accordingly. When team members know exactly where they stand and what is expected of them, they can work wholeheartedly towards their goals without having to watch their backs.
2. Don’t pit employees against each other.
Instead, unite them against a common cause or challenge. Your team members shouldn’t be pulling out all stops to outdo each other; rather, they should be joining forces to win in the market! This can only happen when you lead with a powerful, purpose-driven vision. When employees take collective ownership of the mission, politics naturally take a backseat.
3. Build inclusiveness.
Toxic workplace politics tends to side line people. Instead of putting the entire onus on employees to become more politically adept, leaders can tackle the problem at its source by fostering a more inclusive culture, based on open communication, transparency and respect.
One way to do this is to ensure that all employees have the access and support they need to build relationships with key power brokers, stakeholders and mentors, that will enable them to advance in their careers. This is a healthy form of politics in which certain people aren’t excluded; rather, they are invited to join in, learn the ropes and increase their influence.
Recommendations for employees
Those who want to thrive at their company must learn to navigate its politics. Vital skills include connecting with the right people, building traction for your projects, showcasing your work, and getting credit for your contributions. Political know-how is even more essential for aspiring managers. As Reardon notes:
When you don’t understand the political landscape of your company, it shows. Questions arise. Can you go the distance, handle the rough spots, inspire the troops, get the job done, and garner respect?
If your gut reaction is “I don’t want to play politics!”, it can be helpful to differentiate between the two types of politics. Dirty politics involve manipulation, sneakiness, and rumour mongering. It’s when people secure their own advancement using any means necessary, often at the expense of colleagues or even the company itself. On the other hand, constructive politics is when you exercise influence to further your objectives – but not to the detriment of others.
Here are three suggestions to help you develop the political proficiency you need:
1. Let your work speak for itself.
It sounds cliched but ensure that you are consistent and do a good job on your work. Deliver. In most cases, if you are a strong performer, you will be noticed and get the chance to grow. Ensure that your work connects with other’s work and the broader objectives of the organisation. Volunteer for additional responsibilities if the opportunity arises. Develop the mental toughness to handle negativity at work.
2. Tackle your dysfunctional behaviours.
Do you find yourself always staying under the radar and letting others take the credit? Or, conversely, maybe you find it tough to show appreciation for other people’s contributions? Breaking out of such patterns is crucial to become more politically savvy and develop strong relationships. For example, if co-workers keep taking credit for your brainwaves, work towards being more assertive and taking public ownership of your ideas.
3. Plug into informal networks.
When you join any organisation, it’s important to get a lay of the land. What informal coalitions exist, and who are their key influencers? Keep in mind that these groups aren’t always hotbeds of politics; they can perform vital functions like providing support, sharing knowledge, or even acting as a check on unethical behaviours. Identify groups that you resonate with and start building connections with them. As your career progresses, you will need allies along the way – whether it is to shore up resources for a project or create buy-in for your vision.
Politics at the workplace are an unfortunate reality. By developing the right political skills, you can navigate this tricky terrain in a way that supports your professional growth without having to play games.