Updated on Nov. 11, 2018
“Politics is not a game,” said Winston Churchill. “It is an earnest business.”
Of all the topics that Workplace Story has researched, there is found the greatest amount of information published on office politics, widest range of expert opinion and least complete compilation of data. What follows are threads that are consistent and repeated by credible, trusted voices — a complicated situation separated into its component parts.
An increasing number of writers are using the phrase “positive politics” to describe how workers should take on what was in the past something most people were supported for avoiding. Using politics positively may be viewed by many as a daunting task.
On the other hand, learning the roots of office politics and aspects of positive politics can help a person use the new knowledge to more confidently navigate his or her workplace. Researchers and management consultants have described four main areas of this subject:
- Elements of office politics and why it occurs
- Characteristics of political posturing; what it can look like
- Explanations for why political actions escalate
- Skills to develop in order to use politics positively
Professional relationships are an integral part of workplace culture and a driving force behind every business.Jennifer Miller
Elements of office politics — a working definition
What is the essence of office politics? The website, OfficePolitics.com, offers the description; “‘Office politics’ are the strategies people use to gain advantage for themselves or to support a cause.”
Rob Yeung, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and author of “How to Stand Out: Proven Tactics for Getting Noticed,” wrote in an email that office politics are innate to the workplace.
“Politics is naturally a risk whenever there are more than two people in an organization,” he wrote. “If Pete speaks to Judy about something but Leanne isn’t there, then there’s a chance that Leanne may feel that she is excluded. As there are dozens of such conversations in any normal organization every day, there will always be the danger that conversations may appear to be political in nature or that the intentions behind those discussions may be misinterpreted.”
Jennifer Miller, a human resources manager and corporate trainer wrote that differences of opinion, competing interests, and limited resources are also standard parts of the workplace.
“Colleagues dislike it when the interpersonal dynamics are such that they believe one person (or group) ‘wins’ and another ‘loses,’” she wrote in an article on the Association for Talent Development, td.org.
She lists some negative political tactics as favoritism, back-stabbing and cronyism (jobs or favors for friends and allies). Other widely known and reported political tactics are withholding information, not crediting others’ ideas, blaming co-workers for mistakes and forming alliances.
Since the early 2000s, a mounting number of articles put a positive spin on office politics.
“I suspect that it has to do with the continued research that’s being done on emotional intelligence and its importance in getting things done through others,” Miller wrote in an email.
Some writers refer to promoting yourself as “positive politics” including impression management.
“One way in which political behavior is enacted is through impression management tactics, which includes ingratiation,” wrote Kelly Zellars, and Michelle Kacmar in the Journal of Managerial Issues.
Employees need feedback on their work and communication on how they fit with the bigger picture. This is especially true for millennials (need ongoing feedback).Kate Culligan
What does office politics look like?
Alternatively, Zellars and Kacmar wrote that co-workers can easily spot ingratiating behaviors.
Agbenu Esther Ochoga, a Ph.D. student at Nova Southeastern University has also been a lecturer at the University of Jos, Nigeria. In her research paper, “Office politics; a negative dysfunctional interpersonal dynamic at the University of Jos, Nigeria,” she reports that favoritism affects job decisions at the Nigerian college.
“A case in point will be in a promotional decision; behavioral traits such as diligence, deference and respect are usually more important than the objective analysis of an employee’s performance and output,” she wrote.
Office politics can also look like justification or arrogance.
“Most political players feel that they have integrity and consider their actions justifiable,” Ochoga wrote.
Yeung wrote on management-issues.com that there are “purists” and “players,” and that “players” will more likely get ahead at work.
“While they (players) respect official rules and regulations, they understand that the unofficial rules of politics are often more important,” he wrote.
One of the more negative expressions observed in office politics is incivility.
“Most cases of bullying and harassment are not illegal or considered a violation of human rights,” Ochoga wrote. “This suggests that while quality of employees’ work life should be an important factor to their organization’s well-being; management is usually not prompted to action until the organization as a whole is jeopardized.”
Further, if a person is concerned about office politics, this can make it worse for him or her.
“Employees who are paranoid about workplace rejection or sabotage can end up bringing it upon themselves, according to new research from the University of British Columbia,” wrote Janice Wood on Psychcentral.com. “A new study from the University’s Sauder School of Business reveals that paranoia about gossip or being snubbed leads people to seek out information to confirm their fears, which ultimately annoys their colleagues and increases the likelihood they will be rejected.”
The less clarity we have about mission, goals and feedback — the more focus we have on politics.Marshall Goldsmith, Ph.D.
A couple of factors make office politics worse
Ineffective communication systems in organizations can worsen office politics. Kate Culligan, career strategist and performance coach, thinks that this is indeed the most significant contributing factor.
“Absolutely — poor communication, little communication, is a number one cause of office dysfunction,” Culligan wrote in an email. “When people become totally immersed in their work it’s good for productivity, but when there is not frequent two-way communication with their boss, they can become ‘invisible’ and only acknowledged when they make a mistake. Employees need feedback on their work and communication on how they fit with the bigger picture. This is especially true for millennials (need ongoing feedback).”
Marshall Goldsmith agrees.
“The less clarity we have about mission, goals and feedback — the more focus we have on politics,” Goldsmith wrote in an email.
Another dynamic setting off intensified political behavior in a company is unethical leadership. Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel wrote in a Harvard Business Review piece “Ethical Breakdowns,” that when accounting and law firms decide to place more importance on increasing billable hours, they often create accountability for those hours with complex coding systems. Specific activities are categorized with a code, but this process inherently involves subjective judgment.
“Research shows that as the uncertainty involved in completing a task increases, the guesswork becomes more unconsciously self-serving,” wrote Bazerman and Tenbrunsel.
The Great Recession exacerbated office politics say many management experts, including Culligan.
“Yes, we’re slowly coming out of it, but as corporations downsized and cut their staff to a lean few survivors, they also realized how much productivity they could actually squeeze out of each employee,” she wrote in an email. “Add improved technology, outsourcing and ongoing mergers and acquisitions, you get an island of survivors who are overworked, resentful and suspicious of most of their co-workers and of any new staff that might be hired. This is a recipe for the survivor mentality that creates a cesspool for office politics.”
Finally … there is the obvious element of change within an organization.
“Change is another common trigger for an increase in office politics,” wrote Ochoga. “Ideally, change should encompass the meaningful involvement of everyone being affected (as much as possible).”
When change seems as if it is enacted without good reasons, employees may feel fear and uncertainty. They sense a need to protect themselves, she wrote.
There is not one solution to preventing the existence of politics. But it can only help when people feel that they have all of the information that they need not only to do their jobs but also to feel that they know about what the future is likely to bring.Rob Yeung, Ph.D.
What can a regular working person do about office politics?
“There is not one solution to preventing the existence of politics,” Dr. Yeung wrote. “But it can only help when people feel that they have all of the information that they need not only to do their jobs but also to feel that they know about what the future is likely to bring. My advice to managers is to communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s better that employees feel that they are being told too much than not enough.”
Working people can also practice some peer-to-peer communication techniques.
Kathleen Kelley Reardon, professor emerita at the University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that many workers may at first view office politics negatively, but cultivating political know-how is “a necessity.”
“Handling public put-downs, knowing with whom to speak about what, understanding how to move projects along, realizing the right times to make yourself visible and how to make your work relevant are only a few important skills,” she wrote.
What about credit stealing?
“If others expect you to be demure and let them steal your ideas at meetings, learn some ways of asserting yourself,” Reardon writes. “For example, you could say: ‘I mentioned that option earlier. I’d like to expand upon it a bit more now.’”
She also recommends changing up your actions frequently.
“The more predictable you are, the easier it is for others to manage you to their own advantage,” she wrote.
Miller wrote that political actions can be ethical.
“Office politics doesn’t have to be cloak-and-daggers, or brown-nosing, or credit stealing,” she wrote. “There is a different type of way to get what you want at the office, and it doesn’t require you to leave your integrity at the door. I call it ‘positive office politics’ and you can put this concept to work immediately once you know where to focus your energies.”
She recommends the key skills found after a 15-year study by University of Florida researchers, published in their book, Political Skill at Work: Impact on Work Effectiveness:
- Social astuteness (such as paying attention to facial expressions,
- Interpersonal influence (developing rapport, making people feel at ease)
- Networking ability (building relationships with influential people, etc.)
- Sincerity (showing genuine interest in others, being genuine in actions)
Donna Cardillo, Registered Nurse and Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) suggests walking away from gossip and focusing on the most positive aspects of relationships.
“Support your boss,” she wrote on her website donnacardillo.com. “Don’t speak negatively about your supervisor. Support her or him even if you don’t agree with the person. … Your relationship with your boss can make or break any work situation.”
Cardillo adds that socializing with co-workers is more important than many people realize.
“Make an effort to get to holiday parties, award dinners, company picnics, and the occasional dinner after hours,” she wrote.
What can a regular working person do about incivility or conflict? Culligan adds the advice that you can have a couple of ways prepared to leave the room politely.
“Set boundaries,” she wrote. “You do not need to take truly abusive behavior from a co-worker or boss. Gracefully leave the room (‘I have to go to the bathroom’ always works) and stay away until the abuser calms down. It’s also OK to say ‘let’s regroup when we’re both in a better frame of mind.’”
Political actions in the workplace will always be there, to some degree. Although, with solid knowledge about the topic, the complexity of office politics may just be a bit more manageable.
Additional resources to manage office politics include the following:
- Robert Half survey “How to Manage Office Politics”.
- To tweet Dr. Yeung, his Twitter handle is @robyeung.