Many people we work with on our programmes tell us they refuse to ‘do’ office (or ‘organisational’) politics. I’ve heard politics described as ‘underhand’, ‘manipulative’ and even ‘childish’. It’s fairly obvious how politics at work has developed such a bad press, but before we come onto that let’s take a look at a definition.
Noun (business) (functioning as singular or plural)
Office politics is the means by which power is exercised in the organisation, and the ways it is affected by the personal relationships and networks of the people who work there.
What happens when we refuse to engage?
Politics account for informal ways in which things get done and are essential to the functioning of the organisation. If you are one of those people that refuses to engage, here are two possible consequences:
Crucially if, on account of politics, the workplace culture is under-productive, or even toxic, opting out removes you from a position where you can do something positive to change it. Some might call that irresponsible, or even cowardly.
Imagine you have a road map tracking the route from your global board through to where you are sitting. Highlighted on the map are all the people who have an influence on your career: those deciding who works on the next breakthrough project, or those who could put an informal word in for you come the next round of promotions. If you sit back (perhaps believing that merit will get you to where you want to be), and you don’t go the extra mile to cultivate those informal relationships, you may effectively take yourself out of the running for progression.
So, why such a bad press for office politics?
Politics become damaging when individuals put their own personal interests above those of the organisation. We’ve all seen and heard examples: information is withheld for personal gain; large numbers of people are copied on emails to cover someone’s back; a manager sets two members of her/his team against each other to preserve her/his power base; a salesperson plays down the potential value of pipeline business (‘sandbagging’) in order to reduce their target and maximise their bonus; someone repeatedly takes the credit for another person’s work.
There are no rules to say you have to do office politics that way.
A better way?
Most people are more comfortable with engaging in politics when they realise there are ways to do it that cultivate win-win outcomes. The way forward could be to notice how decisions get made where you work and who plays a key part; and identify those who can help you advance in your career. Then network with these key strategic contacts. Get to know them and find out their key objectives and/or KPIs. If this sounds self-serving remember that you will be in a stronger position to influence positive change when you occupy a senior role that holds power.
If you’re staying away from office politics, perhaps because you believe you’re above it, or you don’t want to ‘stoop to the level’, it’s quite possible you’re doing more damage than good to the business.
Helen Krag is a Senior Consultant at People Development Team.