Understanding Office Politics in the 21st Century Workplace

Office Politics: The Art Of The Possible

Playing politics is like having sex. Almost everybody does it, but nobody is comfortable discussing exactly what they do. We will talk for hours, however, about what other people might be doing. Typically, we use the term “playing politics” only to describe our colleagues’ behavior – never our own. They are sucking up, scheming, and manipulating, but we are building relationships, developing strategies, and opening communication channels.

The above paragraph was quoted from Dr. Marie McIntyre’s recent book, “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics”. And it’s true! When people are placed together in a corporation (or in a family, or a reality TV island), it is human nature to compete for power, influence, rewards, and recognition. How people carry out this competition, and the value individuals place on the spoils, are what we call office politics.

Ignore politics at your peril! A sure way not to get noticed at work is to simply allow the brilliance of your work to speak for itself – unless, of course, your work is winning Nobel prizes or you are single-handedly bringing in millions in sales. And not getting noticed is a sure way to dead-end your career. Ever notice that team players, not necessarily the hardest working, usually have the most influence? It’s totally naïve to believe you can ignore interacting and influencing your coworkers and boss and still be a success.

There are always people who naturally navigate through and around the organization to get things done. For those of us not born with a genius for getting along with people, success at office politics can be as simple as being liked without being a phony. You can learn to communicate persuasively, and develop an assertive style backed with facts.

Companies that practice performance management actually place value on their employee’s influencing and communication behaviors, even at the lower levels of the organization. They believe, correctly, that they get the best from their employees when the employee is fully engaged not just with the tasks at hand, but with the company at large.

There are instances where office politics are de-motivating. Gossip can be dangerous. When it’s vicious and personal, it’s almost unethical. If you are involved in a conversation that turns to gossip, you can try to subtly redirect the conversation to more constructive topics. And griping about your boss can be dangerous if it’s later used against you.

Cliques seem so high school-ish. Yet they persist in the office. It’s actually quite natural for people with similar interests or experience to associate with each other, especially if they’ve been through a lot together. If there is a positive culture at your work, the cliques that you might naturally gravitate towards will slowly accept you. Persist with a positive attitude.

Back-stabbing colleagues are one of the worst. They appear positive to you, then denigrate your work or character or steal your ideas behind your back. Dealing with them can be treacherous to your career and only after you’re sure you’re not the problem. From your standpoint, you will be better off practicing office politics in an uplifting, positive manner.

Bad bosses can easily make your work-place seem hugely political. When the boss shows little rhyme or reason, normal modes of communication and influence break down. Innuendo and perception become operative. Facts seem to matter little. You’ll have to choose a strategy for dealing with a bad boss to keep you career.

A company’s culture is defined by the way decisions are made and how influence is allowed to flow up and down the hierarchy – in short, by its politics. Embracing the culture will usually benefit you. And when you do join in, you’ll then have the opportunity to put your own stamp – for better or worse – on the company culture.