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What’s your reaction when you hear the phrase, “organisation politics” or its more colloquial phrase, “office politics”? Do you cringe and grit your teeth? Do unpleasant memories come to mind? Do you find yourself muttering expletives under your breath or stomping your feet? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, join the crowd. Many of us have negative reactions to either of these phrases and for good reason.

At some point in our careers, we, or someone we know, may have been the victim of some form of organisational or office politics. For example, Chan, a research scientist I knew, was working for a medium-sized pharmaceutical company. He was part of a project team working to identify new molecules to combat diabetes. After 18 months of hard work, Chan thought he had discovered a potential breakthrough. In his excitement, he asked a co-worker, Jürgen, who had been working on a very similar track, to double check his findings. Jürgen confirmed the findings and congratulated Chan. However, the next morning, during a team meeting, the project leader announced that Jürgen had discovered a new potential molecule. Given that Jürgen’s research was very similar to Chan’s, it was hard to prove that he had taken credit for Chan’s work. The result was, Jürgen got the recognition for the discovery and eventually a promotion.

Other examples of office politics include: being passed over for a new position when you were clearly the best candidate; not recognising or understanding the unwritten rules of the “game”; not being able to “sell” your ideas to superiors because you do not have the right support; not being part of key networks and, consequently, being unaware of important information; or finally, outright sabotage, both direct and indirect through gossip, rumours, or the withholding of vital information and resources.

While it may be hard to believe given the previous examples, not all organisational or office politics is bad. In fact, one way to consider politics is to view it as the way things get done in your company. Think about it. Any time you try and sell an idea or influence a decision, you are engaging in office politics. Remember that pre-meeting you had with a couple of co-workers… right before the big meeting with the big boss?

That was office politics.

For a few minutes, let’s take a step back and look at politics realistically and without a jaded point of view. How do you define organisational or office politics? I particularly like the definition that Rick Brandon and Marty Seldman use in their book, Survival of the Savvy. They define organisation politics as the “informal, unofficial and sometimes behind the scenes efforts to gain influence, sell ideas, impact the organisation, increase personal power or achieve other outcomes”. This very neutral definition suggests that organisation politics can be positive or negative.

What makes politics either positive or negative is a combination of two things; the outcome and the means of politics. By outcomes, what I mean is, whose interest does the politics serve – the company’s or an individual’s? For example, if because of politics (e.g. getting internal financing) a research scientist discovers a brand-new treatment for diabetes and as a result, his employer gains a larger share of the market, that is a positive outcome. If the same scientist gets rewarded and promoted because he secretly stole someone’s idea, that is a negative outcome. And yes, if a company is manipulative or an individual behaves with high integrity, then the outcomes of my previous examples would be reversed. This is where the “means” of politics enters the picture.

For a few minutes, let’s take a step In organisation politics, means refers to, what is the right thing to do verses what can I get away with? Let me give you a real example of how the means to an outcome can go astray. Do you remember the American energy company, Enron? Enron was the company that flamed out in a spectacular bankruptcy in 2001 when it became known that its reported financial condition had systematically been manipulated through a creatively planned accounting fraud. When the company declared bankruptcy, thousands of shareholders and employees lost their investments. Andrew Fastow, the corporate CFO at the time, was the architect behind the accounting fraud and he spent six years in prison for his creativity. Since being released from prison, Fastow has been speaking to groups about what he did and how he went astray (Irish Times). Fastow has been quoted as saying that everything he did was approved and broke no rules. However, he contritely acknowledges that his actions broke the principles of the rules. Breaking the principles of the rules is an example of means that produce a negative outcome. But when the means of achieving an outcome are out in the open, following the principles of the rules, and are accepted by others, the outcome is generally positive.

Now that we have a definition of office politics and we know what makes them either positive or negative, let’s consider how to deal with them in a high integrity way.

The first step is to think of office politics as existing on a sliding scale as depicted below. On the left side of the scale is an approach that I’ve labelled “under political”. In other words, this is a person who avoids politics by turning the proverbial blind eye to it. The right side of the scale is labelled “over political” where behaviour is Machiavellian. There are risks associated with either end of the scale including being too extreme, not using politics when you need to or using politics inappropriately. The key to effectively managing organisation politics is finding “The Sweet Spot” right in the middle of the scale. The Sweet Spot is where the use of organisation politics is appropriate and ethical.

There are four broad strategies that you can use to manage organisation politics in a savvy manner.

  1. Live your core values: People who operate in “The Sweet Spot” of organisation politics know what is important to them from a values perspective. Values fuel our sense of purpose. When we live through our values, we feel more fulfilled because we are acting upon what’s important to us. When we feel more fulfilled, we have more energy to deal with organisation politics. From a leadership perspective, when we don’t align with our values, we are less authentic and run the risk of operating at one of the extreme points of the Organisation Politics continuum.

  2. Study and understand your organisation’s politics: Regardless of its size, every organisation has politics. Instead of ignoring it, hoping it will go away, or refusing to “play the game”, a better strategy is to study and understand how politics work in your organisation. Practice observing the following:
    • Sources of power: power in organisations comes in many forms. There is official power (the man or woman in the corner office) and there is unofficial power (the individuals who may not have the position or title but people listen and act upon their opinion). There can also be emerging (up and coming stars) and declining (fading stars) sources of organisation power. What are the sources of power in your organisation?
    • Priorities: Do you know your organisation’s priorities? Do you know what is important to it? For example, does your company pay attention to the details or the big picture? Is your organisation a customer first or a profit first company? The importance of knowing your organisation’s priorities may seem like a “no-brainer”, but it is surprising how many executives cannot identify their company’s top priorities. According to a survey conducted by the London Business School, two-thirds of senior managers cannot identify their company’s top three priorities. The survey, conducted in 2015, included 11,000 senior executives, leaders, and managers from more than 400 companies (LBS Survey). Knowing your company’s priorities helps you make better decisions about what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
    • Unwritten rules: Unwritten rules are the “understood” norms of behavior. They are not written down anywhere and they are not discussed. Early in my career I worked as the Director of Administration for a small, insurance brokerage firm which was privately owned. The owner had weekly staff meetings and they never started on time, primarily because the owner was always late for the meeting. One day, after waiting with my colleagues in the conference room for 30 minutes, I decided to go back to my office to do some work. I asked the owner’s secretary to call me when he arrived. About 20 minutes later I got the call that the boss had arrived and I went immediately to the meeting room. What I did not realise was that none of my colleagues had left the room – they all sat there, patiently, I presume. When I walked into the meeting, the owner was ready for me. I was told in no uncertain terms that the office operated on his time … not anyone else’s. I had just discovered an unwritten rule. Violating an unwritten rule can lead you right into a political land mine. So, learn your organisation’s unwritten rules.
    • Rewards: What actions lead to promotions and which actions or lack of action leads to career derailment? You may think you are doing a good job but what do the boss and upper management think? If you are in doubt, review the bullet on priorities.

  3. Be proactive: Being proactive is not about getting the other guy before he gets you; that would be negative politics, the type we are trying to avoid. Being proactive means building and leveraging a network of supporters (both inside and outside your organisation). A good network can clue you into opportunities and potential pitfalls by acting like an early warning system if things start to go wrong. The day I walked out of the meeting room when the boss was late, no one warned me that it could be a problem. I learned the hard way how important a network is. Your network is the basis for alliances of people who can support you. They can also warn you about the individuals in your organisation who are “negative” political animals. The other dimension of being proactive is learning how to ethically lobby for your point of view. It is not unethical to argue your point of view, or even for yourself, in the most favourable way possible, if it does not entail being less than truthful or withholding information. Shading the truth by leaving out details is the first step of negative politics.

  4. Be protective: Being protective means not being naive and acknowledging that others may not approach organisation politics with the same degree of self-less interest that you do. It means keeping your eyes and ears open by following the first three steps described above.

As a closing thought, keep the following in mind: the most important thing about managing organisational politics is to be prepared. Don’t turn a blind eye to politics or assume that you have alliances when you spent no time building them. The worst things you can do is come into a political situation with “your eyes closed”, not be clear about your values, not know the unwritten rules, and not have allies. Not being prepared is a sure way to lose even before you get started.