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What Is Organizational Politics And Is It Worth Playing?

Honestly, I have never understood office politics. It’s always annoyed me to no end, and I have never been able to understand why people spend so much time and energy forming alliances, talking about who said what and throwing each other under the bus when there is so much work to do.

And I thought that I would never get involved in such pointless pastimes, but…

The first clue that maybe I am missing something came about three years ago when I did the Hogan Assessment. This is the leading personality assessment used in business which measures the personality both in standard and stressful times and can identify the strengths and potential threats to performance and career success. One of the main derailers that emerged for me was my inability and unwillingness to participate in office politics. Until then, it had never occurred to me that being adept at politics might be a desirable skill.

But after a discussion with the Hogan coach, I put it in my individual development plan, and I vowed to look into it. For like a day. After that, I was busy, there were tasks to accomplish and deadlines to meet, and my development was put on the back-burner. Surprisingly, becoming more skilled in politics was the only item I actually stopped working on. But then again, there was this voice at the back of my head that kept saying, “What does Robert Hogan know about this. After all, he only created the most reputable manager assessment and created the socioanalytic theory that explains how people behave in groups. Of course, I know better. Of course, I can achieve all my goals only by hard work”.

So I never gave it another thought and kept doing what I was doing. Until I became a bit more aware as a leader, and I started noticing stuff.

First of all, I am very thorough in my ignorance, so when I had chosen to ignore office politics, it simply ceased to exist for me. But then I began observing some corporate decisions that did not make sense when seen in the straightforward “we want to achieve this result; this is the most efficient approach we need to take” way. Without accounting for the accompanying factors of who is making the decision, what other competing priorities and interests there are, I felt lost in an erratic environment that seemed utterly irrational. Once I allowed for the existence of office politics, those decisions all of a sudden became clearer. Not less frustrating, I would have to say, but at least less enigmatic.

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Another factor I had not considered in my firm resolve to ignore office politics was that politics is all about influence.  And due to my credibility and the impact of my work, I was perceived as somewhat influential. This, on more than one occasion, meant that my words and opinions held a lot more weight for my audience than I realized. Resulting in some hurt feelings, quite a few misunderstandings, and on a couple of happy occasions – surprisingly easy wins.

To top it all, with the expansion of my responsibilities, some of my more politically savvy managers (yes, I have had many managers in the past few years) have started factoring my supposed ability to navigate the organizational politics in the goals and objectives they set for me. So see, even though I had decided to avoid politics, for better or for worse, it was reluctant to avoid me.

Recently, I set out to finally open my eyes and learn a bit about the game and possibly how to play it without compromising my values and beliefs. I read a bunch of articles and research papers, and I still don’t get it at all, but here is what I found.

What Does Organizational Politics Mean?

There are multiple definitions of organizational politics, some of which are ‘the maximization of short or long-term interests through strategic planning to seek self-interests by sacrificing that of others’ (Yen, Chen, & Yen, 2009); or as actions ‘that are self-serving, undesirable and illegitimate’ (Miller, Byrne, Rutherford, & Hansen, 2009).

But I personally prefer this one I found on iResearchNet:

The term organizational politics refers to the informal ways people try to exercise influence in organizations through the management of shared meaning. As such, politics should be viewed as neither an inherently bad nor good phenomenon but rather one to be observed, analyzed, and comprehended to gain a more informed understanding of organizations and how they operate.

Unlike others, it does not focus only on the negative aspects of organizational politics. It also contains the essence of what it is all about – gaining and exerting influence. It also mentions a concept that other definitions lack – the shared meaning. I have observed the workings of organizational politics in a couple of organizations, and they function very differently – the unspoken rules are different, the basis on which alliances are built is divergent, and even the very perception of what political behavior is varies.

One thing is consistent, though – there is no organization without politics. No matter how we would wish it to be otherwise.

Organizations have limited resources and multiple competing priorities. In the competition for these limited resources, groups and individuals try to influence decisions, find allies and gain advantages. And thus, politics is born.

Another factor contributing to the existence of office politics is the simple truth that apart from being professionals, we are all individuals with different personalities, opinions, desires and fears. Our workplace is a social environment in which those temperaments inevitably come to a collision at times.

And then there is power itself. Power is not equally distributed in an organization. And it is a natural process for people to want to increase their own power, whether to achieve organizational or team goals, some personal agendas, or to simply have it. This power-struggle is the foundation of office politics.

What Does It Look Like?

Landells and Albrecht (2016) propose five dimensions of organizational politics that could encompass both positive and negative perspectives: (1) building and using relationships, (2) building a personal reputation, (3) controlling decisions and resources, (4) influencing decision-making, and (5) the use of communication channels.

In real life, these can manifest themselves in various ways. From the ever-present gossiping to outright backstabbing or blaming others to withholding information or brown-nosing, but also to working on your credibility, building supporting and strong relationships or expanding your knowledge about the organization. All those behaviors aim to increase our influence and provide us an advantage towards achieving our goals.

Sometimes we do not realize that the behaviors that we engage in are, in essence, political. We have all participated in the seemingly harmless gossip about that colleague whose alarm never seems to go off in the morning, so they are late for every morning huddle. And while that may seem like simple socializing and venting from the stressful work, when at the next meeting, we all shut down her idea for a new project because we are jointly annoyed by her, there is politics for you.

Other times, we may consciously seek the championship of people with influence, build relationships with them or support their objectives in order to gain their assistance with our projects and goals. This is also political activity, although we may not necessarily think of it as such as for most of us, office politics has primarily negative connotations and is linked with insincere or immoral behavior.

What Are Its Effects?

Those prevalent negative perceptions of organizational politics bring with themselves some adverse consequences. Multiple studies have linked office politics with decreased job satisfaction, increased stress and intent to leave the organization. Politics can negatively impact the perception of the meaning of work and organizational commitment and can influence employees to become silent and to stop sharing ideas and opinions.

I have experienced all of these and more. There have been days that I just want to shut down my computer and leave. It seemed that despite how hard I worked, I was never able to achieve the results I aspired to or to provide my team with all they need because other more influential players always got the bigger piece of the pie or sometimes the whole pie. There were periods when I shut down and was unwilling to voice my ideas or even have any ideas because it seemed pointless.

So Should We Participate In Organizational Politics?

Do we turn our back on politics and ignore it? Unfortunately, as I showed you at the beginning of this post, that is rarely possible. Politics always finds you. So we should look for other ways to navigate our office environment.

Studies show that there are factors that can mitigate the adverse effects of organizational politics. One of those is understanding. See, I have been doing it all wrong from the start. Instead of closing our eyes to the reality of workplace politics, we should observe and try to understand it – the rules, the players, the areas of influence and the competing agendas. This can help us make sense of what is happening around us and to us and give us a foundation should we decide that we want to influence our environment.

Understanding is also the basis of another mitigating factor – perceived control of the situation. The more we feel that we can affect our workplace’s processes, that events are happening with our participation and not befalling us, the less threatening the political activities become.

Moreover, political behavior is not necessarily used only for furthering personal agendas. It can be used to promote and achieve team and organizational goals, to endorse change and increase knowledge. Some argue that abstaining from workplace politics is abandoning the responsibilities as a leader. Above a certain level in the organization (and what level that is depends on how political the organization is), political skills are practically an unwritten part of the job description.

On a personal level, high political skill has been shown to reduce stress, promote career advancement and build a reputation.

How To Play Office Politics The “Good” Way?

The first step is to take off the blindfold and acknowledge that office politics is there and we are part of it. And then really start looking – who are the real decision-makers, who are the people with the most significant influence, what are the main alliances and what are their agendas.

During this observation, it is worth it to turn our gazes to ourselves as well. Whether willfully or not, we are also part of this power map, and it is important to know what our place is in it. There may be some surprising discoveries here. I have been in situations where I have realized that my influence is much greater than I had expected. But there were other cases when I found out that I was really not quite as important as I thought I was.

When setting out to consciously participate in political behaviors, it is imperative that we have a very clear vision of what we are trying to achieve. And since we are trying to do good politics, how your goals align with the organizational goals. One of the reasons that workplace politics are so prevalent is that they are enticing. Being a part of a clique can fulfill our need for belonging. Uniting against a common enemy creates a sense of camaraderie. The power struggle itself can be exciting. Therefore, it is essential that we regularly check back on our goals and whether our actions are really helping us achieve them or are we engaging in politics for the politics sake.

And then we go off and build relationships. We are naturally inclined to communicate with people we like or with whom we have something in common. But in the workplace, this is not enough. We need to have fruitful and productive relationships with multiple people we need to achieve our goals and others who need us to achieve theirs. These do not need to be people we enjoy communicating with or even trust entirely as long as we are able to provide support to each other and bring each other mutual advantage.

This may sound somewhat manipulative, but the most important lesson I learned from all the reading, thinking and soul-searching in the past few weeks is that you can be authentic and engage in political behavior at the same time. Allowing yourself to participate in workplace politics does not mean you need to abandon your values and moral standards. After all, as we saw, politics is not just about badmouthing and throwing others under the bus. You can be respectful of others and have mutually beneficial relationships with them, despite disagreements or competition for scarce resources.

But then again, the competition is there, and we may not always win at the political games we play (for various reasons, I am usually on the losing side). And this is something that we need to accept.

That’s probably the most challenging part – to accept that success does not always come as the result of hard work and dedication, but sometimes is the consequence of someone besting us in politics and power play. But all data shows that we are much less likely to win if we are not playing the game.

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