Put simply, office politics are the strategies people adopt to gain an advantage over their peers. The term is often thought of in a negative light, as these competitive strategies often come at the expense of others.
If you asked a worker about their views on office politics, they will probably say that they avoid it. However, that same person will often (knowingly or unknowingly) practice it daily. Who hasn’t chosen a side in a disagreement, tried to make themselves look good in front of their superiors, or put their career progression and personal interests in front of their colleagues’ feelings? These are all examples of office politics.
Due to the negative connotations associated with office politics, many people see it as something to swerve. Yet, it is no secret that if someone learns how to play their part well and utilises office politics without hindering their peers – then they will be in a much stronger position to advance their career.
Why office politics are inevitable
Regardless of whether you knowingly partake in office politics, or actively avoid it – it is a fact of life and is therefore inescapable. Research highlights that when we adopt certain practices like flattery and helpful gestures/favours – we can be viewed as a team player and a top performer. This will significantly improve our chances of organisational success. Bearing this in mind, is it really a surprise that your people are regularly partaking in workplace politics?
Here are some reasons why office politics are inevitable:
Some people possess more organisational power than others. These people will naturally have more influence and will often utilise their hierarchical advantage.
- Many of us care deeply about our workplace decisions. This encourages political behaviour; as we are more driven to have our say and be heard – even to the detriment of others.
- Career development and promotions are deeply important for most of us. This often results in competition between individuals, which can hamper the whole team’s objectives.
- Workplace decisions are determined by both work-related goals and external, personal factors. This can create organisational conflict, as the businesses best interests are not the only factor.
- We often must compete for resources. This can work against the greater good of the organisation and creates a need for people to use their influence to make a strong case for themselves.
Causes of office politics
In a corporate scenario, politics and power tactics are very prevalent. Let’s examine some of the main causes of office politics:
Failure to effectively motivate your people through periods of organisational change can lead to turmoil within your organisation. This often breeds complex office politics, as any misalignment provides plenty of opportunities for your people to gain advantages. This pursuit of politics will only end when your organisation settles and reorganises.
Personal relationships amongst employees can often create workplace politics. Politics arise when individuals set out to support their friends within your organisation.
Competitive work environments:
Competitive working environments encourage people to focus on “winning at any cost”, which can instil a strong desire to succeed in everyone. When workers are under pressure to succeed then office politics will generally be widespread.
Advantages of office politics
In today’s commanding and fast-paced world, without politics, an organisation cannot reach its full potential. Leadership institute Roffey Park, compiled a study on HR Managers and professional’s views on office politics:
While just under a third pessimistically felt office politics could not be used constructively, over half (58%) had experienced it being used for the better.
522 out of 856 people polled admitted to having indulged in workplace politics, but found that it led to a positive outcome for their organisation.
Here are some ways that office politics can be advantageous to your organisation:
Aligns people to your goals and strategies:
The shrewd “political players” will understand your goals and the ways that they tie into the organisation’s goals. They will be aware of your desired strategies and make efforts to follow suit.
Motivates through competition:
Healthy competition will motivate your people to want to succeed and be noticed. This will generally improve business.
Mirroring behaviours to improve relations:
When your people must collaborate with individuals with tricky personality types, it is advantageous to mirror their behaviour, language and tone. This will help both parties to communicate effectively.
Teaches people to self-monitor:
Workplace politics will provide your people with the tools to identify the rules of engagement. This generally includes: not gossiping, rising above conflicts, avoiding complaining, not being judgmental and adopting any behaviours that tie into the business’s values and culture.
Improvements in efficiency and workload:
Office politics will teach your people to be more aware of the level of caution, care and work ethic required to succeed and impress within your organisation This can lead to an increase in efficiency and output.
Disadvantages of office politics
Whilst office politics has its benefits, there are also some noticeable disadvantages. Those who are adept at workplace politics can take advantage of those who are less politically minded. This can lead to some of your strongest (and least cutthroat) people being overlooked for the positions of power. It also affects the distribution of resources; as top performers will generally receive the largest share when there isn’t enough to go around.
Here are some more ways that office politics can be a hindrance to your organisation:
Increases stress levels:
As humans, we need to talk to each other – especially if we are working in close proximity for nine hours every day. Some individuals find it difficult to confide in their colleagues; as they fear that it may go further and things could get leaked.
This can lead to workplace stress, which can be detrimental to the individuals’ wellbeing. Moreover, if a secret is kept then the individual who kept it will have a spike in stress levels if the secret is revealed from another source.
When someone becomes known for using office politics and builds a reputation as a manipulator or gossiper– then understandably the rest of the team won’t trust them. This is harmful for both the success of the individual and the company.
When workplace politics and various rumours are circulating around the office, then naturally your people will find it hard to concentrate on their work. They can be easily distracted and their focus shifts from their assigned task to gaining advantage over a peer. This often leads to your people making mistakes and being less productive.
Employees control the narrative:
When your people are using office politics, they may manipulate information to work in their own favour. This can lead to senior members of staff getting an alternate version of what is happening within your organisation. This can result in someone wrongly taking the credit or blame for something.
A non-performer can be favoured very highly by a senior business leader, due to their ability to utilise office politics. This will demotivate your team, who feel like this individual is unjustifiably receiving praise and attention.
Your people will be less likely to be advocates for your brand and go “above and beyond” for you, if they feel like they are not being suitably rewarded for their efforts.
Changes employee attitudes:
Within a politically-driven environment, even your most dedicated people may still lose interest in their work and attend office just for the pay cheque. Office politics can prevent your team from working to the best of their abilities and will, therefore, impact upon engagement, productivity and ultimately profit.
How to advise your people to use office politics in the ‘right way’
Political proficiency is a skill that can be improved and utilised to gain an organisational advantage. However, the last thing you want is all your employees ruthlessly adopting different strategies to gain advantage at someone else’s expense.
These tips will offer guidance on the proper ways your people should conduct themselves when undertaking workplace politics:
Sit Back & Observe:
Through considered observation, your people will notice the best ways to conduct themselves to be successful within your organisation, whilst aligning to the values and culture.
By observing other successful employees, they will be able to identify best practices in various situations. This will help them to adapt their own approaches and tailor them so they are in-keeping with the companies’ desired practices.
Be the change you want to see:
Strong working relationships are vital components of an attractive office culture and a driving force behind all business. Any negative politicking can create resentments, which can break up teams and negatively impact all business.
By advising your people to focus on relationship-building and mirror the company culture and values – then they will help to bridge gaps and create a more positive and productive working environment for everyone. It will also highlight the individual as a team player, which will benefit their career progression.
You may think that everything you say is confidential but this is rarely the case. How do you know that your comments won’t go any further, or be overheard by a senior worker? Are you certain your secret is safe with this person and they won’t hold it against you for their own advantage? Confidentiality is a key component to being successful. The higher up you get the more company information you will be entrusted with. If there are question marks surrounding your ability to not gossip, then you will not be elevated into a position of power.
It is, therefore, good practice to avoid discussing your opinions about co-workers with anyone. If you find yourself compelled to voice an opinion or an objection – then you must ensure you take an organisational perspective.
Don’t Pick Sides:
When involved in office politics you are likely to find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Someone may try and draw you in and favour them in a workplace disagreement “You saw me send the email at 10.30. Can you tell Sandra please?” In these situations, it is advisable to politely say that you don’t want to get involved. If it is a serious business matter, then you should always answer honestly and cast all biases aside.
By not taking sides, you will help to diffuse the situation. Plus you will distance yourself, which will prevent any repercussions coming your way.
A highly political working environment can encourage healthy competition, active involvement in all company activities and employees going above and beyond. However, if it isn’t properly managed, it can also generate tension, disengage employees and create divides. Over time this will lead to more serious business issues.
By keeping a watchful eye on your people and advising them of the rules of engagement – you will encourage healthy workplace politics and create a hard-working culture where everyone is pulling in the same direction.