[Updated: April 30, 2018]
When somebody mentions “office politics”, the foremost things that come to mind are the unpleasant memories we have of selfish manipulative co-workers, managers or subordinates. Politics is pervasive, and most of us have experienced it at least once in our careers.
We might recall an instance when we have been blamed for someone else’s mistake, or when we have been bullied by jealous co-workers, or when an annoying colleague takes all the credit for our hard work. All these are oftentimes inevitable manifestations of politics in the workplace.
In today’s world, the term “politics” is so loaded with negativity that most people associate it with the counterproductive aspects we see in the workplace. Social scientists who study politics in organisations tend to have a different view.
For psychologists like Professor Gerald Ferris, from Florida State University, politics is about understanding people and using that understanding to influence others. Organisational politics is not inherently good or bad, but it is how we use it that makes it so.
In fact, according to Professor Ferris, having some political savvy could be vital in helping you along your career path. Nevertheless, this does not deny the fact that workplace politics can lead to negative and harmful consequences.
We will be looking at how politics can be harmful to an organisation, as well as some of the ways it can be beneficial if used wisely.
The dark side of politics
As social beings, our ability to understand others and make them do what we want them to do often takes centre stage. Here are four ways that politics can have a harmful effect in the workplace.
#1. Power corrupts
People can become carried away when they are entrusted with power. As the English historian, Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
In a classic study by psychologist David Kipnis, participants made up of business majors were assigned to supervise their own teams to complete an administrative task. Half of the participants were given the power to punish their teammates (by reducing their pay or firing them), while the other half received no such privileges.
The leaders who were given power were twice as likely to threaten their team with punishment, more likely to berate their teammates on their quality of work and were less willing to work with their teammates in future.
The leaders that received no power, on the other hand, had to rely on their ability to keep workers happy and persuade them to contribute more. This contributed to stronger leader-follower relationship.
Today, changes in organisational structure have helped to reduce the damaging effect of coercive power, such as having a flatter hierarchy, removing layers of bureaucracy and promoting a work culture that focuses on equality rather than authority.
#2. “Us” versus “them” mentality
Being socially adept at influencing others can also have a detrimental effect if it serves to divide those who should be working together. Socially adept individuals may misuse their influence to build alliances or cliques within the office.
This creates a situation where teams become divided as different cliques have differing agendas. Left unsupervised, this may lead to competitiveness among team members who are supposed to be supporting one another.
Rival teams may claim credit for work that they did not do to deprive another group of resources or prestige. They could also commit sabotage or delay work if doing so can hurt a rival team that is dependent on them.
Leaders who face this problem must not take sides. They must keep the team focused on larger, long-term goals.
Sometimes, to accomplish this, leaders have to identify the bad apple (namely, the instigator of dissension) and throw it out before it spoils the whole barrel.
#3. Beware, the Machiavellians
Do you recall the last time you have been backstabbed or cheated in a big way at work? Chances are, you have come across a Machiavellian co-worker. The term “Machiavellian personality” comes from the Italian Renaissance philosopher who authored The Prince, a manual for unscrupulous and conniving dictators.
Machiavellian individuals are characterised by their willingness to use manipulative tactics to achieve their goals.
These goals may range from wanting to be the top achiever in the organisation to securing the highest position in the hierarchy.
Most of us have dreams of achieving great things for ourselves, but what separates Machiavellians from the ordinary person is their extreme selfishness and lack of empathy for others.
Machiavellians believe that the ends justify the means. They would crush anybody who dares to stand in their way, and would not hesitate to lie and betray.
They are quick to point the finger when things go awry, but are the first to claim credit for things they did not themselves accomplish.
We need to confront the Machiavellian rather than sit back and watch them. Machiavellians thrive in environments where they can pull off their stunts with impunity.
Calling out their behaviour and giving them a firm warning would be the best course of action.
#4. Bullies in the office
Have you have been picked on by a senior at work? Does he or she pile unfair amounts of work on you, and sometimes even harass you at work?
Related to the Machiavellians, psychopaths are another class of individuals to be wary of, whether you are a leader or a follower. Psychopaths are characterised by their lack of empathy and their love of cruelty.
While Machiavellians employ undesirable tactics to fulfil their selfish goals, psychopaths do it because they enjoy watching others suffer.
Psychopaths are the playground bullies of the organisation. They acquire power through fear and intimidation.
They are likely to harass and abuse their power. Psychopaths have very high self-esteem.
Highly arrogant and proud, office psychopaths are blind to the injury they have caused others. They are even inclined to find excitement in harassing others.
As with other problematic individuals in the organisation, it would be useful for leaders to throw out the bad apple before it is too late.
Office politics – how can they be “good”?
Despite the negativity associated with politics, one needs to be able to influence others in order to succeed in life.
As Professor Ferris’s research shows, people who are more politically savvy in the workplace perform better at work, make better deals, lead more effectively and enjoy greater rewards.
Here are some ways that we can boost our “political savvy” in more positive ways.
#1. Balancing alliances
Politics involves juggling alliances across the organisation. Do you tell your superiors what they want to hear by making promises that you may not keep, or do you put your teammates’ needs above those of the higher-ups?
As a result of frequently currying favours from your superiors, you may risk being seen by your teammates as an apple-polisher, or a selfish, uncaring leader, who neglects the team.
Sidelining your bosses, on the other hand, may have the effect of obscuring your achievements.
In organisations, success that goes under the radar may not bring forth the rewards that it deserves.
Astute maneuverers in the political sphere learn to balance the two, presenting visible results to the top brass, while sparing time to throw a party for the team’s good job.
#2. Knowing the power of networking
Politics relies on friendships. If you are well-connected to people who can turn your desire into reality, you are part of the politically savvy crew. It is not just about knowing people who can solve your problems.
Networking also involves being able to help others find people who can fulfil their wishes, and having that favour returned by others.
As people trade favours, ties of friendship are created. People with extensive networks acquire better opportunities to expand their careers. More doors are opened and more people want to trade favours.
Malcolm Gladwell, author of Tipping Point, referred to these socially-competent individuals as ‘Connectors’.
Connectors make things happen through people. Connectors may not have all the skills necessary to solve every problem, but the key to their success is being well-acquainted with many experts who can.
If you need something fixed but don’t know who to contact, call the Connector — he or she may know the right person for the job. What are the ingredients that make up a good Connector?
According to Gladwell, being sociable is vital, as well as having the enthusiasm to get to know other people and hear their stories. Think of it this way — getting to know someone opens you up to a new world, as opposed to being limited to the same office space, surrounded by people of the same background.
#3. Showing sincerity
People value sincerity in any relationship. Politically savvy individuals exude sincerity and genuineness. They inspire trust in others.
The importance of sincerity in building relationships has been widely noted. Books that help people build better relationships like Dale Carnegie’s classic, How To Win Friends And Influence People, recommend showing appreciation and concern as ways of gaining other people’s trust.
Instead of criticising, complaining or condemning, Dale Carnegie recommends showing interest and a desire to learn about others’ feelings, and trying to see the world from their perspective.
Instead of seeking others attention, Carnegie tells us that sometimes we should step back by allowing them to share their stories or voice their feelings. This willingness to connect with others can go a long way in improving your connections with others.
#4. Being socially astute
Consider the following situation: You work tirelessly from dawn to dusk, often staying back until late at night, and even spending extra time and effort to help the less skilful members of the team.
You believe that hard work pays off. It turns out that you always get passed over for a promotion. Those who seem to do less at work seem to always get the rewards.
Socially astute people think before they speak. This applies to both managers and followers. Timing is key in office politics.
Choosing when you report bad news to someone and how regularly you keep your superiors informed may affect your relationship with others.
If you are always the bearer of bad news, at a critical time when the team needs encouragement, you may give an impression that you are gloomy and pessimistic. Savvy individuals avoid casting a negative light on themselves.
As Sun Tzu would have it, “Know thy enemy and know thyself”. Awareness of your own emotions and the emotions of others is crucial for success – a skill psychologists refer to as Emotional Intelligence.
Politically savvy individuals are highly attuned to the moods and feelings of those around them. They also know themselves well enough to stop and assess the situation before blurting something out at an inopportune moment.
They can hold back from saying something unpleasant, even when they are angry, or think of ways to bring cheer to a situation when the team is demotivated.
The ability to have control of the emotional climate in the room is a powerful skill to have because people, in general, gravitate towards those who make them feel good and are repulsed by those who make them feel bad.
Politics in an organisation has many dimensions. We may revile some aspects of it, but as long as we are not working purely with robots, politics is here to stay.
Love it or hate it, a good understanding of both its yin and yang is crucial for anyone aspiring to achieve great results through people.