Office Politics: Why You Need to Play the Game

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: July 24, 2012

"Politics" is Not a Dirty Word

The politics of Obama, Romney & Co. are on everyone’s lips these days as the challengers and incumbents in the race for the highest office in the land battle it out on a global stage. Alas, the commentary’s rarely positive.  

These days the term politics has become a four-letter word for many, in part because it represents a fraternity that spends more time defending itself than abiding by its dictionary definition: activities which are associated with government. The word has evolved to mean: the relational dynamics associated with influencing and governing -- be it a country or a company -- that become the currency of executing and trading favors and fostering opinions. 

Ignore Office Politics at Your Own Peril

Do we, incumbents and challengers on our own political stage that is the office, fare better than the politicians we love to cheer and jeer? 

Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D., Professor at the Department of Management at California State University observes that organizational politics, while neutral until touched by human perception, are usually viewed by players and observers alike as a negative; the common perception being that organizations should work to minimize politicking.

For those of us with a keen political awareness, however, the importance of communication via sympathetic belief systems and shared goals is a part of organizational life that is ignored -- or dismissed as manipulation -- at one’s professional peril.

Perception Isn't Always Reality

What gives the game of organizational politics the occasional dark turn has to do with how one perceives and responds to threats, territorial boundaries, clashing world views, personal tastes and biases and the sense that rubbing the right elbows will only lead to better things.

While the less politically inclined undoubtedly wish one should be judged and progress on contribution and merit alone, the stark reality is organizational politics is an inescapable, significant factor in job performance and career trajectory, and thus managing those politics becomes a skill-set one can and should seek to understand and cultivate.

It’s easy to understand then that when it comes to organizational survival and success, influence is everything. The more political the organization, the more important such influence is.

Mastering Office Politics Gets You Paid

Managing organizational politics is part and parcel of the ability to exert 360-degree influence in the workplace.

The "360" context here refers to the benefits of exerting this influence upward into more senior management, laterally to peers, and descending (in terms of an organization chart) to those you supervise or otherwise are exposed to in the course of navigating your responsibilities. And so, no matter what skills the job calls for, regardless of the breadth of one’s intra- and interpersonal awareness and sense of how one is perceived by one’s corporate comrades, the presence of organizational politics is always at the top of the list of variables you need to contend with to come out smelling like a bonus check.

Understand the Dynamics

The ability to navigate the political waters of your organization is as critical to your success as are a diver’s ability to swim.

Politics define the cultural and relational workplace waters in which you dog paddle each and every day. From the simple act of walking into a room to the critical moment of standing before a team to make a presentation, to the way you defend strategic decisions to the executive board in highly charged conversations, you are being judged by how you are perceived, which always has a political factor in play. At one end of the scale you may be perceived as a threat or a risk, at the other an ally or a go-to player. That spectrum of perception is something you can manage and improve -- if you understand the dynamics of these politics in the first place.

"Politics are an organizational fact life," echoes executive coach and author Gill Corkindale, the former management editor of Financial Times. Managers who believe they can avoid or ignore them are naïve, she said.

Politics are EVERYWHERE!

tuitively one might think too that a preponderance of organizational politics is concentrated in the hallways, corner offices and cubicle farms of the big firms, the multi-nationals and corporate juggernauts that employ thousands of the best and brightest on sky-reaching floors. Not so, according to Corkindale. In fact, she says, some of the most political organizations she’s come across are charities, non-government entities and even the local bridge club. Add to that list the operating room, as my client Robert the anesthesiologist learned.

Use Your Political Clout for Good

A cynic might say that when two or more people are gathered within a context of competition for promotion, money and plum assignments, feelers come out seeking to identify fault, vulnerability and something that can be exploited. And while that is certainly a very real part of the political game played in any organization, there is a flipside to this coin.

Organizational politics can be a constructive and positive aspect of a manager’s career, if properly understood and practiced. Rather than engaging in behavior that undermines trust and seeks to gain personal advantage with oblique maneuvers, enlightened professionals influence organizational culture in a more principled way. They cultivate mutually productive relationships with key-players; they recognize and negotiate existing power-structures and they purposefully seek buy-in for ideas with more than a peripheral understanding of people’s individual agendas and personal values.

Get On Board or Get Left Behind

To refuse to acknowledge the value of constructive political behavior is to leave yourself unprotected and vulnerable to having your agenda blindsided, and perhaps your best efforts derailed by prevailing forces.

Cynicism and a resulting behavior that leads to defensive and possibly underhanded politics in return, is self-serving rather than in service of the organization, which leads to a culture-defining deterioration of trust, teamwork and the greater good. Likewise, capable and upstanding executives and managers who persistently view all politics with suspicion may routinely watch their more politically savvy colleagues pass them by for otherwise deserved recognition, reward and increased responsibility.

Recommended Reading

Thank you for reading. As a bonus, the Salary.com editorial staff has compiled a recommended reading list regarding this topic. Enjoy:

  • 360 Degrees of Influence: Get Everyone to Follow Your Lead on Your Way to the Top
  • Secrets to Winning at Office Politics: How to Achieve Your Goals & Increase Your Influence at Work
  • Office Politics: What They Will Never Tell You
  • The Hard Truth About Soft Skills: Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They'd Learned Sooner

Related Salary.com Content