Ask most people about workplace politics and they’ll say they’d prefer to avoid it. Yet, most also know that developing political competence is not a choice; it’s a necessity. The ones who who manage to reach the inner circle are at a great advantage. They get more done, but they are also recognized for their competence and ability to manage interpersonal relationships.
When you don’t understand the political landscape of your company, it shows. Questions arise. Can you go the distance, handle the rough spots, inspire the troops, get the job done, and garner respect? Young workers, especially, often make the mistake of assuming that understanding office politics isn’t necessary. That assumption leads to the loss of valuable learning time. When you’re no longer so green, and start to become a threat to others, things change. Political know-how becomes important — and those who fail to develop such skills are often the ones who get left behind.
Handling public put-downs, knowing with whom to speak about what, understanding how to move projects along, realizing the right times to make yourself visible and how to make your work relevant are only a few important skills. Achieving a high level of political expertise is not easy — nor is maintaining it. Mastery will never be total or permanent. After all, the inner circles of business shift. Even the best senior-level engineer may stall out because she lacks the ability to manage or avoid the political traps that ensnare so many otherwise competent people.
Further Reading: HBR Guide to Office Politics
So do we all need to play games every day? Not necessarily. The degree to which you engage in politics depends on where you work. Consider these four levels of politics in organizations: minimally, moderately, highly, and pathologically political:
In minimally political companies what you see is largely what you get. Standards for promotions and expectations for managing and leading are made clear. There is a sense of camaraderie. Rules are occasionally bent and favors granted, but underhanded forms of politics are avoided. This is the type of organization in which those with little understanding of or interest in politics — the purists among us — can thrive.
Moderately political organizations also operate largely on widely understood, formally sanctioned rules. Political behavior, where it does exist, is low-key or deniable. Conflicts are unusual, as there is a team player mentality. This environment works for people who’d rather not engage in politics, but are capable of managing or living with pockets of political activity.
The highly political arena is where not understanding politics and being unwilling to engage in some of its more surreptitious forms can exact a price. Formally sanctioned rules are only invoked when convenient to those with power. In-groups and out-groups are usually well defined. Who you know is likely to be more important than what you know. Working in organizations like this can be very stressful. Political street-fighters who “read the tea leaves” and “know the ropes,” as politically adept business people I’ve interviewed call it, do far better than those who don’t keep abreast of the games being played.
One organization where I consulted was highly political. Cliques had formed. People slipped into each other’s offices before meetings to share the latest offense of the out-group and to plan their revenge. In highly political organizations like this one, there usually isn’t one person responsible for the climate. Political activity is relational — even if only a couple of people are engaging in negative types, others get pulled in and playing-along-to-get-along becomes the norm.
The most virulent forms of business politics occur in pathologically political organizations. Daily interaction is fractious. Nearly every goal is achieved by going around people or formal procedures. People distrust each other — and for good reason. Out of necessity, people spend a good deal of time watching their backs and far less gets done than might otherwise be achieved.
Management expert Henry Mintzberg wrote of these types of organizations: “Much as the scavengers that swarm over a carcass are known to serve a political function in nature, so too can the political conflicts that engulf a dying organization serve a positive function in society. Both help to speed up the recycling of necessary resources.” The only problem: These types of organizations take a while to die, and so a lot of talented people are caught up for quite a while in politics run amuck.
Fortunately, most of us don’t work for pathological organizations and we don’t drive to work wondering who will be figuratively poisoning our wells today. But even more rare is the organization where politics of any type barely exists. Wherever there is competition, especially for scarce resources, you’ll find politics.
So, how do you know which type of organization you’re working in, and how do you develop the skills to survive there, especially if it’s not in your nature to play politics? You can wait around for the organization to address negative politics head-on. It happens. And when it does, all boats rise. That’s why more organizations should actively foster constructive politics. But it may take a long time for your own organization to see the light and take action, and in the meantime you have a career to manage, to say nothing of keeping your sanity. So, start by identifying the type of arena in which you work, as well as your own personal style. Is there a good match? If you’re a purist working in a highly political environment, for example, you need to become more street smart or move on. If it’s not in your nature to be political, then the latter may be the better choice. But it never hurts to learn about politics and to stretch your style to accommodate a variety of levels:
- Read about workplace politics and observe those who are skilled. Treat it like any other important area of business expertise.
- Try tweaking how and when you say things. For instance, if others expect you to be demure and let them steal your ideas at meetings, learn some ways of asserting yourself. For example, you could say: “I mentioned that option earlier. I’d like to expand upon it a bit more now.”
- Consider to whom you’re giving power and alter that if it’s getting you nowhere. Find another way to get what you want or change the goal.
- Break out of dysfunctional patterns, such as repeatedly taking on low visibility, low value projects to please someone; always having to be right rather than crediting others for their input; or failing to choose your battles instead of learning what matters most.
- Be less predictable, because predictability is the kiss of death in political organizations. For example, if you’re constantly attempting to prove yourself, but you lack guidance and a support network, you can leave yourself open to political foul play. The more predictable you are, the easier it is for others to manage you to their own advantage.
Political proficiency is not a choice at work, but it’s a necessity that can be improved at any point in your career. For each and every one of us, the sooner that happens, the better.