The Underlying Psychology of Office Politics

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All organizations are political – and to some degree, they always will be. The underlying reasons are psychological. First, work involves dealing with people. That means finding a compromise between what they want and what we want; and it’s often a zero-sum game. Second, humans are emotional creatures, biased by unconscious needs and riddled with insecurities. As the great Dale Carnegie, who probably knew more about the art of politics than anyone else, once observed: “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic but creatures of emotions.”

As a result, office politics tend to eclipse formal organizational roles and hijack critical organizational processes, making simple tasks complex and tedious, and organizations ineffective; wearing people out and accounting for a significant portion of work-related stress and burnout. Indeed, we all know people who have perished for their inability to navigate office politics in spite of being talented, hard-working and having the best of intentions. In that sense, one may regard politics as an inevitable force of nature to which we must adapt in order to survive.

This Darwinian take on office politics was first highlighted by the psychologist Robert Hogan, who observed that the universal dynamics underlying workplace relationships boil down to three basic evolutionary needs or “master motives.” First, the need to get along, which promotes cooperation and makes us group-living animals. Work, the modern equivalent of a hunting tribe, provides a major context for affiliation and bonding. Second, the need to get ahead, which results from the power struggle within groups. Some individuals are more willing and able to be in charge of a group, but their power will sooner or later be challenged by other group members, resulting in internal competition and friction. Furthermore, tensions are also created by the desire of group members to be accepted and loved by the leader, resulting in group members fighting to climb up the group hierarchy. Finally, groups – and, especially, large groups like organizations – provide individuals with a formal system for finding meaning. That is, an ecosystem of knowledge which works as a lens through which we see the world. Given how much time people spend at work – no less than a third of their adult life – organizations are essential to fulfill this third evolutionary need, that is, the quest for meaning.

Sigmund Freud noted that although humans are social animals, living with others does not come easy. He compared people to a group of hedgehogs during the winter: they need to get close to each other to cope with the cold, but if they get too close they end up stinging each other with their prickly spines. This very rule governs the dynamic of office politics. You can’t go it alone, but working with others does require some discomfort.

So does this mean that office politics are inevitable – that if we can’t beat politics, we might as well promote them?

Further Reading: HBR Guide to Office Politics

Not exactly. It’s important to recognize that untrammeled politics have a corrosive impact on the organization. This can be hard for leaders to realize: because most organizations promote individuals who are politically savvy, managers and senior executives tend to perpetuate rather than inhibit office politics. If you are rewarded for playing the game, you surely have no incentive to stop playing. But to most employees, politics signal a discrepancy between what should be done and what is really done, defeating their own sacrifices and efforts. This leaves most employees demoralized and united only against their bosses or senior leadership… not a good position for a company to be in.

Conversely, in less toxic companies, leaders manage the tensions within groups to enhance team performance and, in turn, organizational effectiveness. To do this, the best managers recognize the psychological underpinnings of office politics and do two things in response: they manage the way they themselves behave, and they are careful about how they motivate others. People who are perceived as apolitical display high levels of congruence between what they say and what they do, and they are also good at rewarding others for what they were required to do, while holding them accountable for what they fail to deliver.

As such, good leaders focus on the bright-side personality characteristics associated with their ability to navigate office politics: social skills, emotional intelligence, and intuition. They recognize that the more secretive, selfish, hypocritical, hierarchical, and incompetent they appear in the eyes of employees, the more political the organization will become. So they are driven to come across as competent, transparent, approachable and altruistic.

And in motivating their employees to try harder, they avoid pitting employees against one another and instead focus on out-performing common adversaries: the company’s competitors. They do this through articulating a meaningful mission — a vision that resonates and motivates people to achieve a collective goal. This keeps the team focused on beating their competitors, rather than each other.

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