Understanding and dealing with office politics

Just the thought of dealing with office politics can make most people cringe.

In one national survey of executives:

  • 67% said “organisational politics in my organisation are damaging.”
  • 95% said “organisational politics impact decisions in this organisation.”
  • 69% experience stress caused by organisational politics.
  • 49% spend 1 day a fortnight on organisational politics.
  • 74% have seen careers damaged by negative rumours and office politics. 92% have seen careers helped by office politics (so it does have benefits as well).

What is Politics? It is simply the result of what you get when you have two or more people with different views, values or beliefs. It is healthy because it promotes debate and is a catalyst for change. However, it can become unhealthy when one person/group wants to ‘win’ at all costs over another and forgets that there is a wider picture. Such people/groups might ‘play games’ to get what they want and express their views, values or beliefs.

So politics is inevitable, especially at work. This is because:

  • People with different views, values or beliefs = Politics.
  • Some people have more power than others, either through hierarchy or some other basis of influence.
  • Of the desire to move up the ladder and get promoted.
  • Most people care passionately about decisions at work and this encourages political behavior to get their way.
  • Office decisions are impacted by work-related goals and personal factors. There is further scope for goal conflict.
  • People and teams within organizations often have to compete for limited resources; this can lead to a kind of “tribal conflict” where teams compete to satisfy their needs and objectives, even when this is against the greater good.

The political games people play can include:

  • Insurgency game
  • Counter-insurgency game
  • Sponsorship or Favouritism game
  • Empire-building game
  • Rival Camps or Gang game
  • Knowledge and Expertise game
  • Promotion and Position game
  • The Blame game

For dealing with office politics effectively and use it yourself in a positive way, you must first accept the reality of it. Once you’ve done this, you need to develop strategies to deal with the political behavior that is going on around you.

Here are 5 steps to help you deal with office politics:

Step 1 for dealing with office politics: Re-Map the Organisation Chart

Office politics often circumvent the formal organisation chart. Sit back and watch for a while and then re-map the organisation chart in terms of political power. Consider:

  • Who are the real influencers?
  • Who has authority but doesn’t exercise it?
  • Who is respected?
  • Who champions or mentors others?
  • Who is “the brains behind the organisation“?

Step 2 for dealing with office politics: Understand the Informal Network

Once you know who’s who in the organisation, you have a good idea of where the power and influence lies. Now you have to understand the social networks.

  • Who gets along with whom?
  • Are there groups or cliques that have formed?
  • Who is involved in interpersonal conflict?
  • Who has the most trouble getting along with others?
  • What is the basis for these interrelationships? Friendship, respect, manipulation?
  • How does the influence flow between the parties?

Step 3 for dealing with office politics: Build Relationships

Now that you know how the existing relationships work, you need to build your own social network accordingly.

  • Don’t be afraid of politically powerful people in the organisation. Get to know them.
  • Ensure you have relationships that cross the formal hierarchy in all directions (peers, bosses, executives).
  • Start to build relationships with those who have the informal power.
  • Be friendly with everyone but don’t align yourself with one group or another.
  • Be a part of multiple networks – this way you can ‘keep your finger on the pulse’ of the organisation.

Step 4 for dealing with office politics: Make the Most of Your Network

Use your network to promote yourself and your team positively in order to:

  • Gain access to information.
  • Build visibility of your achievements.
  • Improve difficult relationships.
  • Attract opportunities where you can to shine.
  • Seek out ways to make yourself, your team and your boss look good.

Step 5 for dealing with office politics: Neutralise Negative Play

Your mapping of the informal spheres of influence in the organisation will have helped you to identify those people (‘political animals’) who use others for their own purposes, and not necessarily for the common good. It’s natural to want to distance yourself from these people as much as possible – but what can often be needed is the opposite reaction. The expression, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” applies perfectly to office politics.

  • Learn how they behave so you can anticipate when they may be playing a game. The more information you have, the more you will be able to ‘play them at their own game’ if needed.
  • Get to know these people better and be courteous to them, but always be very careful what you say to them.
  • Understand what motivates these people and what their goals are, and so learn how to avoid or counter the impact of their negative politicking.
  • Be aware that these people typically don’t think much of their talents and frequently envy others (that’s why they rely on aggressive politicking to get ahead).

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