Now, do I have your attention? Good, but this article is not about Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
It’s about you. It’s about me. It’s about us.
It’s about the type of office politics that we all engage in that undermine the health of our workplaces and our own futures.
I bet I can still get an amen from you, right? We all know that we are surrounded by office politics, but we rarely dare to call it what it is and talk about it. Most of us are stuck pondering office politics in our private moments or discussing them off the record.
Managers are pushing specific projects that serve their own career interests. People are getting promotions based on relationships rather than merit. Political maneuverings, manipulation, and posturing abound.
So, do we need to rid our organizations of politics? The answer must be a resounding no. Politics and politicking are essential aspects of organizational life.
Contrary to popular belief, organizations are not entirely rational enterprises. Members will think differently. Members will want to act differently. Members will have differing values, interests, and abilities. As such, the stated, shared goals will never be the only goals being pursued.
This diversity is paramount to learning and sound decision-making, but it creates a tension that must be resolved. The issue is one of survival. Members and social groupings will always attempt to advance specific, shared interests. In this regard, the original notion of politics is instructive.
As stated by Gareth Morgan in Images of Organization:
… where interests are divergent, society should provide a means of allowing individuals to reconcile through consultation and negotiation … Politics provides a means of creating order out of diversity.
We all know that divergent interests give rise to conflict, both visible and invisible. The question before us is this: Are we going to use our political skills (i.e., power plays and negotiations) to deal with conflict in an unhealthy or healthy manner?
The rest of this article will distinguish between the office politics that do suck and the office politics that don’t suck while introducing three personal attributes that support the latter.
Politics that Suck – Unhealthy Dealings
Interests are divergent. All organizational activity is interest-based, giving rise to conflict. How are you dealing with this conflict?
In a recent podcast, Patrick Lencioni of The Table Group shared some of the unhealthy ways we engage in politics and deal with this conflict.
- Manipulation: This is when we choose our words or actions based on how we want others to react rather than based on what we believe or actually think. Do you ever find yourself trying to anticipate peoples’ reactions? Do you twist your words and play on peoples’ emotions to get what you want? Do you participate in meetings before meetings to prep yourself and ensure that you and your coalition comes across a certain way? Do damage control and concerns over controlling the narrative occupy a large portion of your thoughts? All of this is manipulation, and it is a form of posturing and a violation of honesty.
- Inauthenticity: This is when we filter what say based on who is in the room (i.e., who is watching). Do you ever find yourself saying things in front of your colleagues that you would never say in front of your boss? Have you engaged in one-on-one conversations about leaders that frustrate you, and later sucked up to them in a different setting? After meetings, do you find yourself interacting with certain people and talking about things you would not share in front of others? Do you engage in sidebar conversations during or after meetings? Have you ever uttered the following phrase in these conversations “can you believe he or she said that”? Such inauthenticity is grounded in a lack of integrity—the external and the internal do not match.
- Invulnerability and Cynicism: This is when we are uncomfortable exploring problems with others and attempt to avoid discomfort in the moment, often because it is unsafe to do so. Do you ever find yourself saying what others want to hear? In the face of problems, do you and your coalition spend more time blaming others (i.e., searching for an enemy) than engaging others and reasoning about cause and effect? Are you afraid to show weakness? Have you adopted a public façade that masks reality (e.g., a lack of knowledge or understanding)? If so, do you believe others must have hidden motives and agendas because in some ways you do? Do you see politics everywhere? Have you started to conceal the truth because you believe no one is open to hearing what you have to say?
You see, this invulnerability, along with manipulation and inauthenticity, results in an exercise of gamesmanship, rather than dialogue and discovery.
Is it any wonder that so many of our organizations are incapable of learning and making good decisions?
Is it any wonder that so many issues remain in the dark and continue to fester such that conflict becomes personal?
Is it any wonder that so many organizations are riddled with cynicism and mistrust such that members approach conflict with a win at all costs mentality?
Manipulation, inauthenticity, and invulnerability—these are the markings of office politics that suck. They undermine the health of our workplaces and our own futures.
By the way, I am as guilty as anyone. How about you?
Politics that Don’t Suck – Healthy Dealings
If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything” –Mark Twain
The truth is that most people are not naturally malicious or conniving. Instead, they are products of organizational environments that inadvertently encourage it and award it.
So, leaders, the ball is in your court. People will mimic the behaviors of their leaders and peers.
It is incumbent upon you to recognize it when it happens, call it out, and begin rewarding people who say what they mean—people marked by integrity, authenticity, and vulnerability.
Here are three personal attributes that we should all develop to help us deal with conflict in a healthy manner—that creates cooperation, builds trust, and increases our understanding of others’ attitudes and interests. In addition to examining ourselves and stopping the unhealthy stuff, as outlined by McGinn and Lingo from the Harvard Business School, we should:
- Sensitivity: Be more sensitive to others and show a genuine interest in understanding their beliefs and behaviors. It turns out that those beliefs and behaviors are often not the results of ignorance or malice. Instead, they are shaped by different experiences, the occupancy of a different position, and access to other information sources.
- Submerging ego: Suspend your assumptions and set your ego aside so that you can actually give due consideration to others' interests (i.e., listen, reflect, and ask questions). Often, this will reveal the potential bases for cooperation. It also sends the important signal that you are not acting purely out of self-interest. This will foster a sense of obligation, reciprocity, and mutual trust that ensures the organization is safe for dealing with conflict.
- Flexibility: Focus on your objectives, and be sure to know where you can be flexible and where you cannot. This includes your style and position. Then, share this information and demonstrate your willingness to meet the needs of individuals whom you are trying to influence wherever possible.
Unfortunately, politics is seen as a dirty word. It shouldn’t be. It can be and should be seen as both a virtue and a skill to be developed.
We should not dismiss office politics or ignore it as if it doesn’t exist. Instead, as argued by Jeffrey Pfeffer in the Wall Street Journal, we need to teach it so that it can be used to deal with conflict in a healthy manner. He states:
Being politically savvy is not about pushing others down or being untruthful to advance your own cause. Instead, it means building networks--relationships--with people inside and outside your company who can provide useful information and assistance. It means not picking fights over issues that aren't critical.
If you have questions, feel free to connect with us and request more information!
Travis Bland is the Associate Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration and an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Administration. He studies, consults, and offers workshops on organizational health, strategic planning and execution, and the management of people. To learn more, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.