Most of my clients, students and friends don’t like how I discuss workplace politics. As soon as I start talking about it, they look at me as if to say, “There is a really bad smell in the room, and we think it’s coming from you.”
If you want to master positive politics and avoid the negative, keep reading. But, it you want to find out how political you are right no scroll down to the two test at the bottom of this article.
definition of workplace politics
Workplace politics is behavior outside of our formal role that attempts to influence the distribution of advantages and disadvantages in an organization.
Basically, workplace politics is everything we do to get the resources we need, outside of just showing the facts and figures that support our request. It’s all that extra work to convince other people.
But before we list the types of political behavior, let’s understand why we need politics.
why do we need workplace politics?
Resources in any organization are finite. There is only so much money for projects, wages and training. There are only so many people to do the work, and leaders can only give us so much of their time and attention.
Within organizations, people disagree how these finite resources should be allocated. When they are allocated, gains by one person or group are a loss to other people or groups.
If we are not able to get the resources we need, then our work won’t get done well and we’ll be seen as poor performers. Or, our work won’t get done at all, and we’ll be seen as completely ineffective or unnecessary.
In order to mitigate the uncertainty inherent in our organizational roles that is caused by this scarcity of resources, we automatically behave in a way to reduce that uncertainty. Almost all of that behavior is political. Here’s what it looks like.
potentially-positive political behavior
Building support ahead of time
Maybe I was successful at getting my project approved because I started talking about it long before you started talking about yours. Maybe, every time I was in the elevator with our boss, I dropped a little comment about the benefits of my project and how I was so confident it would come in on time and on budget.
When our boss has to choose where to invest our company’s money, she’ll already be more positive about my project than yours.
It’s perfectly normal to want to make other people feel good by appreciating what they did. Of course, insulting other people is a sure way to get fired, but being completely neutral can also be risky. When we say nothing at all, people sometimes think we’re ignoring them. So, if it’s normal to say something nice, then being normal when we need something is helpful.
But remember, only being nice when we need something might not get us what we need.
The best person or best idea should always rise to the top. But, what is best is often just a subjective opinion. Sometimes, what is best is often what is most popular. So, if I can get support from a bunch of people in the organization, my project is likely to get the funding it needs. To do this, I try to build a coalition, or team of supporters, to influence the decision makers.
It’s normal to be selective about what we say. Let’s say that I know that our boss is about to announce funding for my project over yours. I might not tell you what I know out of fear that you might try to change our boss’s mind before the announcement. By keeping my secret, I’m only protecting my project, not sabotaging yours. In organizations, whether we like it or not, some people win and some lose.
But managing information has a dark side.
potentially-negative political behavior
Withholding and distorting information
We can manage information to maintain an advantage without causing additional disadvantage to someone else. But, if we withhold information that someone needs, or lie (distort information), then we are putting our self-interest ahead of the organization. If the only way to get my way is to sabotage yours, then your way was likely better.
If I do a favor for you, you’re more likely to do one for me. Although that might be helpful to us as individuals, it’s not how to run a company. The only way creating obligations works is if our self-interest is perfectly aligned with the best interests of the organization.
Associating with power
When people are uncertain or insecure in their organizational roles, they often try to ingratiate themselves to powerful people. They cozy-up to the bosses and try to rely on the strength of those relationships to make themselves feel secure. This usually backfires because an insincere or inappropriate relationship with powerful leaders tends to isolate us from other leaders and our peers.
Those seeking protection become known as ass-kissers and their protectors begin to lose credibility.
Attacking and blaming
The cause of a mistake or problems is usually obvious, unless someone starts blaming or attacking someone else. When we blame and attack, we focus away from the cause and toward a person who is actually another victim of the cause. Here’s what I mean.
Imagine that I’m responsible for booking the venue to host a new product information session. I book a conference room at a local hotel that seats 300, but that day nearly 1000 people try to attend. Our event staff is overwhelmed at the registration desk, the hotel is concerned about fire safety and threatens to shut down the event, and our VP of Marketing is furious about the missed opportunity to reach such a huge audience.
What’s more important, finding out who is to blame or improving our planning processes so that, regardless of who plans the next event, the same mistake cannot happen again? Successful organizations are not hard on people when they make mistakes, successful organizations make it hard for people to make mistakes in the first place.
too political or not political enough?
When we are too political
- we lose trust
- we tell people only what they want to hear, not what they need to hear
- we are seen as manipulative, scheming and insincere
When we are not political enough
- we say things that cause political problems
- we reject politics, thus missing opportunities and then being seen as naïve
- we are less effective at influencing upper management (senior leaders know the value and impact of political behavior)
- we are too direct with people causing them to avoid us
how political are you?
So how do you know if you’re good enough at workplace politics? Just take a test.
I like the Political Skill Inventory. If you answer it honestly and you score lower than you’d like to, then try a little more of the potentially-positive political behavior listed above.
Once you know where you are on the Political Skill Inventory, try using those skills in specific situations by taking this fun survey on CNN’s website.
What has been your best and worst experience with workplace politics? Is there some political behavior you’re good at? Is there some you wish you were better at? Let me know on LinkedIn and Twitter. You can also go to WorkFeelsGood.com and subscribe for more articles like this one.
Definition of workplace politics, from Langton, N. Robbins, S.P., & Judge, T. A. (2010). Organizational behaviour: Concepts, controversies, applications (5th Canadian ed.). Toronto, Canada: Person Canada, Inc.