Swimming Outside the Swamp: A Better Approach to Office Politics

office politics

A few weeks ago I had dinner with a colleague who has recently made the transition from freelance consulting back into a full-time employee role. As we compared our thoughts on the pros-and-cons of each. we solidly agreed on one thing: about the corporate world: we don’t miss office politics.

It seems like a pretty easy thing to get people to agree on. Office politics are widely hated. But I have found, not everyone feels that way, and not everyone should.

Successful Swamp Dwellers

During my own corporate years, I got to know quite a few people who thrived under circumstances that many others found dangerously toxic. Some of them were the ones creating the danger—the alligators and snakes in the metaphorical swamp. But others were good-hearted people who just had the right combination of personality, experience and attitude to help them navigate those waters, and actually enjoy it. Like an Everglades egret, they’ve learned how to live safely alongside the scariest predators.

Early in my career, I had such a person as a manager and mentor. He had a background in politics, had overcome early-childhood adversity, and still faced blatant racial discrimination on a near-daily basis. In his mind, office politics were not something to avoid, but a game to be played, won, and used to build success. And while I never would come to like them the way he did, his early coaching was instrumental in my learning how to survive, and sometimes even succeed, when office politics inevitably came into play.

While he left me with a number of specific techniques and insights, his greatest overall impact on me was helping me see that the workplace is full of people, with everything that comes with them. Personalities and biases, cliques and conflicts—these things would always be there. They may seem like distractions from “the business” but the reality is, they are a large part of the business. Success means learning how to work with, not in spite of, the personalities in the workplace.

Looking at it that way, office politics doesn’t sound so terrible. So why do so many of us shudder at the idea?

Political Semantics

Webster’s defines politics first-most as “the art or science of government” and cites that as the meaning of its first-known use in 1529. It’s a very old term, but it is ultimately derived from the concept of being related to the government or the state, along with policy, police, and polite.

With its long association with government, most of the modern meanings of politics remain government-related. But at some point in the last two centuries, we increasingly also came to use it for business as well, in a meaning Random House describes as “use of intrigue or strategy in obtaining any position of power or control, as in business, university, etc.”

Hate by Association

It’s unsurprising to find such emotionally-charged terms as intrigue, power, and control associated with what office politics has become. Indeed many of us associate office politics with the practice of government politicians—one of the most distrusted professions there is.

If we associate politics with power-plays, manipulation, and self-dealing, it’s no wonder we’d avoid any form of politics, office or otherwise.

But the practice of politics also includes policy-making, investigating corruption, and community engagement. The majority of what makes our common society a civilized one—from slow traffic in school zones to the funding of fire departments—are outcomes of politics. Similarly, office politics comprises much that can build successful businesses and enjoyable workplaces.

Office Politics for Good

We can all contribute to a healthier work environment by refusing to participate in harmful political practices, and —since few of us will be lucky enough to avoid them completely—by minimizing the damage we allow them to do.

But positive politics are also there, and we can use them not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the business we work in.

Decision-making

Not all important decisions can be made unanimously. Different business functions have different perspectives, while our priorities are influenced by our responsibilities.

Hidden factors, with no business benefit, can also come into play. Even a well-intentioned employee may find it hard to resist an opportunity to sway a decision to benefit their own success, whether it be reputation, position, or compensation.

  • When a manager advocates for an individual or team to be reorganized into their organization, is it to boost their own influence and prestige? Or because they have recognized benefits to efficiency or employee growth?
  • When different functions are vying for budget, are people simply competing for the biggest slice? Or negotiating and compromising in good faith, with an eye to what they think will benefit the business bottom line.

Communication

Whether an organization has two people or 200,000, it can’t succeed without good communication between individuals, teams and functions. But what, when and how we communicate can have significant impact on intra-team relationships and overall results.

  • Is information being hoarded and obscured, to enable those in the know to maintain power and hidden influence? Or simply limited to those who need it, to streamline processes and reduce thrash?
  • Is haphazard information-sharing purposefully undermining the confidence and preparation of others? Or are inconsistent communication practices viewed as a sign of disorganization, calling for better policy and practices?
  • Is copious communication due to bureaucracy and busy-work? Or is there ample transparency, and a concerted effort to keep others well-informed?
  • Are meeting invitations and schedules devised to protect or exert power? Or designed to put the right people together for productive collaboration?

Hiring, recognition, and advancement

Who gets hired, who gets admired, and who gets promoted? Little has more impact on the success of both businesses and individuals.

  • When a hiring manager rejects an internal applicant to recruit someone they already know, are they practicing favoritism, or focusing on personal loyalty? Or are they ignoring internal pressures so as to prioritize their knowledge of the individual’s likely ability in the role?
  • Is nepotism and preferential treatment tolerated or even encouraged? Or are policies in place to restrict working relationships between family members, and mitigate the risks of working with close friends?
  • Are promotions and raises influenced by favors, flattery and posturing? Or are they driven cleanly by the need to maximize the growing capabilities of the workforce and encourage employee retention?

Once we see the distinctions between politics being used nefariously vs. a positive for business, we can steer our cultures towards nourishing environments and our businesses towards healthy growth.

And those snakes and alligators who thrive in the swamp? They’ll often seek friendlier waters, and slither away.

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