Written by Joanna Gaudoin
The term office politics almost always provokes a groan. Typical words associated with the term include gossip, cliques, the ‘in crowd’, secrets, game playing, people being left out, and deception – to name but a few. When I ask about this in a workshop, at least 90% of those words are seen as negative.
Many people say they want to opt-out of office politics and who wouldn’t if it is as negative as these words make it sound? However, the reality is office politics are going to be present wherever you have people with different values, assumptions, and beliefs – so that would be every workplace then!
The difference is whether it is negative or positive. A negative political environment leads to poor staff retention, increased sick leave, and a demotivating working environment for individuals. At an organizational level, it results in poor productivity, limited knowledge sharing, and restricted decision-making.
If an individual decides to opt-out of office politics, then their career is likely to be limited as ultimately, people need to find ways to work together and navigate their professional relationships.
At the heart of the negative office, politics is a lack of understanding of others and their motivations and a propensity to jump to beliefs that may not be true.
I often cite the example of the coffee machine conversation. Imagine you are approaching the coffee machine in the office and two of your colleagues – a man and a woman for the sake of argument – are talking. As you approach, they stop taking. Why? If you consider this rationally, there are several possible explanations – they were talking about you, they were discussing something confidential, they are having an affair, they just finished their conversation at that point, or were being polite to include you.
In the instant this is happening, you are unlikely to consider a variety of options, you will either not think anything of it – which probably means the office politics is positive, and you have good relationships with these people, or you will think of one, negative reason.
You may never know for sure whether that one reason is correct or not. Most of the time that reason is decided by your personal context – whether you have a negative relationship with one or both, whether you had a challenging conversation with one of them that morning or you are simply having a bad day!
But it’s your resulting behavior that matters. Whatever assumption you’ve made about that conversation, starting a negative cycle of behavior with one or both of those people could have a significant impact on your work, your progress, and even your wider team. This diagram is a simple illustration of how this works:
As David Bancroft Turner says, “Politics is not what I do……it’s why you think I am doing it!”
This means that as individuals in the workplace, we need to consider how we may be perceived. Our assumptions, reasons, and motivations are clear to us, but not necessarily to others. It’s important to remember this when we communicate with others, and when we consider why they are acting in a certain way.
Sometimes, a negative political attitude can exist within an entire organization. But often, it’s only happening in a particular team, division, or practice. Individuals might think they have no influence over it, but an organization is a sum of its people. Even individual behavior changes can have positive effects.
A good starting point is remembering that things may not be the way they initially appear, trying not to jump to conclusions, and looking for balance rather than making events fit your own narrative..
There are many other behaviors and skills which may help and they broadly fall under four headings: Networking, Communication, Influencing, and Factor ‘X’ (everything else). To give a couple of examples for each:
- Get to know people in other parts of your organization.
- Build relationships with key influencers in your organization, particularly if they are very different from you.
- Really listen to others. Refer to the chart below and don’t just be waiting to speak!
- Be wary of subjective comments and observations.
- Be aware of others’ perspectives and ‘agenda’ in a meeting.
- Consider how your mindset drives your behavior.
4. Factor ‘X’
- Pick your battles.
- Support others.
This article and these tips are just a small snapshot into the world of office politics. Joanna runs in-depth diagnoses with individual and small group clients, to see how they could be perceived, which results in specific skills they can work on.
Fundamentally, until individuals realize they have a role to play in office politics and work on their relationships with others, it can’t be improved. Positive office politics benefits individuals and organizations, and everyone can – and should – work towards it!
About the Author:
During her former corporate career in marketing and consultancy, Joanna Gaudoin realized that being successful involved skills that weren’t being developed or talked about. These ‘other’ professional skills involve knowing how to manage your own Personal Impact and how to effectively build relationships, both internally and externally. She has run her business for over a decade and has worked with thousands of people, both individually and in group sessions.