When we hear the word “politics,” particularly in a professional context, most of us instinctively interpret the word negatively. Sometimes, office politics can, in fact, be ugly and counter productive, but power relationships, which constitute the origin of the word in Greek, are endemic to any organization and exist regardless of how we feel about them. The extent to which organizational politics are negative or positive, however, is related more to culture and organizational health than to the nature of politics itself.
The way that power relationships and authority are communicated in most work places is through the tried and true organizational chart, which despite the terrible anachronism that it is, still shows relative power dynamics and authority vertically through reporting relationships. Effective organizations today no longer operate through fixed hierarchies. They distribute labor and tasks and autonomy to empowered employees and teams based on skills, experience, attitude, etc. with the desired outcomes driving the decisions rather than the relative positional authority of people in the organization.
This is all related to politics because whether we use an org chart or some other mechanism, every organization has the visible political structure and the hidden structure. As with culture, the hidden part is often far more powerful and pervasive than what we can see. It is critical to your success to understand the power relationships that actually drive organizational politics rather than the visible, professed relationships. In the healthiest organizations, there is a high degree of alignment between what is advertised and what actually happens. The least healthy organizations have the greatest disparity and generally the most negative and debilitating politics.
We have all probably experienced a situation in which something we thought was “approved” became un-approved, or a promised promotion did not happen/went to someone else, or an agreed upon resource did not materialize. Those examples are politics in action, in which the perceived or understood power relationship was superseded by an underlying power dynamic—the “real” power or authority.
So, how do we navigate organizational politics?
In the most-healthy organizations, it is an easier task because we don’t get blindsided by hidden power relationships because they aren’t hidden to begin with. We still have to be cognizant of politics in healthy organizations, but they are much less likely to be overly manipulative and damaging. In unhealthy organizations, politics can be down right toxic. In either case, it is critical to understand where the real power lies and where the “landmines” are.
This article purposely does not present a plan to effectively deal with politics in unhealthy organizations, because attempting to survive in a debilitating environment is not a wise or viable long-term strategy. Success in such environments, if it happens at all, comes at too high a price and the daily dissonance can be debilitating.
The fact is that some human beings are very willing to use manipulation, deceit, and other dishonest and damaging methods to achieve their own objectives within organizations. At its worst, politics can destroy trust, collaboration, and teamwork, while also compromising organizational outcomes. Because of human nature, no organization will ever be free of at least limited political games, but there are good reasons to consider leaving organizations that are highly political in negative ways. This is simply because the success of individuals is becoming more and more connected to working effectively with others, which doesn’t happen in unhealthy and dysfunctional organizations. Negative politics are also distracting and exhausting, which steals finite resources of time, energy, and motivation, and compromises the success of even good strategies and initiatives. Toxic environments are simply to be avoided.
There are, however, traits and skills that support successfully navigating both benign politics and even mildly negative politics, which are impossible to completely avoid. Even healthy organizations are inhabited by people and we are all susceptible to occasional manipulations and self-serving behavior. Moreover, we simply need to understand and be able to effectively manage both the formal and informal power relationships that we encounter on a daily basis. That is as much a requisite for success as technical skills, communication skills, etc.
So, what are the skills and approaches that support success with organizational politics?
Individuals with the most developed emotional and cultural intelligence are also best prepared to recognize and successfully deal with organizational politics. The goal is not to “win,” but to recognize others’ motivations, needs, and behavior.
This tends to be more innate than learned, but people with good intuition are generally better at sniffing out the hidden messages and misdirection that often exist as part of political maneuvering.
One of the best defenses against political games is to build strong networks with honest, dependable colleagues, who can provide objective interpretations of events and behaviors and also provide “protection” from less benignly motivated colleagues.
The most vulnerable individuals in political situations tend to be the most passive. People with less than honorable intentions will take advantage of passivity—in fact need passivity—in order to achieve bad faith objectives. The antidote to that is assertively pushing back against behaviors in others that are unhealthy and disingenuous. A simple example is stamping out negative gossip or denigration of other colleagues, the organization, etc.
Being Trustful but Not Naïve
A critical element of healthy organizational environments is trust—assuming good intentions until you have good reason to believe otherwise. When we engage other people to begin with from a position of distrust or skepticism, that leads to cynicism, which is damaging in its own right. On the other hand, we are not served by being naïve either. There must be a balance.
Having a Really Good Crap Detector
Ernest Hemmingway once said that having a good crap detector is one of the most important skills one can have in life. This is related to intuition, but includes the ability to assess many elements of a situation at the same time (which comes from experience) and coming to a reasonable conclusion about what is legitimate and what is not. People with good crap detectors are much better positioned to effectively deal with political environments because they can quickly assess what is “baloney” and what is not.
In short, all organizations operate along a spectrum of political activity. No organization exists in a vacuum relative to power relationships, but the healthiest organizations are the least political in terms of negative, dishonest, and manipulative behaviors, while the most unhealthy organizations are generally the most politically toxic. It is important to understand the nature of political behavior and to respond effectively, but it is not advisable to invest the requisite time and energy to survive, let alone successfully navigate, truly toxic organizational environments. In less toxic and more healthy environments, being fully aware of organizational politics and having the skills to address them is an important element of your success.