The games people play: getting to grips with office politics

Published: 15 August 2018 By Harvard Business Review

The games people play: getting to grips with office politics

There are four types of organisation, which one does your company belong to?

 

Out of necessity, people spend a good deal of time watching their backs in politicised companies and far less gets done than might otherwise be achieved.

Out of necessity, people spend a good deal of time watching their backs in politicised companies and far less gets done than might otherwise be achieved.

Ask most people about workplace politics and they’ll say they prefer to avoid them. Yet most also know that developing a political sensibility is not a choice; it’s a necessity. But do we all need to play games every day? Not necessarily. The degree to which you engage in politics depends on where you work.

Consider these four levels of politics in organisations:

1. In minimally political companies what you see is largely what you get. Standards for promotions and expectations for managing and leading are made clear. There is a sense of camaraderie. Rules are occasionally bent and favours granted, but underhanded forms of politics are avoided. This is the type of organisation in which those with little understanding of or interest in politics - the purists among us - can thrive.

2. Moderately political organisations also operate largely on widely understood, formally sanctioned rules. Political behaviour, where it does exist, is low-key or deniable. Conflicts are unusual, as there is a team-player mentality. This environment works for people who’d rather not engage in politics, but are capable of managing or living with pockets of political activity.

3. The highly political arena is where not understanding politics and being unwilling to engage in some of its more surreptitious forms can exact a price.

Formally sanctioned rules are only invoked when convenient to those with power. Who you know is likely to be more important than what you know. Working in organisations like this can be very stressful. Political street fighters who “read the tea leaves” and “know the ropes,” as politically adept business people I’ve interviewed call it, do far better than those who don’t keep abreast of the games being played.

4. The most virulent forms of business politics occur in pathologically political organisations. Daily interaction is fractious. Nearly every goal is achieved by going around people or formal procedures. People distrust each other – and for good reason.

Out of necessity, people spend a good deal of time watching their backs and far less gets done than might otherwise be achieved.

So, how do you know which type of organisation you’re working in, and how do you develop the skills to survive there, especially if it’s not in your nature to play politics? Start by identifying the type of arena in which you work, as well as your own personal style.

Is there a good match? If you’re a purist working in a highly political environment, for example, you need to become more street smart or move on. If it’s not in your nature to be political, then the latter may be the better choice. But it never hurts to learn about politics and to stretch your style to accommodate a variety of levels:

l Read about workplace politics and observe those who are skilled.Treat it like any other important area of business expertise.

l Try tweaking how and when you say things. For instance, if others expect you to be demure and let them steal your ideas at meetings, learn some ways of asserting yourself.

l Consider to whom you’re giving power and alter that if it’s getting you nowhere. Find another way to get what you want or change the goal.

l Break out of dysfunctional patterns, such as repeatedly taking on low visibility, low value projects to please someone; always having to be right rather than crediting others for their input; or failing to choose your battles instead of learning what matters most.

l Be less predictable, because predictability is the kiss of death in political organisations. The more predictable you are, the easier it is for others to manage you to their own advantage.

Kathleen Kelley Reardon is the author of The Secret HandshakeIt’s All Politics and Shadow Campus.

In association with Harvard Business Review

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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