Gossip, manipulation, power seeking, self-promotion, and discrediting colleagues. These are just some of the depressingly underhanded strategies that inhabit the world of office politics – and that organisations battle to control on a continual basis.
It seems that compared to actually getting the job in the first place, trying to keep your career on the straight and narrow as a competitor tries to bring you down is the really hard part.
You know the one I’m talking about. The Machiavellian figure in the corner scheming how he or she can swipe the credit for the firm’s latest success, or absolve themselves of its latest calamity.
They’re the ones developing strategies to gain an advantage, personally or for a cause they support.
The reality, says Diana Podmoroff, an expert at Mind Tools career consultancy, is that the phenomenon exists and we just have to deal with it. “Whether you hate it, admire it, practise it or avoid it, office politics is a fact of life in any organisation. And, like it or not, it’s something that you need to understand and master to be sure of your own success.”
But there’s a cost; while an individual employee’s quest may well help them to climb the career ladder, it can also have a negative impact on colleagues and the wider firm, as they spend precious time and effort working for their own goals rather than that of the company.
If successful, it’s a strategy that serves personal ambition by attaining benefits and rewards, be it a promotion, pay rise, or credit for commendable work.
Experts cite a raft of factors that could sour the atmosphere. Employees can be driven to compete with each other as they struggle to deal with a hierarchy that they don’t want to be near the bottom of.
Then there’s the passion factor. People who care deeply about their work can be driven to act in underhand ways if the usual channels of teamwork and cooperation don’t work out.
And we shouldn’t forget the issue of limited resources in the workplace that we’re all fighting for, whether it’s the departmental budget or a new coffee machine.
But, insists Podmoroff, office politics – or at least a form of it – can actually be good for both the individual and the company, as it starts to merge with other more acceptable practices.
“Good office politics help you fairly promote yourself and your cause, and is more often called networking and stakeholder management.
“If you avoid practising ‘good politics’, you miss the opportunities to properly further your own interests, and those of your team and your cause.”
And that kind of constructive engagement is good for business, says Ingrid Andersson, CEO of corporate Wellbeing Oman.
“An organisation benefits greatly from putting in place a program for positive employee engagement, which helps establish a collaborative and productive atmosphere in the workplace.”
But when we’re not lucky enough to have such well-structured management, what are the key skills that can help us to survive in this seemingly Hobbesian world of individual and zero-sum gains?
According to Oliver James, author of the book Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks, researchers have identified three key attributes which we should master.
Firstly, astuteness, which both helps you interpret your competitors and the organisation in which you’re operating, says James: “If you cannot interpret the signals of people around you, there’s little likelihood of you working out how to get your way. If you don’t understand how your organisation works, you will be blundering about in the dark.”
Then there’s effectiveness, or the ability to execute plans once you’ve made them and decided which tactics to use, be it keeping competitors in the dark, or downright deception.
And that leads to the next manipulative skill: appearing sincere. Once you’ve revealed ulterior motives, says James, it’s hard to resume your next cunning project: “If your colleagues have lost faith in your honesty and integrity, it will be hard to progress.”
But are we always doomed to live in a world of inter-employee competition? Not neccessarily. Researchers writing for the journal of business ethics, uncovered evidence to suggest that Machiavellian behaviour is highest among junior management while the plotting and scheming subsides as people move higher up the career ladder.
Does that mean we should just try and ignore office politics? Perhaps Plato may well want to have the last word on that one: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS:
“The negative effects of office politics can be reduced by appropriate training in interpersonal communication and related organisational aspects. This reduces unnecessary friction and tension as employees will be in the possession of the tools required for preventing and managing potential and actual conflict situations. The presence of proper abilities and channels for effective communication, both to subordinates and superiors, is of utmost importance to all organisations
Ingrid Andersson, CEO of Corporate Wellbeing Oman
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli’s seminal work, The Prince, will tell you everything you need to know about how to get what you want, be it by luck, fortune, scheming or manipulation. With Italian republics and principalities the main focus of the book, the concepts are lofty – but the lessons are real.