Office Politics…The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Every now and then I like to revisit and refresh a post whose message might be worthy of repeating. This one is from May 2009 and I chose it because I don’t’ expect office politics has gone away since then do you?

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How often have you said something like, “I hate office politics”?

If your answer is, “very often” you are likely in good company. It’s a topic that tends to make one grimace and yet, in any business involving more than, say, two people, it is simply a fact of organizational life.

There are many definitions for the term office politics but I think it is about power and advantage; how we acquire it and how we use it to influence others, sometimes for our own benefit and sometimes for the benefit of a larger purpose.

I don’t know about you, but when I first think of the term office politics, I immediately go to the dark side and conjure up images of some very slick people engaging in some very self-indulgent activities.  But, politics in organizational life doesn’t always have to be a weapon.  It can also be a useful tool.  So, in an attempt to distinguish the baby from the bath water here’s my take on politics in the office.

Bad Office politics = Self-promotion over the greater good

Self-promotion is not a bad thing.  After all, when we accomplish something great it is not wrong to feel pride or to talk about it. In fact, sometimes people go the other way and are far too modest when talking about their achievements.

However, self-promotion crosses a line when it is allowed to take precedence over the achievement of collective goals.  The practice of bad office politics involves inordinate amounts of unproductive time being spent tapping into the organizational grape-vine, (a repository for incomplete information and throwaway commentary) to determine “strategies” about who to suck up to next or, what tidbit of information might be useful as a questionable tool of “persuasion”.

Bad office politics is where gossip and innuendo lie.  It represents the gray edges of organizational life and it is no wonder that most people have little tolerance for it.

Ugly Office politics = Destructive behaviour that benefits no one.

Ugly office politics takes the notion of self-promotion to greater depths.  People who practice ugly office politics are not above taking credit for other people’s work.  They are often very crafty and good at placing blame on others for mistakes they have made themselves.  In the extreme, ugly office politics includes bullying in a variety of forms, a very unattractive and destructive activity.

In short, these are the practices that can make organizational life intolerable.

But, if bad and ugly office politics are the bath water, then this is where the baby comes in and where opportunity lies.

Good Office politics = Building Positive Relationships

Building relationships is something that leaders must engage in to get things done. They have to go beyond the confines of their own area to build purposeful and focused relationships with people in a variety of roles, levels & situations. They do this for a number of reasons that include:

  • To understand and stay focused on the purpose and larger objectives of the organization.
  • To forge mutually beneficial alliances with others both inside and outside the organization and;
  • To make certain they get the resources they need to accomplish their goals.

It means spending time with people at all levels of the organization; finding out what makes them tick; giving support to their goals and using their own power of persuasion to contribute to situations where everyone gets to win.  This, to me, is the nature of good office politics.

The practice of good office politics relies on three things:

  • A good moral compass;
  • A generous attitude toward others and;
  • An interest in forging collaborative relationships for the purpose of gaining collective strength, learning and growth

As well, the practice of good office politics often carries with it, a bonus.  That is, the respect and good will those who practice it earn from the people they work with. In fact, I have observed that people who practice good office politics often have all the recognition and accolades they can handle.

And that can’t be bad.

What do you think?

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9 Comments

Filed under building awareness, Building Relationships, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values, Organizational Effectiveness

9 responses to “Office Politics…The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

  1. Hi Gwyn:

    This is a great post on an issue that all of us deal with at some point in our careers. Office politics exists in every organization without regard for structure, culture or values. The tricky part about politics in business is that you are supposed to be on the same team with your co-workers.

    I know this sounds quite cynical, but the dark side of business rears its ugly head in every environment, and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings you’ll fall prey to its venemous bite. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at the executive, management, or staff level, the sad reality is that political high-jinks are likely part of your world whether you like it or not.

    It’s important to realize that when you’re dealing with somebody’s career, you are also dealing with a person’s sense of power, ego, financial security, self-worth, and many other things that people will do virtually anything to protect. Moreover, many people that you would ordinarily think incapable of unethical behavior, are in fact quite capable of outright reprehensible actions if it means getting a leg-up in the workplace.

    The bottom line is that politics are unavoidable in business. Not recognizing this fact may lead to you being on the outside looking in, while not ever knowing what hit you until it was too late. If you understand what’s at stake for whom, and you pay attention to the behavioral patterns of those around you, it is quite possible that you may avoid unnecessary political battles, as well as win the battles that must be fought.

    As a final thought, my best advice is to stay out of the drama whenever possible and let your work and your actions speak for themselves. Focus your efforts on building strong relationships underpinned by a solid foundation of humility and trust. The more time spent in helping those around you become successful, the more allies you will create, and the more political capital you’ll amass. The combination of doing the right thing, while being aware of your surroundings is the most savvy approach to managing office politics.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Mike ~ I agree that politics are indeed unavoidable in business whether we like it or not. And, perhaps the most productive thing we can do is focus on building positive relationships with others for the fulfillment of a purpose that transcends any one person’s ambitions.
      Thanks for sharing your observations and experience here and for adding depth to the post.

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  5. Debbie Young

    A book that I found useful in dealing with office politics was a book by Mario Watts called, Office Politics: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. I have several co-workers that always seemed to get acknowledged, even though I was the one doing all the work! Believe it or not, the book helped me realize that I was also being ‘bullied’ at work and didn’t even realize it. After using some of the tips in this book, I was actually recognized for the first time in almost 3 years of working with the company and now have the skills needed to help identify and defend myself against the negative side effects of office politics. I feel that it is a great read for anyone new to Corporate America.

  6. Robin

    Any politics of any kind in the office is manipulative and dishonest. Relationships built to have access to resources are not relationships; you don’t really care about those people as people, they just have something you want. That’s not emotionally honest or even real. It’s bullshit, and I fucking hate it. If people need something from me JUST SAY SO. Pretending to be my “friend” so I’ll do something for you will in all likelihood make me hate you and perhaps not help you. Office politics kills honesty, integrity and turns us all into middle schoolers. Politics is a cancer no matter the setting or culture.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Robin ~ There will be people who agree with your very strong views about politics in the office. I am one of those to the extent that I too believe ‘relationships’ built solely for self-serving purposes are not really relationships at all. They are manipulative conveniences that, in the end, do more destroying that building. However, building genuine relationships with others at work have a way of serving everybody because they open doors and provide opportunities for growth that may not otherwise present themselves. The key ingredient to the construction of these, more positive relationships is caring, not only about our own needs but also the needs of others and the collective purpose.
      Thank you for taking the time to share your view. It is an honest one and I appreciate your taking the time to share it here.

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